Tasty or Toxic? GMOs at Your Table, Part I

Frankenfood. Food for the future. California Proposition 37. If you’re wondering what these terms have in common, they’re all related to genetically modified organisms, better known as “GMOs,” and a form of biotechnology. Confused by A, B, C, or all of the above? You’re not alone. GMOs are a mouthful—and that’s before you take the first bite into the riot of resources promoting GMOs’ pros or cons. Keep reading if you’re hungry for more than just superficial sound bites about GMOs.

GMOs are ________?

Unless you eat only organic foods, or produce of which there are no genetically engineered varieties, you’re consuming GMOs every day—so the topic is worth a little research. According to the Grocery Manufacturing Association,[1] 70% of processed foods in the United States contain some genetically modified ingredient, often corn, canola or soy. But “What is a GMO?” and “What is genetically engineered food?” are not responses to a “Jeopardy” quiz—they’re key to the debate.[2] The answer depends on whom you ask, but be forewarned: an unbiased definition is hard to find.

If you have an inquiring mind and a working Internet connection, perhaps you’ve looked for a definition of GMOs in that popular guide to life: Wikipedia. You might have read the following: “A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.”[3]

Wikipedia’s definition was as clear as (non-GM) mud to me. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, each explanatory word on my computer screen gave me more terms to look up—but that’s because I was looking for an unbiased definition I could understand. Perhaps I was asking for too much, but I persisted. In my quest for clarity about GMOs, I found that the terms surrounding organisms—including plants, microbes and animals—that have had their genes altered can also be bewildering for a person looking for a Twitter-esque definition. We’ll look at how such phrases are connected. But first, a few definitions of GMOs are in order.


After Wikipedia’s less-than-complete definition, I went back to the other Old Faithful of the Internet: Google. Here’s a comparison of the types of definitions I found:

Pro-GMO: Biotechnology Industry Organization (GMOs are a form of biotechnology)

“At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology – biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet.”[4]

Anti-GMO: Say No to GMOs!

“Genetic engineering is a radical new technology that forces genetic information across the protective species barrier in an unnatural way.”

I wondered if the two organizations were defining the same thing, and turned to a highly regarded, nationally recognized source:

University of California, Davis

“Genetically engineered (GE) food is produced from plants, animals, and microbes that have had their genetic code modified by the selective introduction of specific DNA segments through the use of gene splicing….Food produced through genetic engineering or containing genetically engineered ingredients are also frequently known as bioengineered or genetically modified (GM) foods.”[5]

GMOs as defined by UC Davis offers us a clearer understanding of what a GMO is—without too much inflammatory rhetoric. However, opportunities to learn never end, and new, GMO-related terms await definition. Here’s a look at a few of them, which you might want to refer back to for Part II of this series. You may even recognize some from your biology or other science classes.

Biotechnology: “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.”[6]

Genetic engineering: “the deliberate, controlled manipulation of the genes in an organism with the intent of making that organism better in some way. This is usually done independently of the natural reproductive process. The result is a so-called genetically modified organism (GMO).”[7]

Gene: “a portion of a chromosome (DNA) that contains the hereditary information necessary for the production of a protein.”[8]

DNA: with its full name deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA “is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms.”[9]

Transgenic: “A transgenic crop plant contains a gene or genes which have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring them through pollination. The inserted gene sequence (known as the transgene) may come from another unrelated plant, or from a completely different species.”[10]

Allergen: “a substance such as a protein that induces an allergic reaction.”[11]

Curious about the “how” of genetic modification? Visit the website of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, and you’ll find this very helpful article about how genetically modified crops are created. It’s simple enough for a nonscientist to understand, with a bit of concentration, and also more thorough than most widely available resources. But this article isn’t a lesson on how to effectively google words. It’s about the effects of GMOs on your health, our environment, and the future of food.

*Note: Part I and Part II  mainly focus on GM food, reserving a discussion of other GM organisms, such as animals, for a future article. The terms “GMO,” “genetically modified,” and “genetically engineered” refer to the technologies and the resulting organisms “that have had their genetic code modified by the selective introduction of specific DNA segments through the use of gene splicing.”

With news headlines like “Could GM foods be responsible for record low birth rate in the US?” “Is Genetically Modified Food Killing Us?” “GMO scare is a lot of hype with little substance” and “Research shows GMO foods are safe,” GMOs can seem harmless, hazardous or just confusing. Consider reading further, because in Part II we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of GMOs. Disclaimer: if you simply prefer to believe that GMOs are “bad” or “good,” I suggest visiting the websites supporting or opposing GMOs, such as Natural News.com or the Council for Biotechnology Information, respectively.

You might wonder about why GMOs are worth two articles when they seem to encompass just one subject. However, GMOs are a topic with a lot of controversy because they involve more than what we eat. Questions about ethics, how we care for the environment (if we do), and yes, health, are all involved in a thorough discussion of GMOs. Rather than declare GMOs to be safe or unsafe—even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies them as “generally regarded as safe” (emphasis mine)— Life and Health Network offers a more comprehensive, yet comprehensible, look at GMOs. As you form an opinion about GMOs, consider the requirements for an informed decision: information from both sides.

But wait! This isn’t the end. Be sure to continue to Part II of this article.


[1] As cited in Forbes, by Rachel Hennessey, “GMO Food Debate In The National Spotlight,” Forbes, Nov. 3, 2012.

[2] For the purposes of clarity, GMOs,” “genetically modified,” and “genetically engineered” will refer to the technologies and the resulting organisms “that have had their genetic code modified by the selective introduction of specific DNA segments through the use of gene splicing.” See Carl K. Winter and Lisa K. Gallegos, “Safety of Genetically Engineered Food.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GMOs. I violate best practices rules about citing Wikipedia to demonstrate the topic’s complexity, especially for the average consumer with a nonscientific background.

[4] “What is Biotechnology?” Biotechnology Industry Organization.

[5] Carl K. Winter and Lisa K. Gallegos, “Safety of Genetically Engineered Food.”

[6] “Text of the CBD,” Article 2. “Use of Terms,” Convention on Biological Diversity, De. 29, 1993.

[7] “Genetic Engineering,” WhatIs.com, May 2007.

[8] Deborah Whitman, as qtd. in “Glossary,” from “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA Discovery Guides, April 2000.

[9] “What is DNA?” Genetics Home Reference, Nov. 25, 2012.

[10] “What are Transgenic Plants?” Transgenic Crops: An Introduction and Resource Guide, March 11, 2004.

[11] Deborah Whitman, as qtd. in “Glossary,” from “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” CSA Discovery Guides, April 2000.

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Midori Yoshimura

Contributing writer, freelance copyeditor, and avid walker

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