The ABCs of GMOs

Genetically modified organisms in food: an introduction to the basics
The ABCs of GMOs

What you need to know about genetic modification.

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) for more.

The debate over genetic modification has been argued for many centuries, but in recent years it has come to play a leading role in our conversations about food, health, agricultural policy, and the environment. What exactly are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs? What is the difference, if any, between genetic modification and genetic engineering? How long have we been genetically modifying our plants and animals, and to what purposes? What are the pros and cons of the practice? And what does the future hold for genetic…modification? Read on.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

By definition, genetically modified organisms are organisms whose genetic material has been altered in some way by forms of breeding, whether conventional (natural breeding and classic selection) or modern (genetic engineering).

Genetic Modification vs. Genetic Engineering: What’s the Difference?

The FDA uses the term genetic modification to refer to all forms of breeding, both conventional and modern.

“Everything that’s living is genetically modified,” says John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists and an advocate for GMOs, explaining that human, plant, and animal evolution is a product of genetic modification. He defines genetic modification as what occurs any time the genetic material of an organism is altered, while genetic engineering is the result of “making a deliberate change” in the genetic makeup of an organism. By the FDA’s definition, genetic engineering is the most modern form of genetic modification, using recombinant DNA techniques and cell fusion. These technologies merge DNA from different plant or animal species, allowing scientists to introduce new traits into target organisms.“Everything that’s living is genetically modified.” - John Ruff

How Long Have We Been Genetically Modifying and Engineering?

Determining the first instance of genetic modification depends on how we define the term.  

Some, including Ruff, argue that crops have been genetically modified since prehistoric times and the origin of cultivation [see timeline], when our ancestors manipulated foods through natural breeding of plants. In the 1900s, scientists begin using Gregor Mendel’s genetic theory of classic selection in which one plant species is bred with a related plant species, producing a desired characteristic.


Others, like Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and a leading anti-GMO consumer advocate, argue that the discovery in the 1980s that genes could be transferred from one organism to another became the basis for genetic modification and led to the first genetically modified plant, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics. A few years later, Monsanto introduced herbicide-immune soybeans and from there, scientists around the world begin testing and creating genetically modified foods and medicines.