What is a GMO?

Genetic modification, or genetic engineering, is the process of manipulating an organism’s DNA to display specific traits [1]. Gene splicing introduces new genetic material into an organism’s DNA, resulting in a genetically modified organism (GMO).

This experimental technology often merges DNA from different species, creating combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or via conventional breeding [2]. GMOs are engineered for various purposes, ranging from agricultural production to scientific research.

What are the most common types of GMO?

The two most common types of genetically modified crops on the market are Bt crops and Roundup Ready crops.

Bt, or bacillus thuringiensis, is a type of soil-dwelling bacteria that produces a protein toxic to many insects. Bt crops are engineered to produce the Bt toxin within the plant itself, acting as a built-in insecticide. [3] Bt toxin kills crop pests by dissolving the insect’s gut lining.
Roundup Ready crops are engineered to be resistant to Roundup, a Monsanto brand of herbicide. The active ingredient in Roundup herbicide is glyphosate, a commonly used weed-killer. [4]

How is genetic modification (or genetic engineering) different from hybridization?

Genetic modification or genetic engineering is not the same as hybridization. Genetic modification utilizes gene splicing technology to engineer a combination of genes, often from different species, that cannot occur naturally. Genetic engineering can only happen in a laboratory.

Hybridization occurs when two separate organisms cross-breed to create offspring displaying a combination of traits from the parent organisms. Hybridization can occur randomly through cross pollination, or deliberately with the guidance of farmers and gardeners. A pluot, for example, is a hybrid grown from a plum and an apricot.

Why the concern about GMOs?

Environmental impact: Increased herbicide and pesticide resistance is creating superweeds and superbugs, requiring heavier applications of these chemicals [5] [5.5]. Greater herbicide and pesticide use on GMO crops pollutes soil and water resources. GMO crops are also accelerating the drive toward mono-crop agriculture, which diminishes genetic diversity and threatens food security in the event of widespread crop disease.
Corporate control: Three companies–Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta–control over 53% of the global seed market [6]. As the market continues to consolidate, biotech companies exercise strict patent laws, suing farmers for patent infringement if their fields are contaminated with genetically engineered seed. Biotechnology corporations, Big Ag, and processed food companies also spend millions of dollars on anti-GMO labeling campaigns to keep consumers in the dark about the food we eat [7].
Health risks: GMOs are not yet proven safe for human consumption. Many studies claiming the safety of GE-foods are industry-funded and only last for 90 days [8]. In order to prove that GMO foods are safe, more independent, long-term testing is necessary.

What crops are commonly genetically modified?

More and more foods are being genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients. Here are eight of the most common and commercially available GMO crops to look out for. If a product contains these ingredients and is not labeled as USDA-certified organic or Non-GMO Project Verified, it is likely genetically modified:

  1. Corn
  2. Soy
  3. Alfalfa
  4. Canola
  5. Cotton
  6. Papaya
  7. Sugar Beets
  8. Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash

Note: Dairy, meat, and other animal products are at high risk of being sourced from livestock raised on genetically modified feed. The majority of animal feed is made up of genetically modified soy, corn, alfalfa, and cottonseed. Read more »

What product ingredients commonly contain genetically engineered crops?

Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Citric Acid, Dextrose, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Citrate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Yeast Products. Read more »

How do I know if a food is genetically modified or not?

Over 60 countries around the world mandate labeling of genetically modified foods, including nations in the European Union, Russia, Australia, and China [9].

The US does not require labeling of genetically modified foods; however, many states have introduced labeling legislation and ballot initiatives. Currently, the only way to differentiate between GMO and non-GMO foods is 1) USDA organic certification, which does not allow use of genetically modified ingredients; and/or 2) Non-GMO Project verification, the only independent non-GMO verification process in North America.

What does it mean if a product is “natural”?

In the US, the word “natural” has no regulated definition. Most companies use the term “natural” as a marketing strategy.

“From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.” [10] – FDA

How can we avoid GMOs?

  1. Look for the Non-GMO project label: The Non-GMO Project label provides consumers with independent, 3rd party assurance that a product contains no GMOs. The Project tests high-risk ingredients in the products that bear its label, to ensure that they contain less than 0.9 percent GMOs (allowing for low levels of unintentional contamination).
  2. Buy organic: USDA-certified organic products cannot intentionally contain GMOs.
  3. Be wary of unverified non-GMO claims: A company may legally label its products as being GMO-free without having to perform testing or prove to a third-party that is the case.
  4. Avoid high-risk ingredients: Avoid non-organic versions of these, whole and in ingredient lists.
  5. Avoid non-organic processed foods: The list of hidden GM ingredients in processed foods is long, ranging from ascorbic acid to xanthan gum. Get a full list of ingredients to avoid in the Non-GMO Shopping Guide.
  6. Look at the price-look-up (PLU) sticker: If it shows a four-digit number, the produce is conventionally grown without GMOs, and a five-digit number beginning with “9” means 100-percent organic. Technically, a five-digit number beginning with “8” means it is genetically modified, but since such labeling is voluntary, these labels are very rarely used.


How can I get involved?

  1. Sign up for the GMO Inside monthly e-newsletter
  2. Like us on Facebook
  3. Follow us on Twitter
  4. Get involved in your local and state efforts for GMO labeling


[1] http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/GeneticEngineering/

[2] http://www.who.int/topics/food_genetically_modified/en/

[3] http://www.epa.gov/oppbppd1/biopesticides/pips/regofbtcrops.htm

[4] http://web.mit.edu/demoscience/Monsanto/about.html

[5] http://news.cahnrs.wsu.edu/2012/10/01/summary-of-major-findings-and-definitions-of-important-terms/

[5.5] http://www.pnas.org/content/111/14/5141

[6] http://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/publication/pdf_file/ETC_wwctge_4web_Dec2011.pdf

[7] http://kuow.org/post/monsanto-pours-46-million-anti-gmo-labeling-campaign

[8] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-seed-companies-control-gm-crop-research/

[9] http://justlabelit.org/right-to-know/labeling-around-the-world/