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Genetically Modified Organisms 101

What Are GMOs?


When people refer to genetically modified organisms - GMOs - they are referring to crops developed through genetic engineering, a more precise method of plant breeding. Genetic engineering, also referred to as biotechnology, allows plant breeders to take a desirable trait found in nature and transfer it from one plant or organism to the plant they want to improve, as well as make a change to an existing trait in a plant they are developing.  Some examples of desirable traits commonly transferred include resistance to insects and disease and tolerance to herbicides that allow farmers to better control weeds.


Why Grow GMOs?


GMOs are created to achieve a desired trait, such as resistance to a pest or tolerance to drought conditions. The most common GMO crops include soybean, maize, cotton, canola, and alfalfa, with a total of only 13 different crops are grown around the world. Please visit the ISAAA website for more information on GMO crops around the world. 

GM 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 an outbreak of this devastating disease that crippled their industry.
  • Enhanced nutritional content. Genetically modified soybeans with an enhanced oil profile, much like olive oil, have been developed and are 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 through which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel. This helps reduce the environmental impact of the manufacturing process by decreasing the amount of water, electricity, and natural gas needed to produce biofuel.


Okay, but what does that mean in practical terms?


GMOs allow use of less land, less water and less chemicals, reducing their impact on the environment—even more so that traditional crops in many cases.

GMOs can mimic needed manufacturing processes - such as the creation of rennet for cheese - without use of traditional methods which historically/traditionally required the use of animal stomachs.

GMOs allow for growth of crops in many parts of the world where the environment is otherwise harsh and in which growing populations would struggle to grow enough to meet demand.

GMOs can be nutritionally enhanced to supplement nutrients for at-risk populations whose diets are lacking in key nutrients because of the difficulty of growing varied crops in harsh conditions.

GMO crops help to keep food costs down and help to minimize inflationary increases in other associated crop or food production costs.



How do we ensure that GMOs are safe for use and consumption?


  • GMO crops are studied extensively to make sure they are safe for people, animals, and the environment
  • GM seeds take an average of $115 million and 16.5 years to bring to market due to the research, testing, and regulatory approvals conducted by government agencies in the United States and around the world. 

GMO Safety

  • GMOs available today are as safe as their non-GMO counterparts.
  • They do not cause new allergies, cancer, infertility, ADHD, autism or any other diseases or conditions.
  • Various scientific bodies around the world, including the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the British Royal Society of Medicine, the French Academy of Science, and the World Health Organization have issued statements in support of GMOs. 
  • In the spring of 2016, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) issued a comprehensive report which answered the question: are GMOs safe? A panel of more than 20 scientists, researchers, agricultural and industry experts reviewed over 20 years of data since GMOs were introduced, including nearly 900 studies and tests and European and North American health data. They concluded – as other previous research concluded – that GMOs are safe to eat.
  • The safety of GMOs has been affirmed by agricultural, environmental and food safety regulatory agencies around the world, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Europe, China, South Africa, and Australia. 

Don’t believe us? Hear from GMO Answers volunteer expert and registered dietitian Connie Diekman.

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