Different Kinds of GMOs

Jan 26, 2016 | Global Food and You, Sustainable Agriculture |

The Dirt:

GMOs have a bad reputation. No doubt they are complicated and hard to understand, but keep reading to learn how the different types of GMOs have allowed farmers to use fewer chemicals and less water. GMOs also have the potential to add nutritional content to food.

In case you don’t know what a GMO is, it stands for genetically modified organism.
And don’t feel bad, you are not alone:

GMOs are an important component in today’s farming and food supply, and yet they are constantly under scrutiny and most often rejected by uninformed consumers. GMOs are being “blacklisted” based on unsubstantiated claims that they will cause allergic or toxic reactions to humans, and possibly even cancer. In addition, people think they hurt the environment by contaminating the soil, causing unruly crop mutations and decreasing our water supply. However GMOs are a solution to sustainable farming.

Plant breeding dates back centuries.

Dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece, creative civilizations have relied on the most advanced farming practices to survive. The objective has always been to create a plant that grows faster, is resilient to insect and climate stress, and has the greatest possible yield. The United States is indebted to the Aztecs, who were ingenious enough to take corn from a tiny plant that was barely edible and, over generations, crossbreed it into a nutritious food option. Through selective and repetitive cross breeding, with either the same or different species, we can move desirable genes together to create new, improved varieties of food. Keep in mind, organizing selective and favorable genes through cross breeding is a lot of work and takes a species generations to reach the desired genetic outcome.

Plant breeding has never been 100% ‘natural’.

Genetic transformation began in 1860 with Gregor Mendel, the “Father of Genetics.”  Looking for activities in St. Thomas’ Abbey, he experimented with pea plants and documented the benefits of cross breeding recessive and dominant genes. Let’s then fast forward to Norman Borlaug, who created the Green Revolution by breeding North American wheat with drought tolerant and higher yield tropical varieties from Mexico. Because of this invention, farmers in India and Pakistan nearly doubled their yields, saving millions of lives from starvation! While pea and wheat genetic modification are great examples, even different species have merged to create a new strain of plant. The canola oil we use today came from a marriage of cabbage and turnips about 2000 years ago!

Norman Borlaug in 1964, scoring wheat plants for rust resistance in wheat breeding plots near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, at what is now CIMMYT’s CENEB station (Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug, or The Norman E. Borlaug Experiment Station).

Genetically modified organisms have gotten a bad reputation because they are gene specific. Rather than breeding an entire plant with another entire plant – and waiting for it to grow, GMO scientists change the actual gene of a specific plant by inserting a desired trait.

GMOs use fewer chemicals and less water.

These are GMOs with ‘input traits’. Around the world, farmers use an incredible amount of chemicals to get rid of pesky insects and weeds. Without crop protection, a farmer can lose 30-40% of his crop due to pests and diseases. GMOs allow farmers to use less chemicals thus protecting their soil, the water surrounding their fields, and ultimately themselves.

Source: B.J. Murphy

Bt Corn – insect resistance

Bt corn is a great example of an insect resistant plant. A corn farmer’s enemy is known as the European corn borer. This pesky worm will crawl up a corn stalk and eat its leaves, quickly decimating a crop. The only antidote to the worm is a microorganism from the earth called Bacillus thuringiensis, or “Bt”. Monsanto, a sustainable agricultural company, figured out how to isolate the Bt gene— which is toxic only to worms—from the Bt microorganism and insert it into the corn’s genetic code. Here, the University of Nebraska will show you how Bt corn is made.

When the European corn borer takes a bite of the genetically modified corn stalk, it dies. Traditionally, a farmer would need to spray a Bt insecticide onto his crop to kill the corn borer. Now, the chemical spray is no longer needed to protect corn crops. Voila! A corn crop that requires less insecticide!
In this case, the genetically modified aspect of the corn plant is the inclusion of “Bt” and if you are worried about eating Bt—well it’s only toxic to worms! And we should also note that by the time you cook the corn, there is a very minimal Bt component in the kernels as most is used in the stalks and leaves.

Roundup Ready® Soybeans

soybean field
Roundup Ready® Soybeans are another example of a successful, chemical-reducing GMO. Throughout the soybean growing season, herbicides are relied on for killing weeds that grow around and damage the soy crop. The Roundup Ready® herbicide includes an ingredient called glyphosate which prevents the functioning of an enzyme required for the growth and development of most plants.

Spraying glyphosate can affect the productivity of non-GMO plants, but, when a farmer sprays a genetically modified soybean crop with with glyphosate, the weeds die and the soybeans flourish.

Roundup ready soybeans are better for the environment because they require less herbicide and facilitate the use of reduced tillage or no-till farming. The creation of genetically modified soybeans has enabled 97% of American soybean farmers to use less chemicals in their farming practices!

Herbicide resistance.

As you can probably tell from all this herbicide talk— weeds are a major problem for the average farmer.  Herbicide resistance has been a problem in modern agriculture as plants can mutate to protect themselves from the pesticides used by farmers. This weed mutation is not a result of GMOs. Herbicide resistance is typically an issue farmers face when the same herbicide is used repeatedly, inevitably creating resistance.

To combat the growth of these “superweeds”, companies such as BASF, Dow Agrosciences, DuPont Crop Protection, and Monsanto have collaborated to create an Herbicide Resistance Action Committee, which helps farmers manage the potential for resistant weeds in their fields. These companies are working to create a better future for farmers by creating more genetically modified crops, similar to the Roundup Ready® Soybean, which will require fewer pesticides and eliminate the threat of a superweed.

Wild plant relatives?

Another big “GMO fear” is that a genetically modified crop could eventually cause a mutation and create a “wild plant relative”. Researchers have been testing whether or not genetic variations can mutate into a new plant gene. Scientists know that mutations are very rare and occur in only one in a thousand cycles of reproduction. If the trait is dominant, mutations may occur at random. So, if you’re asking yourself if we should be worried that GMOs cause weed mutations, just know these mutations are natural and also occur in traditional crossbreeding.

GMO crops can help conserve water.

Source: Genuity.com

Consider this: 70% of global water usage is for agriculture

Saving water benefits us all. Genetically modified corn shares the same health benefits as organic corn, but GMO corn can be grown in places organic corn cannot. Companies such as DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, and Syngenta have all created beneficial, FDA-approved genetically modified crops. According to Syngenta, Agrisure Artesian hybrids ”maximize yield when it rains and increase yield up to 15% when it doesn’t.”
How is this possible? Several genetic changes more efficiently regulate the water flow inside the plant as well as enhance kernel development—regardless of water. Unlike most genetically modified organisms, drought resistant crops have not encountered any criticism. The benefits are tremendous not only for California, but for Egypt and Africa as well.

GMOs can add nutritional content to food.

Golden Rice
Millions of people can be saved from starvation and nutritional deficiencies with the use of GMO crops.

Golden Rice is the most well-known and nutritious genetically modified crop. The sad reality is a lack of vitamin A kills over 500,000 children under five years old each year and caused night blindness in millions of women and children. GMO scientists found that by adding beta-carotene to rice, night blindness can be prevented. With this discovery, farmers began growing genetically rice in the Philippines in 2014.

The benefits of adding more nutritional value to plants, vegetables, and fruits are incredible and revolutionary. Yes, genetically modified foods should only come to market after thorough testing, but the possibilities are limitless for health, food processing, and water conservation.

Some additional possibilities of GMO crops:

  • Reduce saturated fatty acid content of “heart-healthy” oils.
  • Reduce the risk of type II diabetes by removing sugar.
  • Reduce alpha-linoleic acid for improved stability in food processing.
  • Introduce various omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for healthier grains.
  • Add vaccines, hormones, and other disease prevention vehicles to certain foods.

What about GMOs in the grocery aisle?

Only a few GMO crops in the grocery store are available as whole produce: sweet corn, summer squash, papayas, potatoes and apples. Ingredients derived from genetically modified corn, soy, sugar beets and canola are used in a wide variety of foods including cereal, corn chips, veggie burgers and more.

However, it is important to remember that genetically modified crops are nutritionally equivalent to non-genetically modified foods, unless the nutritional content has been intentionally changed, like in high oleic soybeans. If a crop has been nutritionally enhanced, that specific characteristic will be highlighted on the product label. And the health and safety consensus of GMOs is firmly established by scientific authorities around the world. (GMO Answers)

The U.S Department of Agriculture, (USDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all are responsible for regulating and ensuring proper testing before any GMO comes to market. They are tested for allergies, toxicity, and the impact on the environment. In addition to the approval from these three government organizations, the following groups have all endorsed the use of GMOs: CODEX, an organization located in Rome that sets international food standards, the National Academy of Sciences, American Dietetic Association, World Health Organization (WHO), The Institute of Food Technology, and the American Medical Association.

Any genetically modified product that has made its way to your grocery store aisle has been thoroughly tested and regulated to ensure you are not putting yourself at risk. In fact, genetically modified foods are the most tested and regulated food in the world!

The Bottom Line:

The food label “GMO free” is used as more of a marketing ploy than a health, environmental, or safety conscious label. Genetically modified organisms are FDA approved and the most heavily tested foods in the world. In addition to helping farmers reduce pesticides, conserve water, and adding nutritional benefits to food, GMOs are a solution to sustainable farming.


“Drought Tolerant Corn Hybrids.” Agronomic Crop Network. Ohio State University, July 2013. Web.

“EPA’s Regulation of Biotechnology for Use in Pest Management.” EPA. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. <http://www.epa.gov/regulation-biotechnology-under-tsca-and-fifra/epas-regulation-biotechnology-use-pest-management>.

“Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2014.” International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

“U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Food from Genetically Engineered Plants. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Shama, Leslie, and Robert Peterson. “UNL’s AgBiosafety for Educators.” UNL’s AgBiosafety for Educators. University of Nebraska, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2016. <http://agbiosafety.unl.edu/environment.shtml>.

Qaim, Martin: Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development, New York City, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016. Print