A young soybean plant.

GMOs 101

Written by OSU student Jane Hulse

Transitioning into adulthood is hard enough with so many things to keep track of. It would be nice if at least buying groceries could be simple. With all of the conflicting health information and food labels out there, how do you know what to buy?

In recent years, GMOs have become a rather hot topic. Now, you even see food products proudly proclaiming they’re GMO free, but what does that mean? Why is it labeled? Considering the dozens of documentaries, news articles and even legislative acts both for and against GMOs, it’s understandably confusing to decipher what’s really true about them. This article will clear up some of the basics.

What is a GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. The World Health Organization defines a GMO as an organism “in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

In a way, humans have been genetically modifying plants since the dawn of agriculture by selectively breeding plants with desired traits. You may remember learning about it in high school biology with Gregor Mendel and his pea plants. Many of the staple foods we eat every day are a product of this sort of genetic modification. For example, bananas used to have seeds before that trait was bred out of them. GMOs are a little bit different. Instead of using processes like selective breeding which involves thousands of genes, they are developed by targeting a few select genes and transferring them into a plant to produce a desired trait. This makes the process much faster than raising plants for generations and crossbreeding them.

While GMOs get their desirable traits through genetic modification, gene editing is also gaining traction. Instead of adding or replacing entire genes like GMOs, gene editing, using techniques like CRISPR, allows existing DNA to be altered using naturally occurring processes in an accurate and efficient way.

Why do we use GMOs?

GMOs allow us to grow plants that solve specific problems. They can be developed to have higher yields, tolerate droughts, be resistant to certain diseases, or even contain more nutrients necessary for human health. For example, a plant that has been genetically modified to be resistant to harmful bugs would require a farmer to apply less pesticides, which is better for the environment. These traits are helpful tools for addressing important issues like food security and improving the sustainability of modern farming practices.

Are GMOs safe?

GMOs are very safe. They undergo rigorous testing for an average of 13 years to ensure the changes made to the plant’s genome don’t have any harmful effects before they can be used by farmers. Once they pass, GMOs are heavily regulated. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all play important roles in ensuring GMOs are safe for humans, animals and the environment before the GMO is allowed to hit the market. As it turns out, GMOs often have to meet higher standards of safety than most other foods.

So, know the next time you’re strolling through the grocery store, the products on the shelf are equally safe to eat whether or not they contain GMO ingredients.

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