What is a GMO?
For more than 10,000 years humans have selectively cultivated plants to create new varieties of crops with desirable traits, like being resistant to pests or diseases or being tolerant to herbicides that allow farmers to better control weeds. Throughout history they have used a variety of plant breeding techniques to produce plants with useful characteristics, including selective breeding, mutagenesis and genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering, also referred to as biotechnology, allows plant breeders to take a desirable trait found in nature, like disease resistance, and transfer it from one plant or organism to the plant they want to improve, or make a change to an existing trait in a plant they are developing. Genetic engineering differs from other plant-breeding techniques by enabling specific, predictable changes to be made to the plant.
The only GMOs commercially available in the U.S. are the following 10 crops: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.
GMOs are created to achieve a desired trait, such as tolerance to drought conditions or enhanced nutritional content.
The 10 commercially available genetically modified crops were created for:
- Insect resistance. This category of traits provides farmers with season-long protection against target pests, reduces the need for pesticide applications, and lowers input costs.
- Drought tolerance. GM crops that express drought tolerance have better moisture retention and can better endure drought conditions without the need for additional irrigation.
- Herbicide tolerance. Crops developed to tolerate specific herbicides allow farmers to fight weeds by applying targeted herbicides only when needed and enable them to use conservation tillage production methods that preserve topsoil, prevent erosion, and reduce carbon emissions.
- Disease resistance. Through genetic engineering plant breeders can enable plants to resist certain diseases, like the papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). The GM Rainbow Papaya, developed to be resistant to PRSV, allowed Hawaiian papaya farmers to recover from this devastating disease that had crippled their industry.
- Enhanced nutritional content. Genetically modified soybeans have been developed that have an enhanced oil profile, much like olive oil, made to be longer lasting and trans-fat free.
- Reduced Food Waste. Genetic engineering has been used to modify potatoes and apples in order to eliminate superficial browning and bruising (potato only) when the produce is cut or handled. These traits can help reduce the amount of produce thrown away by producers, processors, retailers and consumers.
- Improved Manufacturing Processes. Certain biotech corn varieties enable more efficient biofuels production by improving the process by which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel. This helps reduce the environmental impact by decreasing the amount of water, electricity, and natural gas needed to produce biofuel.
Many of these crops are used as livestock feed or processed ingredients, like sugar or corn starch, in food products you may find in your local grocery store. Only papaya, potatoes, squash, sweet corn and apples may be available in your store’s produce aisle.