The ABCs Of GMOs

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.[pullquote:left]

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.

The GMO Debate: Pros VS Cons

Pros, according to John Ruff of the Institute of Food Technologists, with the agreement of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations

1.   Genetic modification increases crop yield significantly.

2.   Genetic modification reduces the costs to grow and produce food.

3.   GMOs can help feed more in the world. "Most people believe that unless we continue to apply GMO technology to more plants in more parts of the world, we will never be able to provide [enough] food to feed the world." 

4.   Genetic modification provides nutritional benefits. Foods can be enhanced with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. An example of this is golden rice, genetically modified to include beta-carotene, which produces vitamin A. "There are more people in the world who don't get enough nutritional benefit from the food they eat than people who don't get enough to eat," Ruff says.

5.   Genetic modification conserves water. It allows farmers to grow crops that can survive in lower water moisture and water environments.

6.   Genetically modified crops have better resistance to environmental stress factors; including pests, diseases, and severe weather, all of which that inhibit growth.

7.   Genetic modification reduces the environmental impacts of food production. Because GMOs are resistant to pests, they decrease the need for herbicides and pesticides to protect crops.

8.   Genetic modification is used to develop cheaper vaccines and medicines. Biomedical research has explored and applied genetic modification in the production of cheaper medicines and vaccines that may have the potential to cure fatal diseases as well as in a process known as "molecular pharming," which is the insertion of genes from human or animals into plants or farm animals for medicinal purposes. This process allows for more productive farm animals. For example, specialized genes can be inserted into cattle to raise their milk yield.

9.   GMOs can have longer shelf lives.  Purple tomatoes contain two genes from snapdragons which toughen a tomato's skin and increase its production of natural pigments called anthocyanins.

10. GMOs can be used as biofuel. For example, the waste from sugar cane and sorghum can provide energy.


Cons, according to Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology

1.   Genetic modification is prone to unpredicted side effects. The process of insertion and cloning, which is used in the genetic modification process, can change DNA by two to four percent and can cause "massive collateral damage" in DNA function. This can and has resulted in new allergens or toxins, changes in nutrition, or changes in existing levels of allergens or toxins. For example, Monsanto's corn contains a gene that was accidently triggered and produces a known soy allergen, which has increased as much as sevenfold.

2.   The regulatory method used to approve GMOs was based on a "hijacked FDA." At the time that the GMO policy was created, former Monsanto attorney Michael Taylor was in charge of policy at the FDA. He later became Monsanto's chief lobbyist and vice president and now he's the U.S. Food Safety tsar at the FDA. Taylor initially began working at the FDA after the agency was instructed by The White House to promote biotechnology. The resulting policy stated that the agency was not aware of any evidence showing that GMOs were significantly different. However, documents from a lawsuit from the FDA files that were revealed years later showed that GMOs were different and potentially dangerous; that they could generate allergens, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems; and that long-term, thorough safety studies would be necessary to protect the public. The GMO policy states that GMOs do not require safety studies by the FDA, and that agricultural companies using genetic modification, such as Monsanto, can determine whether GMOs are safe without informing the FDA or consumers.

3.   The amount and type of research conducted to evaluate GMO safety is minimal. Agricultural companies conduct their own safety research. Very few independent studies are conducted. If adverse finding are discovered, the scientists are attacked. They are often threatened, fired, gagged, or denied funding. "We have caught the industry red-handed, rigging their research, forcing a conclusion of safety by designing their research to avoid finding problems. We're covering up problems that arise."

4.   The products of an immature science can negatively affect all who eat, all living beings, and future generations. Its unprecedented risks can affect the health of those who eat and of all living things. Plants can cross-pollinate and seeds can move, becoming a self-propagating pollution of the gene pool that can carry on forever.

5.   There is no post-marketing surveillance or human clinical trials associated with GMO safety research. The Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) presented evidence of GMO problems to medical organizations as well as universities and colleges. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine evaluated animal feeding studies and on the basis of dangerous findings, recommends that every doctor should prescribe non-GMO diets to every patient. Many health care professionals, patients, and the population as a whole report stories about dramatic recoveries from a variety of diseases and disorders after changing to a diet free of GMOs.

  • "Doctors who've told thousands of people to stop eating GMOs are among those most convinced of the dangers. But the regulatory agencies and the media have been closed to hearing these reports."

6.   There is a pattern between type of disorders and diseases discovered in lab animals and those reported to be improved in humans when they eat a diet free of GMOs. These disorders and diseases, which have been on the rise in the U.S. population since GMOs were introduced, are also reported by farmers and veterinarians to be improving in livestock and pets.

7.   The use of Roundup in Roundup-ready crops has specific dangers that should be mentioned separately. An article written in a peer-reviewed study last year analyzed the biochemical properties of Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, which it linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimers, Parkinson's, autism, MS, anorexia, aggression, and depression. Roundup is used in huge quantities now and can remain in the soil for decades but has not been properly studied or monitored for its residues in foods or soil despite the fact it appears to be linked to conditions including endocrine disruption, digestive disorders, and cancer growth.

  • "There is a myth that it is safe. However, it was described by  scientists as probably the most chronically toxic chemical on the planet due to its prevalence in our environment and food supply."

8.   Children are most at risk from the potential dangers of GMOs. There are hundreds of reports from moms who have taken their children off of GMOs and have noticed improvements in asthma, allergies, weight problems, ADHD, autistic symptoms, GPA, and more conditions.

9.   Unlike chemicals, genetic modification is a biological system so it is far more complex. A study showed that genes or part of a gene from genetically modified soybeans can become integrated into the DNA of bacteria living inside our intestines, and it can still be active. Eating GMOs may result in the transformation of our intestinal flora into factories that produce genetically engineered proteins. BT toxin, which can poke holes in human cells, was approved based on assumptions that it was safe for humans and animals; however, peer-reviewed studies have shown the opposite. Now, BT toxin can be found in our blood supply as well as in the blood of unborn fetuses.

10. The introduction and promotion of GMOs was based on secrecy and keeping consumers ignorant. Sixty-four countries in the world require labeling of some extent for products with genetically modified materials. The FDA was told to promote biotechnology, so it disregards the requests of nine out of 10 Americans who want labeling in order to support the economic interests of five or six agricultural companies.

  • "The failure to disclose the use of this technology is unethical, inappropriate, and dangerous."

11. There are many environmental effects of genetic modification. The use of Roundup and GMOs can alter the soil bacteria, narrow biodiversity, and can cause harm to beneficial insects while also damaging the economic interests of organic growers and non-GMO growers, who often undergo the financial burden of paying for buffer zones as well as the loss of revenue due to contamination.

  • "Any mistake or oversight becomes part of our life and of future generations."


What Does the Future of GMOs Look Like?

Despite their differing stances on GMOs, Ruff and Smith both anticipate a favorable; though contrasting future for genetic modification. Ruff sees the biggest benefit from genetic modification in the potential for us to undergo a "green revolution," and believes that the younger generation will be the ones to stimulate and embrace genetic modification.

"In 20 to 30 years, I hope we're going to look back and see a very different world, and the negativity will have passed," says Ruff.

Smith, on the other hand, predicts that we're experiencing a "tipping point" in consumer rejection of GMOs in the U.S. He notes that the percentage of consumers in the U.S. who said, according to a poll, that they were actively eliminating or reducing genetically modified ingredients rose from about 16 percent in 2007 to about 25 percent in 2010 before climbing to 39 percent in 2013. He adds that the tipping point of consumer rejection eliminated GMOs from Europe in 1999 and that more and more conventional food companies in the U.S. are declaring their products non-GMO. While Smith doesn't reject the potential benefits of genetic modification, he says that we may have a long way to go before we can safely apply the science.

"I'm not against the possibility that some day we can safely and predictably manipulate the DNA for the betterment of health for the environment," Smith says. But he stresses that we need to first ensure the safety of the public by conducting the necessary research, "even if it takes decades."

Haley WIllard is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter @haleywillrd.