A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

At the County Agriculture Agent I work with farmers who are open to using GMO crops and farmers who are opposed to it. I try to be open to all approaches, while promoting good stewardship of the resources that we have. You won’t find me saying that organic is the only way or that all farmers should use pesticides and GMOs. I tend to view these things as tools. Any tool that is used inappropriately will either be broken or will not produce the desired outcome.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. It might sound obvious, but products that are not organisms cannot be genetically modified. I’ve seen ads for salt stating that it is non-GMO. Salt is a mineral and contains no DNA; therefore, it cannot be genetically modified. This branding is often used as an advertising enticement.

Gene modifying technology has come a long way. It used to be done using the particle gun method. Tiny metal particles were coated with desired DNA and blasted at plant pieces, hoping that the genetic modification would take. Methods of genetic engineering now are very specific and only target the desired genes. The naturally found Agrobacterium tumefaciens is the bacteria used to insert genes from one species into another. At times you will now see, the phrase genetically engineered (GE). This often refers to CRISPR. CRISPR is a new technology that can also be used, which edits the genes already existing in the organism. CRISPR can turn on, off, or delete genes.

I would propose that GMOs seem like they are everywhere, but at the same time they aren’t. What I mean by that is that there are 14 species of crops present that are GMO that have received approval for use. Not all of those are still in production. This link has all of the bioengineered foods that are currently approved. (https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/be/bioengineered-foods-list)  I say that it seems like they are everywhere because crops like corn and soybean are almost ubiquitous in the ingredient list when look at products in the grocery store. However, at the same time they aren’t everywhere, because when you walk down the produce aisle it is very unlikely that you would find something that is GMO. Oftentimes advertisers want us to believe that GMOs are everywhere, so that you will buy non-GMO lettuce. The fact of the matter is that GMO lettuce does not exist, and you could not buy it if you wanted. Labeling products as non-GMO also implies that non-GMO is superior, which is an opinion. In the US, GMO crops undergo extensive testing before hitting the market to make sure that they are safe for human consumption. In the US, corn, soybean, and cotton are by far the most common GMO crops.

So, for what traits are GMOs normally modified? Herbicide tolerance is a big one. Herbicide tolerant crops allows farmers to use fewer herbicide applications and use conservation tillage, which captures more carbon in the soil. Insect resistance in crops reduces the amount of insecticides used on a crop such as corn, and improves the quality of the product brought to the market. Disease resistance has been done too. A GMO papaya saved the Hawaiian papaya industry after papayas were nearly wiped out by a virus. Some modifications can make a crop contain more vitamins, or last longer on the shelf, resulting in less waste.

One term that often confuses people is ‘hybrid’. All GMOs would be a hybrid, but not all hybrids are GMO. An example would be Silver king sweet corn. It is a hybrid, but it is not GMO. To create a hybrid, plant breeders cross two different parents. Each parent has desirable traits like flavor or disease resistance. The plant breeder will use conventional breeding methods, that have been used for hundreds of years, to create a hybrid that captures the desirable traits of both parents. The drawback is that any seed produced by that hybrid produces will not be true to type. So, if you are a seed saver, hybrids, are not an option for you.

If you want to grow a GMO crop there is a lot of paperwork that you must sign first. You are not going to accidentally purchase one at box store or nursery. You will likely purchase a hybrid. Hybrids are great for home gardeners because they often have more disease and insect resistance that has naturally been bred into them. GMOs also have a minimum order amount. Usually you need to be planting at least 1 acre of a specific variety to meet the minimum. The companies that create these GMOs spend a fortune on it, so that don’t allow their seed to be out there floating around.

GMO crops have provided benefits, but there are negatives too. There are cases where pests have become resistant to pesticides due to reliance on individual pesticides instead of a rotation. Pesticide resistance means that pests present an even larger problem than they did before. The companies that manufacture these GMO crops have patent rights to the seeds, which means that farmers can’t keep the seed from the crop they grow. Some farmers have gotten in trouble and been taken to court because their neighbor planted GMO and it cross-pollinated with their crop. GMO crops are a tool that farmers can use to feed and clothe the world, but just like any tool, if it’s used improperly it will be broken. Therefore, the responsibility is on people to be good stewards of the resources that we have, to achieve the goal of feeding and clothing the world.

If you have questions about GMOs you can contact your County Extension Office or email me at Jacob.Williams@uga.edu.

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