Eleven Things to Know About GMOs
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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State University
Eric A. DeVuyst
Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics
Regents’ Professor and Sparks Chair,
Department of Agricultural Economics
Cheryl S. DeVuyst
Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics
1. What is a GMO?
A GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism (also call genetically enhanced or transgenic organism), refers to a plant or animal with DNA altered using one of a variety of genetic engineering methods. A GMO is not a single type of crop nor is it a crop variety – it is technique (or tool) that can be used in many different ways for many different purposes. Sometimes GMOs are equivalently called Genetically Engineered (GE) crops. Transgenic GMOs have DNA from another species inserted into its genetic code. Cisgenic GMOs have DNA from a member of the same species. Other techniques “silence” or “turn off” existing genes in a plant or animal.
2. Why are crops genetically modified?
By modifying the genetic material in an organism, the plant can exhibit traits that are desirable for the environment or humans, either for farmers producing the plant or for consumers. For example, crops have been modified to produce a compound preventing pests (primarily bugs) from feeding on them, which protects yield and quality. Other plants have been modified to tolerate certain broad spectrum herbicides (weed killers and suppressors). This allows producers to use herbicides that are less persistent in the environment, meaning they rapidly degrade to relatively benign compounds when contacting soil or exposed to sunlight. This encourages adoption of no-till technology because it has allowed farmers to control weeds without having to disturb the soil through tillage. By using gene-modifying technology, decades or more can be shaved off traditional crop breeding practices. Some food crops have been genetically modified to improve shelf life, so less food is wasted. Others are more nutritious than naturally occurring varieties. For example, golden rice, a GMO variety that produces beta carotene, which the body then converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is important in prevention of blindness. Children in many developing countries suffer from higher rates of blindness because diets, which rely on rice as a staple crop, are deficient in vitamin A.
3. Are GMOs safe to eat?
There have been hundreds of studies testing the safety GMO-derived foods, and long-term tests involving millions of animals. The evidence overwhelmingly supports the safety of eating currently approved GMO-derived foods. As concluded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, GM food crops are the most studied food crop ever (http://www.nfp59. ch/e_index.cfm). Scientists who advise governments, including the United States Food and Drug Administration (http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm352067.htm) and European Union Academies Science Advisory Council (http://www.easac.eu/home/reports-and-statements/detailview/article/planting-the.html),
have concluded that currently approved GMO-derived foods are safe for both humans and animals to consume. The UN’s World Health Organization also stated that currently approved GMO-derived foods are safe (http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/
faq-genetically-modified-food/en/). All crop breeding (conventional and GMO alike) involve risks, but all major scientific authorities have concluded that GMO crops are no riskier than conventionally bred crops.