The term “GMO” certainly can be confusing. “GMO” stands for genetically modified organism, so it is the “short version” of that longer term. In addition to the term GMO, some groups use the term “GM” (standing for “genetically modified”) to describe GM crops and GMO crops (which are the same thing). GMOs are used for a variety of purposes, such as to produce human insulin, vitamins, vaccines or enzymes used in cheeses, fermented beverages and starch products. GMO Answers is focused on GM crops for plant agriculture.
When the term “GMO” is used to describe food crops, it is used to describe a plant developed through a specific process in which a copy of a desired gene or section of genetic material from one plant or organism is placed in another plant. These crops are created to achieve a desired trait, such as resistance to an insect or improvement to a ripening process, in order to better meet a customer’s market need. The only GMOs commercially available in the U.S. are the following eight crops: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), papaya, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets and summer squash.
Both traditional plant breeding and genetic engineering involve altering the genes of a plant to make a better variety. Breeding involves random mixing of genes from two parent plants which results in a new variety that contains the desired characteristic and possibly other unwanted characteristics. A GM plant results from the direct transfer of an intended gene that gives the desired characteristic to the new variety. The graphic below discusses the differences between traditional plant breeding and genetic engineering.