What are GMOs?

When talking about biotechnology and GMOs, there are a lot of terms thrown around loosely and incorrectly. According to the Biotechnology Institute the definition of biotechnology varies.

...a simple definition is the use of living organisms by humans. One example of biotechnology is cloning. We have been cloning plants for centuries. Each time a leaf is excised from a violet plant and placed in soil to grow a new plant, cloning has occurred. Today, we are not only doing the physical manipulation at the visual level but also on the molecular level. In modern or molecular biotechnology, we physically select the desired characteristic at the molecular level and add it to the organism's genetic makeup.

An example of how scientists are using biotechnology on a molecular level is through genetic engineering. Genetic engineering, or genetic modification, is considered an area of biotechnology that induces cell alterations in organisms including microorganisms, plants, animals and humans through more direct means than traditional breeding practices. Genetic modification involves the insertion or deletion of genes through direct human manipulation of an organism's genetic material. Some argue that evolution in plants and animals alone should be considered genetic modification to some degree. In today’s society, however, most people use the term genetic modification as a technology based on the artificial manipulation and transfer of genetic material from one organism to another to create a genetically modified organism, or GMO. In most cases, the term genetic modification is used synonymously with the term transgenics.

Transgenic science includes an organism whose genome has been changed by the addition of a gene from another species. When most people refer to GMOs they are most likely referring to transgenic organisms.

Genetic modification, however, can also take place via nontransgenic procedures. This means genes from another species are not introduced into an organisms’ genome, but the genome is still modified. Simply turning one gene off in a plant’s genome (like the gene that makes a bruise on an apple turn brown) would be considered nontransgenic modification. No foreign genes were added to the genome, but a gene was silenced.

Many industries use biotechnology including agriculture and modern medicine. Biotechnology has created more than 200 new therapies and vaccines, including products to treat cancer, diabetes, HIV/ AIDS and autoimmune disorders. Biotechnology also allows today’s farmers to produce high quality, safe and healthy food in a much more sustainable way that is affordable for American families. Less pesticides are utilized in foods such as Hawaii’s papaya. The first “Rainbow” papayas–genetically modified to withstand the deadly ringspot virus—are now on sale. This resistance to disease will enable papaya farmers to use less chemicals on their crops. This is also the first GM food Japan has approved for commercial release.

Biotechnology is not only a science that can allow for better stewardship on our farms, but it also provides safe and healthy food for our tables. Genetically modified crops bred through both transgenic and nontransgenic means endure thorough and rigorous testing that takes years to gain federal approval before they enter the marketplace. The biotech industry is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).