The world of biotechnology moves fast. New techniques give rise to new products, many of which are entering the market untested and virtually unregulated.
Where there are new products, there is also new language.
During the last few years, we've seen industry and government bodies adopting new terms that create distance between genetically engineering and the GMOs that many consumers reject. New products enter the marketplace adorned with marketing terms that make it difficult for the average shopper to tell which products were made with GMOs.
Make no mistake — GMOs made through new techniques are still GMOs, regardless of what the industry calls them. The Non-GMO Project believes you have the right to choose whether or not to consume GMOs no matter what they're called.
Here are some common terms that might accompany GMO products, ingredients and derivatives.
Bioengineered — The term "bioengineered" has grown in prominence under the USDA's Bioengineered Foods labeling law, the NBFDS. The USDA defines bioengineered foods as "foods that contain detectable modified genetic material." The definition is important because it underscores what gets left out under the Bioengineered Foods labeling law. By placing emphasis on the presence of detectable modified DNA, not on whether genetic engineering was used to produce a product or ingredient, the labeling law excludes many products made with GMOs. For example, highly refined products such as sugar sourced from GMO sugar beets or canola oil made from GMO canola are both made from GMO crops. However, the processing they undergo removes modified DNA from the final product, so neither would be considered a bioengineered food under the USDA's definition.
Cell-cultivated (cell-cultured, clean meat) — Cell-cultivated meat is animal meat generated directly from cultivated animal cells and grown in a bioreactor rather than on an animal. Since its inception, cell-cultivated meat has gone by other names, including "cultured meat" or "clean meat." In 2023, the U.S. became the second country in the world to approve cell-cultivated meat for human consumption. However, cell-cultivated meat has very limited availability at this time. You can learn more about cell-cultivated meat in our New GMO Alert: The Downside of Upside Foods.
Gene editing or genome editing — Gene editing is a newer genetic modification technique in which genetic material is added, removed or altered at particular locations in the genome. CRISPR is the best-known form of gene editing, and is frequently used in synbio techniques (see synthetic biology below). You can find out more about gene-edited products on the market here and gene-edited microbes on farmland here.
Molecular farming — Molecular farming involves genetically engineering plants so they create novel proteins and compounds. For example, researchers have developed a soybean plant that produces pig proteins, branded Piggy Sooy. You can find out more about Piggy Sooy here.
Synthetic biology (synbio, precision fermentation) — Synthetic biology is a broad term that describes the redesigning of existing natural biological systems. At this time, we're seeing a lot of synbio in the food system that the industry refers to as "precision fermentation." Precision fermentation is a type of synthetic biology that uses genetically modified microorganisms (yeast, algae or bacteria) to produce novel compounds through fermentation. Precision fermentation is being used to produce dairy proteins, ingredients for personal care products, synthetic palm oil, and more.
Our New GMO Alert newsletter is an excellent resource for finding out about the new products, terms and techniques that are impacting the food and personal care industries. You can sign up to receive the newsletter here by selecting "GMO News and Updates," or search archived editions here.