QWhat type of gmo has been used for thousands of years?What is the main drawback or downfall of using it?

What type of gmo has been used for thousands of years? What is the main drawback or downfall of using it?

AExpert Answer

The term “GMO” typically refers to crops or animals that, through genetic engineering, have had a gene (or a few genes) from a different species inserted into their genome. This is by design to improve a crop or animal with genetic engineering. In fact, me and my colleagues recently published a paper on this very topic that addresses this very topic and gives more details on the plant selection practices used for GE crops.


However, you pick up on something very important…Mother Nature, not to be outdone by humans, is also a rich source of “genetically modified organisms.” For example, the sweet potato! Layla Katiraee discusses this discovery in her blog on Biology Fortified, “Natural GMOs: The Sweet Potato.” More scientifically, long before plant scientists discovered that the soil bacterium, Agrobacterium, can be used to insert genes into plants (the main method to make GE crops), natural processes had already resulted in genes from Agrobacterium being inserted into plants, like sweet potatoes. You can read more on the science in this publication Kyndt et al, 2015


Virtually all of the sources of food in our diets are from “genetically modified organisms.” Ancient farmers developed crops like wheat, rice, potatoes and maize. For example, wheat was created by humans breeding three different species that, if left to nature, would not have cross-bred. Fortunately, these farmers figured out how to make wheat since we enjoy the many tasty products from wheat, like French bread and Italian pasta. I recommend this blog article by Dr. Wayne Parrott for more perspective on this topic!


Plant and animal genomes are constantly undergoing changes that activate, inactivate, insert or delete genes. Humans have used this genomic diversity to domesticate many plants and animals for food production. The genomic changes in GE crops (aka GMOs) pale by comparison to the extensive genomic changes that farmers have, and continue, to make through conventional breeding practices, or that Mother Nature uses to generate the wide diversity of life on Earth. 


As for a drawback or downfall, agriculture is innately impactful to our earth, so farming innovation, particularly crop technology is essential to help mitigate these impacts. Given the 20+ years “of safe cultivation of GE crops and consumption of foods/feeds from those crops” – it is now clear that the “downside” has been depriving the world’s food supply of this technology in a timely manner. We are missing out on environmental benefits as well as opportunities to give developing countries tools to efficiently grow their crops and effectively use limited resources.

AExpert Answer

Nearly all foods today have been genetically modified or altered in some way over thousands of years through selective breeding. However, there are only 10 commercially available GMO crops in the U.S: soybeans, corn (field and sweet), canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, potatoes and apples.


Below is a table outlining what year the nine crops became commercially available:














Sugar beets









These 10 are the only GMO crops that are commercially available in the U.S., but it is also important to note that many of these crops are ingredients in other types of food you may find in your local grocery store.


The GM salmon was recently approved by the FDA and is the first GMO food animal to be approved and is commercially available only in Canada. The salmon was genetically modified for a few reasons including to conserve wild fish populations and provide low impact aquaculture. Read more about this first GMO animal, why and how it was created here.


The technology of genetic modification or genetic engineering was first developed in the early 1970s, commercialized in pharmaceutical applications in the early 1980s, and then agricultural applications in the early 1990s. You can read more about genetic modification for medical purposes in the article GMOs in Food and Medicine: An Overview  by Richard Green, Former Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Manager.


Read more about why GMOs were first created and for what purpose, here.


Robert Wager, M.Sc., faculty member of the Biology Department at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo BC Canada, discusses how successful GM crops have been since they arrived on the market 20 years ago, as well as explains the question of if there are any drawbacks to using GMOs in his response here


Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, also discusses possible “risks or drawbacks” of GMOs in one of his responses.


“Transgenic, or GMO, technology also has similar risk, only the likelihood is lower, because we know the gene that is installed. We can follow it and know where it rests in the genome and whether it affects other genes. We can do tests to determine whether it has any effect on cellular processes or the production of new toxins or allergens, and to make sure they don't happen. These capabilities make the risk much lower than that of traditional breeding and have given us the safest food supply in human history.”


Read the full response here.


However, GMOs are considered an important tool in addressing many complex issues around the globe over the years. This response addresses some of the “pros” of GMOs for farmers, consumers and the environment. 


GMOs can benefit the environment in many ways. This response and this response, explain in great detail some of the environmental benefits. 

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