What Are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

GMOs take plant and animal breeding to a whole different level

Genetically modified plants
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Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) refer to plants and animals with an altered genetic make-up that's been "edited" in the laboratory in order to incorporate genes from another organism.

When scientists use genetic engineering to alter the genes of an organism, they're generally seeking to add a trait that they view as beneficial, generally for production purposes. Usually genetic engineering is done to achieve a trait not normally held by an organism, such as longer shelf life, disease resistance or different colors or flavors.

The dangers vs. benefits of GMOs are widely debated, but genetic modification is currently allowed in conventional farming. In fact, many organizations and studies estimate that possibly 70% or more of all processed foods sold to consumers now contain genetically modified ingredients.

As it stands right now, any food item that is certified organic cannot contain genetically modified ingredients.

Why Genetically Modify a Living Organism?

For millennia, farmers have sought to grow plants or breed animals with desirable characteristics. The earliest farmers chose the seeds from their best plants as the source for the next year's crop, and chose their best animals to breed and produce another generation.

Over time and with increased knowledge of plant and animal genetics, this practice became more sophisticated, and farmers and scientists began selecting specifically for traits they wanted. They also began creating new crop hybrids in the laboratory, as opposed to in the field, and applying chemicals and radiation in an effort to change the genetic makeup of plants and induce desired changes.

These efforts have led to a variety of new crops, including rice cultivars that are resistant to drought and wheat cultivars that have a much higher yield.

GMOs take this effort to yet another level: instead of using lab techniques to induce mutations that deliver the desired characteristics, GMO scientists directly edit a plant or animal's genetic code and insert genes that carry those characteristics.

Examples of GMO Foods

Probably the best-known example of a GMO food is Roundup Ready corn, a variety of corn created by Monsanto Company that's resistant to the herbicide glyphosate. This GMO-bred glyphosate resistance (which stems from the addition of a bacterium gene) enables farmers to use more of the herbicide, also manufactured by Monsanto, on their fields containing the corn.

Monsanto also has created Roundup Ready soy, alfalfa, canola, cotton and sorghum. In addition, the company has genetically modified corn, soybeans and cotton in order to introduce genes that make those crops more resistant to insects.

Other companies are developing genetically modified animals. For example, the AquAdvantage salmon, a genetically modified Atlantic salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies and approved in 2015 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for sale in the U.S., incorporates genes from other fish, including the Chinook salmon. These genes enable the AquAdvantage salmon to grow twice as fast as non-genetically modified Atlantic salmon.

GMO safety is hotly debated. Manufacturers of products containing GMOs say the organisms are safe, and government agencies tasked with safeguarding the food supply have agreed, but consumer groups argue that GMOs are linked to allergies and other, potentially more serious, health issues.

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