What is a GMO?

If you have ever been in a grocery store, chances are you have seen food packaging marked “GMO Free!” You’ve probably seen a lot of food marked this way, from cherry tomatoes to whole grain pasta, and you might have asked yourself “who cares?”

When something becomes a green buzzword (organic, grass fed ect.) it loses some of its meaning. A sticker that says “non-GMO, certified organic” doesn’t exactly explain what any of those terms mean or why they are important in the grand scheme of agricultural science. Terms like “GMO” are connotation-heavy and require some serious unpacking. Let’s start somewhere simple.

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” Though this term may sound scary on paper, in gene science, it’s not quite that sinister. To create a GMO, scientists extract a gene trait from one species and insert it into the gene sequence of another, unrelated, species. The foreign genes can come from viruses, bacteria, plants, and even people. There are limitations, of course. Gene scientists have not yet created a real-life spiderman, but they have created goats that produce silk protein via spider DNA. They’ve also produced a lot of genetically modified produce, which is a main focus in current GMO debates.

Since the mid-1990’s, GMOs have been a staple of the American produce industry. Though banned in other countries, GMOs are not yet heavily regulated by the US government. The vast majority of processed foods contain genetically modified produce, usually to increase pest resistance and productivity.

Scientists are making many positive changes in agriculture through gene science. They’ve engineered popular foods to be resistant to devastating diseases and droughts, extreme weather conditions, and pest infiltration. They’ve also modified foods to increase nutritional value, yield, and taste! With advancements in gene technology, scientists are poised to fight world hunger by creating more durable, productive crops. However, GMO technology has also faced some setbacks.

Some biologists, nutritionists, and other health scientists have expressed concerns about the toxicity of GMO crops that produce their own pesticides. Several studies have concluded that certain GMOs can cause organ damage when consumed (Institute for Responsible Technology). Others are concerned that, by genetically modifying organisms, scientists could cause the extinction of naturally occurring species. Small farmers complain that gene technology is running them out of business, since many of the genes that make up GMOs are “owned” by large agricultural corporations that have sued small farms after their GMO plants cross-pollenate with farmers’ non-GMO plants. The ethics of being able to own and patent certain genes causes ongoing debate (read: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/feb/12/monsanto-sues-farmers-seed-patents).

Ultimately, gene science has many practical applications beyond the creation of GMOs. That being said, there are numerous potential benefits to utilizing genetically modified produce to fight hunger, blight, and pest infestation. These benefits do not entirely offset concerns about GMOs, which raise valid questions about how to ethically, safely, and responsibly use gene science. For those who worry about GMOs in your food, fear not: there are plenty of non-GMO options for you at your local grocery store (conveniently labeled, to!)  As for those that still don’t care, try not to feel too guilty as you bite into a sweet, cheap, and monster-sized genetically modified tomato~

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