The Food We Eat, Part One

What Are GMOs?

By Laura Dobell

With all the controversy around GMOs, it’s important to understand what they are, their role in the world today, and some of the pros and cons.

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Ingredient.  Essentially, a GMO is an organism that has had its characteristics changed by modifying their DNA in a way that does not occur naturally.  As in, human tinkering. Technically, any organism can be modified but there are laws in place to restrict the production of genetically modified humans.  The production and distribution of other GMOs is highly regulated. An industry known for using GMOs is agriculture, however model organisms are also used in scientific and medical research.

In order to make a GMO, it’s DNA (or a section in the sequence) is modified.  An organism’s characteristics can also be altered by introducing a new piece of DNA into the genome from other sources.  These sources include DNA from the same species, a different species, or synthetic lab-made DNA.

GMOs were created for many purposes: medical, environmental and commercial.  For example: white mushrooms had a gene that made them go brown. In order to increase shelf-life, scientists figured out how to alter the gene so that the mushrooms stays white, longer.  This type of modification has huge impacts on the food industry, prevents early spoilage, and aids in preventing food waste .  Another use of GMOs in insulin producing bacteria.  This bacteria had the insulin genome added to their DNA sequence.  When the insulin is produced, it is extracted and used by people with diabetes to help control their blood sugar levels.

There are changes and mutation that occur in the world that are not GMOs.  For example, when organisms mate and DNA is passed down, the offspring gets DNA from both parents.  Any mutations that arise from mistakes when DNA is copied or repaired is also not considered a GMO.

There is much controversy in the world today about GMOs, the ethics behind creating GMOs, what the risks actually are, and if the benefits outweigh the perceived risks. Read part two in the GMO series, as we unpack the benefits and risks of GMOs.