What does GMO really mean?

For years, journalists, television producers and newspaper reporters that write about genetically engineered crops, have used the term “GMO” (genetically modified organism) to describe these new crop varieties. The marketing industry has taken to writing “GMO-free” on their products, as a way to increase sales to consumers fearful of the genetic engineering process.
The problem is that the term GMO is misused and misunderstood.
Take, for example, a recent story on Voice of America about a new rice variety my laboratory and collaborators recently developed that is tolerant of flooding. The producer made a valiant effort to explain how we generated the new variety:
“The new strain is genetically improved, but not genetically modified, so is not subject to tight controls on genetically modified foods.”
Does anyone know what is he talking about? I do, so please let me explain.
Breeders have a 8000 year history of genetic modification (also called genetic improvement or conventional breeding)- that is, they have modified the genome of crop species in a number of ways. Such conventional breeding methods include hybridization (transfer of pollen from one plant variety to another to generate new seed with genes from both parents), mutagenesis (in which chemicals or irradiation are used to induce random mutations in DNA) and embryo rescue (where plant or animal embryos produced from interspecies gene transfer are placed in a tissue culture environment to complete development). Today, everything we eat has been genetically modified in some way.
Genetic engineering, in contrast, uses a direct method to introduce new genes into a crop. Because the transfer is not limited by the relatedness of the parental varieties, any gene, even a gene from another species can be introduced into a crop plant. A committee established by the National Academy of Sciences to look carefully at the GE process has concluded that the process of genetic engineering is not inherently hazardous. However, as with every other technology used for genetic modification, GE carries the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes. It depends on what gene is introduced or modified. For example, a new celery variety developed through conventional breeding that carried improved resistance to pests caused some farm workers to develop a rash on their hands when harvesting. In contrast, after 1billion acres of GE crops grown over 10 years, there has not been a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.
The method that we used to develop flood tolerant rice is called precision breeding, which is a sort of hybrid between genetic engineering and conventional genetic modification. Precision breeding (also called marker assisted selection) uses DNA technology to detect the inheritance of a desired gene to a seedling resulting from a genetic cross between two parent varieties. The result is the precise introduction of one to several novel genes from closely related species. For example, our flood tolerant rice was developed from a cross of a low-yielding rice variety that carried a rare gene for tolerance with modern, locally adapted modern varieties. The resulting seedlings were screened using precision breeding to develop new varieties with the taste and yield favored by consumers with the flood tolerant trait. The rice is now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and India, where 4 million tons of rice are lost each year to flooding, enough to feed 30 million people.
Many anti-GE activists reject GE but do accept precision breeding (even though both processes can introduce novel genes that have not previously been tested in modern varieties). Thus, varieties developed through precision breeding are subject only to standard seed certification and not to the strict regulatory approval process required for GE crops.
We need to look at the broader goals of sustainability and food security before ruling out a particular process of crop modification. Each new variety needs to be looked at on a case-by case basis.
To restart the dialog, lets start using the term “GE crops” rather than “GMO” so the consumer will have some idea of what the debate is all about.


  1. I try to say GE crops or GE foods whenever I write about it – I agree that it is more accurate. But it is certainly hard sometimes to keep from saying “GMO” casually or to help people understand what I’m talking about.
    On the other hand, making the switch from GMO to GE might be a good idea for another reason. “GMO” has a bad connotation. I know that the biotech companies like to say “Biotech Foods” to avoid the negative priming that the GMO label causes. In making the switch, and criticizing the GMO term as coming from a fundamental misunderstanding about genetic changes in crops, the use of this term could be encouraged to diminish. And along with it, a little bit of that bad connotation may go with it?
    Currently, what we end up getting are statements like the one you describe that say that genetic changes and improvements are not genetic modifications. Of course they are! It’s like products that say “chemical free”…

  2. I wish there was a way to flip the term. Go, go, GMO instead of no, no.
    If more people knew more about plant breeding in general, I think the whole idea, and the term itself, would be less scary. Before I started getting interested in plant genetics in college, I had no idea what went into making our food crops. I had some vague ideas about making crosses and vegetative propagation… but didn’t know anything about mutagenesis or the incredible power of marker assisted breeding. What we can do to produce plants that will help people is amazing, and I hope more and more breeders and geneticists will start talking about it.

  3. Hi folks–
    I’ve become more interested in GM plants of late, and really appreciate the information you are providing. I thought I’d stop by and mention that I heard about Pamela’s work today on my NPR station, in case you hadn’t known of it. Nice show.
    The unfortunately titled “Green Monster” segment, not the segment on General Motors: http://www.hereandnow.org/shows/2009/03/rundown-331/

  4. Excellent question — “What does GMO really mean?” — since genetic modification is a process of life and has been happening for eons. But the general belief of all of the authors on this site, which seems to be summarized by Pamela Ronald’s statement —
    “… after 1 billion acres of GE crops grown over 10 years, there has not been a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” —
    is simply not well founded. For a recent study, one of many, showing the opposite see — http://www.opednews.com/populum/linkframe.php?linkid=86647.
    Is it really your understanding that all of the studies cited in Jeffrey Smith’s “Seeds of Deception” are false or made up? Or how about the accusations against the biotech industry? Why ignore the simple requests by consumers to have proper labeling of products with GE ingredients? As a consumer of “organic” food (as much as my budget allows), I would demand that it contain no genetically altered ingredients, and I don’t know one concerned consumer of organic food that wouldn’t have the same demand.
    I’m sorry, but I really have to wonder who pays you to make these statements… or who do you want to pay you?

  5. Buffy, thanks for commenting. The ‘study’ you mention was not a peer-reviewed study but instead something I like to call “Science By Press Release.” I took a look at it a couple weeks ago, and noted that it gave very little information about where the data was collected, no actual data, no references, only conclusions. It was done by an anti-GE organization, Navdanya. Also note: the tables and figures in this ‘study’ start at Table 5, and Figure 6. Very strange, indeed. Also strange that they said absolutely nothing about the statistical methods used – this is crucial information!
    The Navdanya study is not a good source of information for people to make decisions about GE crops. Thank you for reminding me about it, I’ll be writing about it soon.
    Jeffrey Smith cites many studies in his books, but he does not understand the difference between anecdotes, science-by-press-release, and peer-reviewed research. When he does cite peer reviewed research, he often misunderstands the findings of the research. I can’t speak for my co-bloggers on this, but I know I plan to go through his more prominent claims systematically in the future – stick around if you want to read about it. I know that David Tribe (GMO Pundit on the sidebar) has written much about Smith’s claims. Recently, I debunked Smith’s still-repeated claim that Obama promised to label GE foods – he is aware that he is making a false claim, which should show you what kind of scholarship he conducts. I couldn’t say, categorically, that everything he has written is false, but I can say that every claim of his I have looked into has unraveled.
    Biofortified is an independent blog that I host on my own website hosting plan, and none of us are paid to write here. We’re the ones who are into it for the passion of science communication!. The only ‘corporate’ connection you’ll find here is to Bee Lovely! (beeswax candle business also hosted on the same system) http://www.beelovelycandles.com
    By the way, I eat organic produce from a CSA, where I keep my bees.

  6. Hi Buffy
    Thanks for you comments. I realize there is a lot of concern and confusion about what GE vs GMO means. I tried to clarify that on the blog so consumers can begin withe same general info.
    My husband is an organic farmer and I live in a community that has easy access to organic products so am familiar with the concerns. I found in my conversations that most people have very specific and legitimate concerns but they also have a lot of misinformation. I have to say, that I also found Smith’s book quite inaccurate.
    I hope this helps

  7. Karl,
    I’m glad that you support organic farmers and keep bees. Keep up the good work.
    In looking through information about this, I always ask myself what the information gatherer has to gain or lose by putting forth their claims. Jeffrey Smith had a lot to lose and little to gain, except a rather small organization, and a little notoriety for being contrary. What does Vandana Shiva have to gain, aside from the trust of the people of her country, who are clearly suffering from the pressure of companies who persuade them to use their useless products, GMOs and others? Do you think these people just have an axe to grind? Monsanto, on the other hand, has much to lose, millions of dollars and years of research, if public opinion doesn’t continue to swing in their direction. And you, as a student of Genetic Engineering, have your future at stake.
    My question is still, why does the industry and the FDA continue to ignore the public’s requests to be notified of the presence of GMOs in foods? The FDA has admitted that the use of rBGH, for example, DOES reduce the quality of milk, yet they still require dairies who label their milk as rBGH-free to add a disclaimer that there is no difference between milk from cows fed the hormone and those not. This is clearly a violation of the public trust in an organization that should, by its very name, be working to protect the public. Instead, they protect the industry and are apparently willing to sacrifice our health for their own profits.
    I disagree that the backlash against GMO use is unfounded and scientifically unsupported. As a beekeeper, do you really think that Bt-toxin will not adversely effect your bees and your honey? Eventually? Every beekeeper I’ve talked to would disagree. At the very least, their bees are suffering in numbers and health, to a degree they’ve never seen. And some may say, oh it’s the mites. The question is why are the bees suddenly so vulnerable to these mites that have been around a very long time? But, of course, Monsanto will not be funding any studies to answer such questions, because if they did and the results were not to their liking, they’d have to make sure we did not find out about it.
    I’m not opposed to further research on GMOs. But I don’t like the way the research has apparently been handled thus far. It has allowed for the hasty approval of things that should not be on the market. And if you are really in support of that, I wonder why you would bother buying organic. “Organic” and GMO do not mix. And they never will mix, not with the industry’s complete disregard for public concern.

  8. Hi Buffy, I am reposting her to answer your question:
    To Label or Not to Label
    By Pamela Ronald • January 31, 2009 [Edit]
    If GE crops are considered safe by most scientists, why not simply label the produce from these crops and let people decide for themselves? Most people like to know what they are eating and make their own choices.
    I am a label reader. If there is an excess of added sugar or too many ingredients with names that I don’t recognize then I don’t buy the product. Not all information, however, is useful.
    A few months ago our local food coop began posting red “consumer alert” signs that say, “Conventional foods that contain corn, soy, or canola may be genetically engineered.” I find these signs more annoying than helpful. It is a little bit like the warnings posted on science textbooks in some states that say, “This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory which some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants and humans. No one was present when life first appeared on Earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact”.
    Neither statement says anything informative about the state of our food nor the creation of our universe. With no specific hazards associated with GE foods or evolution, how can a consumer use these statements to make a more informed choice about the risk to their health or to their faith in God?
    The National Research Council Committee states that attempts to assess food safety based solely on the process are scientifically unjustified. Rather than adding a general label about the process with which a plant variety was developed, it would make more sense to label food so that consumers are informed about what is actually in or on the food. But this, too, is not necessarily helpful. For some people it may be informative to read a label that says, “may contain traces of carbamate pesticides, which at high concentrations are known to cause death of animals” or “may contain trace amounts of purified Bacillus thuringiensis protein, which kill Leptidoptera (a class of insects).” But is it helpful to most consumers who are not familiar with the science?
    Here is another example. If we carry forward with labeling the product, then organic produce treated with rotenone, a “natural” pesticide favored by some organic farmers, would need to be labeled with the following, “may contain trace amounts of rotenone–chronic exposure can cause damage to liver and kidney” (Occupational Safety and Health Administration 1998). Organic super sweet corn would require this label: “Carries a genetic mutation induced by radiation mutagenesis, resulting in the presence of a mutant protein.” Organically grown papaya would need to be marked: “may contain vast amounts of papaya ringspot viral RNA and protein”.
    These labels are so ominous that it is not likely that many people would feel comfortable eating these organic fruits and vegetables. Still, there is no evidence that any of these food products are hazardous. After all, we have been eating sweet corn and organic papaya safely for years.
    It seems to me that if the labeling statement does not help with safety interventions or inform consumer choice, it does not serve the purpose. It only confuses and unnecessarily alarms people.
    This is a repost from Tomorrow’s Table.

  9. Dear Pamela,
    The problem is that we disagree about whether or not there are valid concerns about eating foods that come from genetic modification. People are calling for labeling of such foods, because there is science out there that does indicate there are potential health problems. The studies I’ve seen that show otherwise seem bogus to me, “peer-reviewed” or not. On one level, the “industry” fights against having these labels, even if the producers choose to use them, and on another, they say it’s not their business, but the FDA’s to protect our health. It appears that neither the “industry” nor the FDA is interested in our health, but in paving the way for profits. From all of this, it seems clear we need a “peer-reviewed” regulatory agency that is not made up of fans of genetic enineering, like yourselves at this website, nor of people who work for the “industry”… in ANY way.

  10. Wouldn’t it be equally unacceptable to have a regulatory agency chosen from people who are specifically ‘not fans’ of genetic engineering? Stacking the deck either way is stacking the deck. Such an agency would need to be staffed with people who have the relevant expertise to evaluate the evidence, and regulatory approval or disapproval would need to be grounded in that evidence. The USDA and the FDA have to be very careful to avoid any tinge of bias – one USDA guy I talked to a month ago said that he can’t even talk to people in the industry.
    Please let us know which studies you have a problem with, perhaps we can discuss them? What science about “potential health problems” are you speaking of?

  11. I wasn’t suggesting an agency made up of people opposed to to genetic engineering, but it seems currently we have just the opposite with the FDA, since it’s their stated intention to promote the GMO industry and they allow industry-funded studies, rather than their own, to determine the safety of genetically engineered food. Here’s a recent link that describes the primary problem with these industry-funded and supported studies, and the reason I think they’re “bogus.”
    Some quotes I found particularly interesting:
    “In Thursday’s New York Times, Andrew Pollack reported on how crop scientists throughout the country have been unable to perform adequate testing and research on biotech crops, because of the strong hand of biotechnology companies. Pollack was likely alerted to the story after a group of 26 corn insect scientists from 16 different states anonymously submitted a statement to the EPA on a docket regarding the evaluation of insect resistance risks with a brand of Pioneer Hi-Bred biotech corn. In their statement the scientists noted that they chose to remain anonymous because ‘virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.'”
    “Remaining anonymous allowed the scientists to fully express their real concern with biotech crop research controlled by the industry through technology and stewardship agreements, required to be signed for the purchase of genetically modified seeds. Such agreements are the same that farmers must sign before purchasing seeds, which prevent them from replanting seeds or thus risk legal action. The scientist coalition noted that such agreements ‘explicitly prohibit research’ and ‘inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry.’ The effects were clearly stated— ‘no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.’ ”
    The scientific community is clearly fearful of losing any future funding or support if their studies conclude that genetically engineered food is unhealthy. That’s why I have a tendency to believe these renegade studies over so-called “peer-reviewed” ones. What would motivate a scientist to try and publish something that could potentially destroy their entire career other than speaking the truth? Are they “mad scientists”? Are they all nature-over-nurture Christians with an axe to grind? Or are they just anti-capitalist? What do you think?

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