GMOs – A Refresher

Oct 26, 2016 | Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:

GMOs are under attack. Intensive lobbying in D.C., social media, and non-GMO initiatives, may misled consumers. But, you probably don’t have the full story. This 3-minute read will tell you what you need to know about GMOs.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team takes a very active interest in technological developments in agriculture. We read the peer-reviewed studies and review all political considerations surrounding contentious topic in order to share all relevant information with our readers. (We have previously discussed the different types of GMOs, explained the big picture in Understanding GMOs” and weighed in on the current debate over GMO labeling.) Given our research, we feel strongly that genetically modified organisms are misunderstood.

Here are the facts:

GMO science is no different from traditional plant breeding methods. To create a genetically modified organism, scientists take a gene from one organism and use it to specifically change one genetic component, not several. GMO technology just enables the plants to get to the finish line faster. Where it gets a bit complicated is when the technology is used to create both simple and complex organisms. Simple GMOs are considered single trait organisms, while other GMOs are stacked, meaning they contain three or four traits.

Not all GMOs are the same. While most are to reduce pesticide and herbicide use, some are created to enhance the crop, while others are to help the crop survive under inclement circumstances (i.e. drought resistance).

Food ingredients can originate from a GMO crop – but the final product or ingredient won’t have the GMO DNA or proteins in them. How is this possible? Because the original crop has been modified or processed into a new product and doesn’t contain any of the modified DNA. Let’s take sugar for example. Sugar, or sucrose molecules, are not modified— there is literally no such thing as a genetically modified sugar molecule. And yet you see many anti-GMO organizations protesting “GMO sugar.”

source: genetic literacy project

Sugar can come from either sugar beets or sugar cane. Genetically modified sugar beets are herbicide tolerant. However, the sucrose in sugar beets, which is isolated to create sugar, contains no DNA. It is eliminated during the refining process. That means it is impossible to distinguish sugar that came from GM sugar beets from organic sugar beets from sugar cane. 

Additionally, in the case of genetically modified corn, the GMO gene cannot be found in any of the modified starches or sweeteners. For instance, high fructose corn syrup does not contain genetically modified DNA or proteins. So, while the corn seed used to create the syrup may have originated from genetically modified seeds, the syrup does not contain any GM material. When you see “anti-GMO” organizations threatening against the use of GMO sugar they are misleading. 

“Non-GMO” labeling is being used as a marketing tool. Today, produce purchases are on the decline because of GMO fear. The reality is that most produce is not genetically modified, and yet every label includes a “verified non GMO” tag. This is an inaccurate representation.

source: Whole Foods

The two largest genetically engineered crops in the United States are corn and soybean. The majority of these crops are produced to feed cattle, dairy cows, chickens, and hogs.

There are a few produce exceptions that are available today AND completely safe for consumption. Arctic apples are genetically modified to have less bruising and little browning. Cornell University and the University of Hawaii have developed a ringspot virus-resistant papaya. GE papayas allow for less crop loss, resulting in better yield for acre for farmers. Furthermore, the limited number of genetically engineered produce doesn’t mean genetically modified produce is bad for you. Remember: genetically modified organisms are so frequently tested to ensure no harm. 

The safety of GE crops for human health is not in doubt. A 2013 paper by independent researchers noted that 1,783 studies, including many that had been publicly funded, on safety and health issues related to GE crops over the prior 10 years. confirmed the consensus in support of the safety of those crops. A 2011 summary report by the European Commission covering a a decade of publicly funded research, 130 research projects, and 500 research groups similarly concluded that there is no scientific evidence of higher risks of GE crops for food and feed safety, or to the environment. (Source: Sugar Industry Biotech Council)

The Bottom Line:

GMO technology is no different from traditional plant breeding methods. U.S. regulatory agencies have ensured that GMOs are the most heavily tested food on the planet and safe for consumption. You have nothing to be afraid of! 


Grossman, Elizabeth. “Congress Passed a New GMO Labeling Bill. How Will It Work? | Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 21 July 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Johnson, David, and Siobhan O’Connor. “These Charts Show Every Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the U.S.” Time. Time Magazine, 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

Larson, Rebecca. “Myth Busting: There Is No Such Thing as GMO Sugar | Genetic Literacy Project.” Genetic Literacy Project. N.p., 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

“U.S. Beet Sugar Industry: National Research Council Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops.” Sugar Industry Biotech Council, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.