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The Low Down on GMOs

GMO, non-GMO, organic, GMO is terrible for you, GMO is fantastic for you, what does it all mean, and, more importantly, who’s right?

If you’ve ever asked, “what does GMO stand for?” Here is an overview to help you understand exactly what genetically modified organisms are and why there is such controversy around them.

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” meaning any organism that has been adjusted by humans on the genome level. The process of creating a GMO uses some different mechanisms.

Some may argue that these mechanisms have artificially forced certain unnatural traits to appear. The truth is that genetic modification can be as simple as breeding together two plants to pass down favorable characteristics, as was done by our ancestors for thousands of years. And you may enjoy the literal fruits of this labor yourself. If you’ve ever seen Cotton Candy grapes, the variety was created through a cross of the two sweetest grapes. 

It can also be as complicated as carefully transplanting DNA sections from one plant to another in a laboratory process. This is much faster and more accurate than merely breeding the plants and hoping for the right qualities to come out, but it also comes with potential side effects.

However, GMO is sometimes used more narrowly to exclusively describe recent crops altered with GMO technology to express or hide traits that wouldn’t be possible with traditional cross-breeding.

It’s essential to consider exactly what the speaker means when they say GMO.

Genetically Modified vs. Genetically Engineered

While you may hear the terms used interchangeably, it would technically be more accurate to say that genetically engineered foods are a particular subtype of genetically modified foods.

As a label, GMO covers all manipulation of a plant’s genetic makeup, ranging from traditional, ancient, and even naturally occurring techniques, like cross-breeding, to modern and high tech tools like gene insertion in a laboratory process.

GE refers exclusively to the latter category. A plant could be both genetically modified and genetically engineered if it were subject to gene insertion. Likewise, if a plant were simply modified by cross-breeding, it would be genetically modified, but not genetically engineered. It’s important to note that a plant can’t be genetically engineered and not genetically modified.

All that said, it’s difficult to define GMOs. Many simply consider it the process of moving genes from one organism to another. When you consider moving genes between species is transgenesis, that creates an issue for using it to define GMO. 

Transgenics doesn’t include gene slicing, a lab technique that turns off a gene, or gene editing, an obvious form of genetic modification. Using transgenics to define GMOs also ignores mutagenesis — the process of exposing plants to mutagenic chemicals or radiation to modify genes.

Mutagenesis, as you may suspect, is more likely to have unintended outcomes than transgenesis. All the regulation that comes with catching potential risks from transgenesis has led companies to focus more on mutagenesis.

 Our efforts to minimize risk by regulating GMOs have increased a riskier form of genetic modification.

So, let’s adjust the definition to “anything that couldn’t naturally occur.”

Here the net is cast so broad that it catches various things we usually don’t consider GMOs. This definition would include things like grafting trees –  the practice of splicing the branches of one species onto the rootstock of another.

Grafting is an old way to break the species barrier and combine the best traits of two organisms that couldn’t breed. However, grafting doesn’t alter DNA, so we could exclude it by making one small adjustment to the definition:

“An organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through fertilization and/or natural recombination.” This is the European Union definition of GMOs.

But even with that change, the definition catches many varieties that farmers have come to depend on. For example, Renan, a French type of wheat, is useful to farmers who don’t rely on pesticides because it is highly resistant to disease. It was bred in the 1940s and has passed on its traits to several other varieties of wheat.

Renan was developed by breeders who took the genetic material from wheat and two other distantly related species to combine them. To accomplish this, they bathed the plants in colchicine, which prevents the chromosomes from hooking together after they split during cell division. This doubled the number of chromosomes in the plants. Afterward, they exposed the plants to x-rays to scramble the DNA, but eventually, they got the combination of traits they wanted.

Renan hasn’t undergone any testing because the European Union decided the GMOs created using those techniques were exempt. The reality is there were just too many good crops coming from these techniques that were already in circulation to subject them to the scrutiny that has derailed some transgenic crops.

The same was true of mutagenesis, including disease-resistant crops like cocoa, barley, peppermint, peanuts, pears, a couple of grapefruit varieties, and thousands of other crops. 

In the United States, the National Organic Standards Board defined GMOs in 1995, starting with something similar to the European Union. It sought to revise the rule in 2012. As board members began their research for the revisions, they found that many organic farmers were growing GMOs with the existing definition. 

How? The techniques used in initial crosses have passed down through many generations that aren’t traceable any longer. Local farmers grow crops that somewhere in their history underwent some kind of cell fusion or gene doubling. The farmers planting these crops were most likely unaware of their breeding histories. 

When you consider that nature itself is a genetic engineer, that presents the biggest issue with defining GMOs as a product of unnatural origin.

For a long time, people thought the genes did not cross species. However, scientists found that a gene had somehow transitioned between rice and barley. As scientists continue to research, they found that nearly all plants have some sort of cross-species activity in their family tree.

By defining GMOs as gene combinations that do not naturally occur, nothing is considered a GMO. After all, parasites frequently alter host DNA.

Let’s try defining it like this: “Genetic modification done by humans.”

We run into immediate issues with this definition because domestication through breeding modifies genomes. The farmer choosing seeds from the best plant, under this definition, is considered a genetic engineer. Again, we have something too broad.  The farmer has a co-evolutionary relationship with the crop. Because the changes are happening so slowly, the effects on the larger environment are apparent.

With that, let’s adjust the definition again: “An organism bred by a human using modern genetic engineering techniques, in a lab, rather than on the land.”

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GMOs & Monsanto

GMOs and Monsanto are inseparable to many, and that’s no surprise given how much media coverage Monsanto has received.

No other GMO company comes close regarding lousy publicity or public awareness in general, but it’s also true that few companies have been as instrumental in GMO tech development.

At the heart of the matter lies a perfect storm of controversy. Over the years, Monsanto has been accused of endorsing GMO products that cause cancer, covering up GMO studies of said cancer, exploiting and displacing local farmers, polluting and illegally dumping toxic waste, and manipulating court proceedings.

One of the biggest reasons why Monsanto has a negative connotation for much of the public is its herbicide, Roundup. The active ingredient, glyphosate, patented in the 1970s, is associated with causing cancer, though the EPA reaffirmed its safety.

Understandably, it has been difficult for many to separate Monsanto’s problems from the problems with GMOs in general.

Public perception of GMO safety is, unfortunately, tied to the reputation that Monsanto has built up.

Alternative Names for GMO

Even though many of the following terms have rather specific definitions, they are often used to refer to the same thing.

In some cases, the widespread usage of specific terms has become so prevalent that alternative definitions have been adopted in the scientific community.

Genetic modification is often referred to as genetic engineering or bioengineering.

The organisms themselves are sometimes called transgenic crops, biotechnology seeds, or GM seeds. “GM foods” is sometimes used to mean GMOs.

What GMO Crops Exist?

Fundamentally, almost every crop in the world is affected by genetic modification and GMO tech. Over the centuries, humans have bred certain traits into and out of crops to make a better product. However, a few crops, in particular, have been heavily focused on by modern genetic engineering efforts.

Corn, in particular, has been heavily modified by companies like Monsanto. According to the FDA, corn is the most commonly grown crop in the United States, and most of it is GMO. While a lot of that goes into processed food and beverage, most of it is used to feed livestock. 

The U.S.Department of Agriculture maintains a list of bioengineered foods available worldwide. Only a few types of GMO crops are grown in the United States. However, some of the GMOs account for a large percentage of the crop raised.

In 2018, GMO soybeans accounted for 94% of all soybeans planted. GMO cotton represented 94% of all cotton 92% of corn was GMO.

In 2013, GMO canola accounted for 95% of all canola planted, while GMO sugar beets made up 99.9% of all sugar beet harvested.

The majority of GMO plants are grown to make ingredients that are used in other food products. For instance, cornstarch is made from GMO corn, and sugar is made from GMO sugar beets.

Other GMO crops that aren’t widely grown include:

  • Potatoes: Some potatoes were developed to resist insect pests and disease. Other GMO potatoes were developed to withstand browning and bruising during packaging, storage, and transportation. Though browning doesn’t change the potato’s quality, it often creates unnecessary food waste because consumers believe that brown food is spoiled.
  • Summer Squash: GMO summer squash was created to resist some plant viruses. Despite being one of the first GMO crops on the market, it is not widely grown.
  • Papaya: By the 1990s, most of Hawaii’s papaya crop was nearly wiped out by the ringspot virus. As a result, the industry was almost destroyed. A GMO papaya called the rainbow papaya was developed to resist the ringspot virus, which saved papaya farming on the Hawaiian Islands. 
  • Alfalfa: GMO alfalfa is mainly used to feed cattle, primarily dairy cows. The majority of GMO alfalfa is resistant to herbicides, which allows the farmers to protect the crop against harmful weeds that can reduce production and the hay’s nutritional quality.
  • Apple: A few varieties of GMO apples were developed to resist browning once cut. The aim was to reduce food waste as many people think that brown apples have spoiled.
  • Sugar Beet: These are used to make granulated sugar. More than 50% of the sugar packaged for the grocery store comes from GMO sugar beets. Since these have been modified for herbicide resistance, these sugar beets make it easier for farmers to control weeds.

As a result of the 2018 National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, you will start to see the “Bioengineered” label on some of the foods we eat. Mandated compliance begins on January 1, 2022, though some companies have been voluntarily complying since January 1, 2020.

Are GMOs Important?

In short, genetic modification makes crops better, and GMO uses can range from anti-pest measures to yield enhancement GMO technology. The specifics depend upon the exact type of modification and what its intended purpose is.

For example, many GMO plants are modified to be resistant to insects, pesticides, and herbicides. This naturally leads to fewer crops lost to pests. On the surface, this may seem like a simple measure to increase profit for farmers, but it can also mean the difference between life or death in poorer parts of the world where food shortages are common. In those cases, insect resistance can ensure that harvests are large enough to support the local population and weather any unforeseen disasters.

Other GMO plants are genetically modified to increase yield, allowing the same amount of land to produce more of the crop in question. Compared to the previous survivability-enhancing measures, these aren’t quite as popular yet in countries like the United States, but they are rising.

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GMOs and:

GMOs & Cancer

Fundamentally, genetic modification does not directly lead to an increased risk of cancer. 

Though some animal research has suggested an increased risk of cancer with GMOs, Current Oncology indicates that avoiding genetically modified food will not stop or prevent cancer.

The mere act of altering a plant’s genome does not necessarily mean that it will cause cancer. However, specific types of genetic modification can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

To increase pesticide and herbicide resistance, a crop may be engineered to produce a specific substance that effectively protects the plant but is dangerous to humans. Even with extensive GMO testing beforehand, these issues can still appear unexpectedly. The problem lies in identifying these specific failures and assessing how common they are.

Genetic engineering is still a relatively new field, so some side effects like cancer aren’t even necessarily manifesting yet, making accurate assessment all but impossible.

GMOs & Allergies

In contrast with the imprecise and concerning nature of cancer, allergies are relatively well understood, both in cause and effect. While there are claims that GMOs can cause allergies, there is much less confusion about those claims’ veracity. If a particular GMO is accused of causing allergies, then it is a relatively simple matter to determine if that is the case or not.

There will undoubtedly be certain genetic modifications that negatively affect allergies in some portion of the population in the grand scheme of things. That is unavoidable, but the solution lies in modifying the organism to remove those side effects or, if that isn’t viable, refining a standardized warning system.

GMO technology could be used to reduce or remove common allergens in our crops. For instance, an international team of researchers suppressed the enzyme that makes gluten in wheat. The result was GMO wheat with 76.4% less gluten in its seeds. 

Though we are still a long way from eating bread made with gluten-free wheat, the early success indicates that GMO technology could alleviate, rather than cause, food allergies.

GMOs & Autism

Genetically modified organisms do not cause autism. In the past, pesticide exposure has been linked to autism diagnosis, but the correlation isn’t causation.  There is no irrefutable proof that GMOs or pesticides are responsible for autism diagnoses. A lack of proper diagnosis in the past is responsible for the apparent upward trend of autism today.

GMOs & Antibiotic Resistance

The issue of antibiotic resistance stems from a wide variety of sources. From meat that came from over-treated livestock to excessive use of antibiotic soap and overmedication to genetic modification of crops, there are many contributing factors and a relatively limited understanding of exactly how they all interact with one another.

However, the question of whether a genetically modified organism can effectively transfer resistance is still up in the air. There is some evidence that horizontal gene transfer is possible between GMOs and microorganisms, but the extent is not yet well understood.

According to Dr. Bruce Chassy, Professor of Food Microbiology and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois, the chances of such genes transferring from plants to bacteria is less than one in a trillion. If it happened, there would be one antibiotic-resistant microbe in a world full of antibiotic-resistant microbes. These microbes are all around us – from the bodily waste we produce daily to the ground we walk on.

However, if it does happen, even if only under particular conditions, it could be hazardous in the overall context of bacteria developing immunity to standard antibiotics.

The new methods do not use antibiotics in any form. In GMOs’ early history, antibiotic-resistant genes were used in the modification process, but not antibiotics themselves. 

The genes used were not the genes for resistance to antibiotics used to treat human illnesses but were resistance genes common in the environment.  All vegetables, specs of soil, etc.,  have bacteria with these resistance genes, and they are commonly found in the human gut. 

Antibiotics have never been used in biotech crops.

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GMO vs.:

GMOs vs. Organic

Organic food is ostensibly GMO-free. If a food claims organic, it suggests that it doesn’t have altered genes, though it probably still was a product of cross-breeding or other older genetic modification techniques.

It is effectively a statement that the product in question is natural. However, you should be careful about taking organic labeling at face value.

There is no overarching regulatory authority that ensures the truth in every organic label. Many use ambiguous wording or even outright lies to cover up elements of the product that are not natural. In these cases, the presence of genetically engineered ingredients may be the least of your concerns.

There is a chance that an “organic” product may contain synthetic or lower quality substitutes for ingredients as simple as chicken or sugar. Some of these products would be healthier and more natural if they used GMOs instead of just claiming to be GMO-free while being filled with other unhealthy elements.

GMOs vs. Non-GMO

As is the case with organic, non-GMO labeling can be misleading. First, non-GMO is, like “organic,” not always verified by a third party. Just because a product claims to be non-GMO doesn’t make it the truth, and even if they’re caught and a change in marketing is made later, that won’t change the fact that you already consumed GMO products.

Secondly, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States asserts that “non-GMO” is a poor choice of words for the intended description. They suggest using more precise language.
However, if you take the label with a grain of salt, you can get some useful information.

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that uses the extremely specific “Non-GMO Project Verified” label.

While the broader “non-GMO” label can be misleadingly vague, this alternative has an explicit definition that can help inform your shopping decisions.

GMOs vs. Hybrid

Hybrid seeds specifically refer to cross-breeding, one of the techniques mentioned earlier. By breeding two plants with specific characteristics, you can reliably pass on desired traits and avoid the undesired.

One of the biggest problems with hybrid seeds is that while the first generation of plants will have the correct and intended attributes, the second generation will only partially express those traits.

For farmers that rely on hybrid seeds, they need to purchase more and more first-generation seeds every cycle because they can’t rely on their crops to reproduce and sustain themselves reliably.

In contrast, GMO seeds do not have the same problem. The first generation should possess the same traits as subsequent generations. This can result in much lower operating costs for farmers because they do not need to go back and buy the same bulk quantity of seeds every year. With GMO seeds, you can buy your starting batch and rely on their natural reproduction to provide your second generation.

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GMOs vs. Selective Breeding

Selective breeding refers to a more general version of hybridization. While hybridization focuses on crossing two pure variants to create a hybrid variant, selective breeding covers more.

With selective breeding, a farmer might take a remarkably resilient patch of grass and crossbreed it with other areas to pass on that resilience, whether it works or not can often come down to luck and time.

GMOs can effectively manage the same result with much less time and effort. By identifying the exact part of the genetic makeup responsible for the said desired attribute, you can change that particular section without unintentionally affecting other features that you might want to leave alone.

In this sense, GMOs’ main problem is that there is still a long way to understand all the potential ramifications that a small change can make.

GMOs vs. Transgenic

Transgenic organisms are a particular subtype of GMOs, much like genetically engineered organisms. However, these two subtypes are not mutually exclusive. They are practically synonymous in meaning.

Transgenic organisms have had some DNA inserted that would otherwise not be present. It is the primary mechanism by which pesticide, herbicide, and insect resistance are added to GMOs.

GMO Side Effects

There are some potential side effects of GMOs, but many of them boil down to the unknown.

As a relatively new development, genetically engineered organisms may pose some chronic and, as of yet, undetected threats. These can range from cancer to environmental degradation.

However, given the complex nature of these concerns, it can be challenging to determine whether they were caused by issues with GMO safety or any other numerous factors that changed near the millennium turn.

As is the case with autism, the incidence rate may increase due to more diligent diagnostic procedures. Still, because the increase happened to coincide with other developments such as the increased prevalence of vaccinations and GMOs, those may be incorrectly blamed.

Many of the most egregious problems with GMOs are related to business practices, not the actual organisms. The simple fact is that current research practices are insufficient for evaluating the potential side effects of GMOs. 

In Environmental Sciences Europe, a meta-analysis of 19 animal studies found that the kidneys and liver issues were common. However, the researchers highlight the importance of longer and improved studies to evaluate GMOs’ long-term safety on a large scale, accurately.

GMO Foods & Weight Loss

In the world of controversial food theories, GMOs are a subject of heated debate. Reducing GMO consumption may lead to weight loss, but probably not because of the GMOs themselves.

GMOs are so prevalent that nearly every processed food is made with them. Still, the unhealthy nature of said foods stems more from the number of fats, carbs, and sugars present than the ingredients’ genetic modification status.

If you cut GMOs out of your diet and stick to it, then you don’t have any option but to cut out nearly all processed foods as well. In that case, it only makes sense that your weight would drop.

Removing GMOs from your diet is a controversial food decision not because the pro-GMO and anti-GMO side are evenly matched, but because the premise relies on a flawed understanding of how GMOs are connected to unhealthy foods.

GMO Pros & Cons

On the pro-GMO side, genetically modified organisms are cheaper than traditional crops for consumers and farmers.

Those who argue that GMOs are good usually draw attention because fewer GMO crops are lost to pests, meaning that harvests are more significant and prices in the supermarket are lower.

Some promote it for the simple fact that by 2049 the global population is estimated to hit 9 billion people. The more people, the harder it becomes to feed everyone sustainably. Using GMOs to increase crop yields is one of the ways we can solve this problem.

On the anti-GMO side, the biggest drawback with GMOs themselves is the uncertainty of the future.

Those who argue that GMOs are bad often assert that there may be unknown side effects. In the worst-case scenario, they could cause health epidemics.

Some also argue that GMOs are inherently unnatural because they artificially forced abnormal traits to exist. That particular line of thinking loses momentum when considering that every crop in history has been subject to variations of that concept.

It’s never a good idea to assume that natural means safe. Salmonella, poison ivy, arsenic, and botulism, are examples of natural substances that are not safe for humans. 

Humans have modified their food for centuries, and many extra precautions are used when biotechnology alters food. Food produced with other technology, on the other hand, is assumed to be safe with no additional testing required.

However, the single largest problem with GMOs, in general, are the businesses that sell them.

By suppressing damaging GMO studies and GMO testing, taking advantage of farmers, and trying to game the courts, GMO companies have cast an ominous cloud over the discussion of GMO pros and cons.

What’s the Final Take on GMOs?

GMOs have already proven themselves to be fundamentally indispensable to a wide variety of industries.

They offer critical benefits in both profit and preventing food shortages, but they need to be watched with care to identify and manage any chronic side effects.

The bigger problem with GMOs lies in separating their benefits from the companies behind them. For some of those affected, that is understandably impossible.

The ideal outcome is that more responsible companies will dominate the scene or that regulatory oversight will play a more significant role in the future. Still, the discussion of pros and cons will continue to be muddied until then.

Questions & Answers on GMOs

Are GMOs used to create anything outside of food?

When you hear GMO, chances are, the first thing you think of is food. But, the same techniques used to create GMO foods are crucial to making medicine, too. Genetic engineering was first used to make human insulin. Medications manufactured with genetic engineering go through an extensive FDA approval process, which requires them to be proven safe and effective for human consumption. 

The textile industry also uses GMOs. Some GMO cotton plants are used to create cotton fiber that then becomes clothing fabric and other materials.

How are GMOs made?

First, the gene that gives an organism a desired trait must be identified. Then, the information is copied from the organism with the trait. From there, the information is inserted into the DNA of another organism, and the new organism is grown.

How long does it take to bring a GMO plant to the marketplace?

Though the process is being improved due to regulatory process adjustments, it takes an average of 10 years to bring a GMO product to the market. This is because it takes a considerable amount of time to isolate the genes, transfer them, and develop the seeds for distribution. 

Do GMO plants take longer to grow?

Unless they’re modified to grow faster than their non-GMO counterparts, there isn’t much difference in the amount of time it takes for the plant to grow. The primary motivation for genetic modification isn’t to make a plant grow faster but increase the crop yield.

What about the animals that eat food made using GMO crops?

Nearly all of the animals (95%) used for dairy and meat in the United States eat GMO crops. Independent research has shown no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods in terms of animals’ health and safety. 

The DNA from the GMO food doesn’t transfer to the animals who eat it. Just because an animal eats GMO food does not mean the meat from that animal is genetically modified. If that were the case, animals would have the DNA of any foods they ate, whether those foods were GMO or not. Put simply, the chickens don’t become the corn they eat, and the cows don’t become the hay or grass they eat.

The DNA from GMO animal food does not transfer to eggs, milk, or meat from the animal. Studies show no difference between the nutritional value, quality, and safety of the food made from animals that eat GMO food compared to those that only eat non-GMO food.

GMO animals will soon be in the food supply. In 2015, the FDA approved an application for marketing the AquAdvantage Salmon. It’s a genetically modified Atlantic salmon that has been modified so that it grows faster. The FDA determined that the GMO salmon is as nutritious and safe to eat as its non-GMO counterpart. It’s worth noting that approving GMO salmon application isn’t expected to impact the environment significantly.

Who regulates GMOs?

Multiple agencies within the U.S. government coordinate to address the safety and regulation of GMOs. These include the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service  (USDA-APHIS). For more information about how the agencies work together to regulate GMOs, take a look at the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, established in 1986.

The FDA is responsible for the safety and labeling of foods and animal feeds from all crops, including GMOs. 

The EPA is responsible for evaluating food safety and environmental issues associated with new pesticides. The EPA also oversees GMO plants when small parts of a pest are used to develop the modified crop. 

The USDA-APHIS oversees environmental consequences and the safety of planting and field testing GMO plants. They are also responsible for ensuring the field tests are conducted under specific conditions, and anything unusual is reported.

All three agencies will not oversee every GMO crop. However, all three agencies have the legal power to ask for the immediate removal of any product from the market if valid scientific data shows safety concerns for the environment or consumers.

At the international level, the World Health Organization plays a vital role in GMO regulation.

Can GMOs harm the environment?

The World Health Organization says a GMO’s capability to escape and introduce the altered genes to wild populations is an issue of concern. They are also concerned about the gene’s persistence after the GMO has been harvested, the susceptibility of non-target organisms to the gene product, the gene’s stability, and the increased risk of chemicals in agriculture. The environmental safety of genetically modified crops varies considerably according to local conditions. 

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