GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It?

Knowledge is power.

Circular Maze with a Tiny Ladder in Center

I think the brouhaha surrounding GMOs is making it hard for people to learn about bioengineered food so this post series will attempt to filter out the noise.

Reading about the upcoming U.S. genetically engineered (now called bioengineered) food labeling standard put genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on my radar screen again. I had long wanted to research and write about GMOs and genetically modified food but it is a daunting task. Not only is it a complex subject, it is highly controversial with proponents and opponents who are equally passionate about their positions. So, I have been procrastinating—until now.

I am not immune to ranting and raving about an issue I feel strongly about, but I do not think it is at all helpful. It is hard to listen when someone is in your face shouting in person, on a screen, or in writing.

Rather than be deterred by the divisiveness encompassing GMOs and bioengineered food, I decided to attempt to wade through it to find some useful information for you and me, and to practice using my indoor voice.

This is the first post in a series of posts about GMOs and bioengineered food intended to deliver information in easy to read and understand bite-size chunks (pun intended). I will include resources and links for readers who want more information.

This post will introduce you to key genetic engineering terms, traditional breeding and genetic engineering differences, and how genetic engineering works. Future posts will cover historical milestones, U.S. laws and regulations (including the labeling standard), and environmental concerns and issues.

After you read this post series, I hope you will feel more informed about GMOs and bioengineered food and will take action yourself to encourage civil discourse about this topic. Have a discussion with your family at the dinner table, share this post with a friend, talk with a coworker during lunch, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or share your thoughts and concerns with your elected officials.

Why Should You Care about GMOs and Bioengineered Food?

Okay, so you read the first section of this post but maybe you are wondering why you should allocate time from your busy life to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food.

Well, in 2017, genetically modified (biotech) crops covered 189.9 million hectares (469 million acres or 11 times the size of California) of land in 24 countries.1, 2 The United States was the largest producer in the world, planting 39.4% of the global biotech crop hectarage.3 That is a lot of land and plant matter, which could have a significant positive or negative impact on people and the environment.

Where Biotech Crops Are Grown Around the World

In the United States, genetically modified plants have been widely adopted by growers of 5 major crops (sugar beet—100%, soybean—94%, cotton—93%, corn—92%, and canola—90%).4 These crops provide food, ingredients for processed foods, animal feed, fiber, and bio-fuel. Chances are you, your family, and your pet eats bioengineered food at least some of the time.

For me, a good reason to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that biotech crops continue to expand across the world and I want to learn what impact that is having or might have on people and the environment.

A good reason for you or anyone else to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that being informed about a topic gives you a sound basis for choosing to take action or not. Although it is well known, that people often make decisions based on their feelings and opinions, I do not see any downside to having some information in the mix.

Global Area of Biotech Crops 1996 to 2017 Chart

Key Genetic Engineering Terms and Definitions

Below is an introduction to some of the terms you will come across while learning about genetic engineering. These definitions are from the USDA’s Agriculture Biotechnology Glossary.

  • Chromosome: The self-replicating genetic structure of cells, containing genes, which determines the inheritance of traits. Chemically, each chromosome is composed of proteins and a long molecule of DNA.
  • Cross-pollination: Fertilization of a plant with pollen from another plant. Pollen may be transferred by wind, insects, other organisms, or humans.
  • DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): The chemical substance from which genes are made. DNA is a long, double-stranded helical molecule made up of nucleotides, which are themselves composed of sugars, phosphates, and derivatives of the four bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). The sequence order of the four bases in the DNA strands determines the genetic information contained.
  • Gene: The fundamental physical and functional unit of heredity. A gene is typically a specific segment of a chromosome and encodes a specific functional product (such as a protein or RNA molecule).
  • Genetic engineering (GE): Manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.
  • Genetic modification (GM): The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. Some countries other than the United States use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.
  • Genetically modified organism (GMO): An organism produced through genetic modification.
  • Recombinant DNA technology: Procedures used to join DNA segments in a cell-free system (e.g. in a test tube outside living cells or organisms). Under appropriate conditions, a recombinant DNA molecule can be introduced into a cell and copy itself (replicate), either as an independent entity (autonomously) or as an integral part of a cellular chromosome.
  • Selective breeding: Making deliberate crosses or matings of organisms so the offspring will have particular desired characteristics derived from one or both of the parents.
  • Transgenic organism: An organism resulting from the insertion of genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA techniques.

Approved Transgenic Plant Events, 1992-2016

Traditional Breeding and Genetic Engineering Differences

Humans have been tinkering with plant and animal genetics for thousands of years.

Many of the plants and animals you are familiar with today are the result of selective breeding. For instance, man’s best friend, the dog, is the result of selectively breeding wolves until they were tame enough to live with safely. Corn is another example. The large ears of yellow corn you find in the grocery market today were created by selectively breeding small grass-like plants to be bigger and bigger.

Traditionally, selective breeding could only be accomplished by mating plants or animals with other similar plants or animals. For example, a sweet orange and a pomelo were crossbred to create the grapefruit and a mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse.

Genetic engineering has crossed the mating barrier. Now scientists can select specific DNA molecules from one organism (plant, animal, fungi, protists, bacteria, and archaea) and directly insert them into the DNA of another organism or even create a new organism. You may have heard of Bt corn, which was genetically engineered from corn and a soil bacterium so the Bt corn can make its own pesticide to kill the pests that like to eat it.

Genetic Traits Expressed in GMO Crops Grown in the United States
GMOAnswers.com

A Glimpse into GMOs and Genetic Engineering

On your behalf and mine, I have read umpteen articles and several books and watched two full-length films and countless videos. My goal was to find articles, books, web pages, films, or videos that explain GMOs and genetic engineering in “regular” people language without being too pro or anti-GMO.

Below are four of my favorites that will give you a glimpse into GMOs and genetic engineering in anywhere from a minute to a half an hour (this does not include time to buy the book or check it out of the library).

  1. Creation of an Insect Resistant Tomato Plant – this infographic is simple and clear making it easy to grasp the concept quickly (scroll down after you open the web page).
  2. What is genetic engineering and how does it work? – I like this web page because it explains genetic engineering in terms of recipes and cookbooks accompanied by simple illustrations.
  3. Are GMOs Good or Bad? Genetic Engineering & Our Food – this 9-minute animated video conveys information with colorful illustrations and basic language. The video skims over issues and seems pro-GMO to me.
  4. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, by McKay Jenkins. Chapter 3 of this book provides a user-friendly guide to genetic engineering. Jenkins combines scientific terms with familiar language to create descriptions of complex concepts that are easy to understand. The whole book is worth reading.

After reading this post, I hope you feel like you have at least become acquainted with GMOs and genetic engineering and are interested in learning more about this subject.

In the next post in this series, we will endeavor to learn about some of the major milestones that led us to where we are today with GMOs and genetic engineering.

Featured Image at Top: Circular Maze with a Tiny Ladder in Center – Photo Credit iStock/filo

Related Posts

References

  1. Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18
  2. The measure of Things – California
  3. Do you know where biotech crops are grown? (infographic) – ISAAA, 2015
  4. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Proposed Rule – U.S. Federal Register/Vol. 83, No. 87/Friday, May 4, 2018

Resources

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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