What are Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO foods?

Home/Food/What are Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMO foods?

There has been so much noise around GMO foods lately that unless you live in a cave (or in a country where they are illegal for human consumption), you have to have heard of them. Here’s a quick 101 on the basics of genetically modified foods or GMOs, so we’re all on the same page about this heated topic of conversation. In a normal (and until quite recently) typical world, farmers sow naturally occurring seeds and harvest the resulting crops. In the big scientific world of pesticide, agrochemical and biotech companies, things are done differently. For perspective, Monsanto, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Syngenta are the 4 biggest GMO makers in the world and saw their sales jumping from $60 billion in 2004 to $119 billion in 2012.

Monsanto Syngenta Dow Dupont GMO GE cornGenetically engineered plants (or animals) are created in a lab through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE) that alters their genetic makeup via the addition of one or more genes to their genome. This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. The goal is to obtain desired qualities, like these:

  • Resistance to a virus- Papaya has been genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus
  • Delayed ripening after picking- Like the 1994 created transgenic Flavr Savr tomatoes
  • Resistance to pesticides- Canola, corn, cotton, soybean
  • Increased nutrient value- Like the 200o “golden rice”…

Once satisfactory plants are produced and regulatory market approval is obtained, the seeds are mass-produced and sold to farmers. What happens next? Resulting GM crops can be:

  • Final food sources- GM crops are directly consumed as food, like potatoes, rice (to be starting in 2014 or 2015), squash, papayas,wheat, soybeans, sugar beets, sweet peppers, alfalfa… (Note: Tomatoes once a GMO option, removed from the market due to commercial failure)
  • Commodities- GM crops become food ingredients that are further processed to create “man-made foods” (those that don’t grow in a field!). Corn, cotton seed oil, canola oil, soybeans, sugar cane… All can be found in the ingredient lists of packaged, processed foods where they help with stabilizing and preserving the life of the final products. Think cereals, breads, crackers, cookies, candies, sodas, frozen (and not) prepared meals… Since this list has no chance to be exhaustive, just consider this number: Per the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 75 to 80% of pre-packaged food in the U.S. contain genetically modified organisms. GMOs are used in these products as cheap fillers, preservatives, and /or alternative to a natural, real (hence more expensive) ingredient.

Whether GMOs are final food sources or commodities, here is how scientists-playing-with-plant-DNAs-in-a-lab collides with our daily lives. As we shop for food, we now have to navigate between a nice selection of:

High-Risk Crops:

  • Alfalfa- First planting 2011
  • Canola- Approx. 90% of U.S. crop
  • Corn- Approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011
  • Cotton- Approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011
  • Papaya- Most of Hawaiian crop, that is about 988 acres
  • Soy- Approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011
  • Sugar Beets- Approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash- Approx. 25,000 acres
  • ALSO high risk- Animal products (milk, meat, eggs, honey, etc.) and dairy (yogurt, cheese…) because of contamination in feed

Monitored Crops- This list exists due to prior cases of contamination incidents or because cross-pollination is highly possible:

  • Beta vulgaris- Like chard, table beets…
  • Brassica napa- Like rutabaga, Siberian kale…
  • Brassica rapa- Like bok choy, mizuna, Chinese cabbage, turnip, rapini, tatsoi…
  • Curcubita-  Acorn squash, delicata squash, patty pan…
  • Flax
  • Rice
  • Wheat

The next fair question is should we be scared of GMOs? And if so, why? A next post is following soon to help answering this.

What do you know about GMOs and how do you handle them when grocery shopping? If in any way at all!


Credit photo: greenpeace.org


Check out the GMO series of 4 posts by La Vie En Green, to get all the information you really should want to know about Genetically Engineered food and how GMOs do affect your daily life:

1- GMO 101

2- 3 top reasons to educate yourself about GMOs

3- 4 top reasons to avoid GMOs

4- How to avoid GMOs


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