QWhat exactly are GMOs and what role do they play in our society?

What exactly are GMOs and what role do they play in our society?

AExpert Answer

“GMO” is an abbreviation for “genetically modified organism.” A GMO plant is one where precise changes have been made to its DNA to give it a characteristic, like insect resistance, that cannot be achieved through traditional plant breeding.


Farmers and plant breeders have historically looked for and selected the best performing plants in the field. Now we can use advanced plant breeding in the lab to identify those desirable traits at the genome level and create the best possible crops.


Check out this video to watch how GMOs are created through the story of the rainbow papaya:

GMOs not only help farmers tackle farming problems, but they also can provide benefits to society as a whole, and in ways that many people don’t think about.


For example, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has recognized no-till as one of the best practices available for improving food security while also boosting environmental stewardship.  When I was kid growing up on our family farm in southwest Minnesota, I spent many hours on a tractor pulling different implements across the field for weed control. Now, herbicide tolerant GM crops allow farmers to use less tillage for weed control, and in the Northern Plains of the U.S., a combination of less tillage and productive corn hybrids have turned the soils into a “carbon sink”. Along with reducing GHG emissions, less tillage also helps improve soil structure, conserves more soil moisture, and reduces erosion – all important factors in environmental stewardship with broad benefits to society.


Now take the next step and think about reduced tillage in combination with drought tolerant crops, an area I’m personally involved in at DuPont Pioneer.  Many scientists have been working on drought tolerance for decades, and with the advent of GMO technologies we now understand much better how to help a crop maintain greater productivity during periods of drought stress. Once again, we have the potential to use the valuable water and soil resource more productively, improve global food security, and strengthen sustainability for all of society.


GMO technology also has potential to improve the lives of millions in the developing world. While serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Central Africa and more recently in business travel to Africa, I’ve observed the difference that technology can make. The average yield of U.S. maize is 165 bushels per acre; the average yield for the African continent is closer to 20 bushels per acre. We can do better in Africa and in most other geographies. GMO technology is one tool to help us get there while enabling farmers a chance at greater sustainability, prosperity, health and nutrition, benefits which have positive and far-reaching ripple effects for all of society.


Thanks for the thoughtful question, and for your patience with my long answer!  I encourage you to peruse GMO Answers and to ask any additional questions you may have.

Posted on September 5, 2017
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Posted on June 19, 2017
Yes, the EU is one of the geographies where GM-derived food and animal feed must be labeled according to conditions outlined by the European Commission on this webpage. GM labels are very common on sacks of animal feed. Depending on the type of animal, GM labeled feed is often the standard – except of course when it comes to GM free or organic supply chains. Read More
Posted on August 5, 2017
I’m a genetic engineer. I’ve spent 30 years participating as a member of teams of genetic engineers, and I love your question. Most of us do indeed spend a lot of time inside the lab, but we’re not always sitting. Sometimes we dance!   Genetic engineering starts with an idea for a way to solve a problem, so I guess it starts with an understanding of the problems. In agriculture, for example, that means spending time to understand what’s happening on farms and... Read More

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