If you read last week’s blog, you know that there is some ill-intentioned disagreement about what counts as a GMO. Consumers overwhelmingly rejected the first wave of GMOs, so biotech companies are mounting campaigns to convince the public that new GMOs aren’t actually GMOs. Meanwhile, these companies are also working hard to mix up biotechnology and traditional crop breeding in the public eye. This leads people to ask us questions such as: "Aren't all living things GMOs because all species have undergone genetic changes over time?" The answer, of course, is no! Let's talk about traditional plant breeding and how it is different from biotechnology and GMOs.
What is a GMO? What Isn’t?
A GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination.
This definition clearly does not apply to crops that have changed over time through natural selection. It also does not apply to crops that humans have been breeding since the dawn of agriculture using traditional farming practices (e.g., traditional crossbreeding). Trying to say that everything is a GMO is reductive and misleading. Moreover, it’s an intentional distraction from the real issues at hand.
Traditional crossbreeding methods are distinctly different from GMOs. These techniques rely on multiplication and natural recombination—not gene editing, biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or in vitro nucleic acid techniques. Traditional breeding methods occur in vivo; they happen to the whole organism rather than just to its nucleic acids. At the most basic level, these techniques all involve selecting for favorable traits based on observable characteristics or traits (i.e., phenotype-based selection). This is what Gregor Mendel accomplished with his pea plants a century before the first GMO was invented.
Breeding techniques don't have to be low-tech in order to be non-GMO.
There are plenty of ways to improve crops through technology that do not involve genetic engineering. Marker-assisted selection (MAS) is a great example of this. MAS allows plant breeders to learn useful genetic information about crops when they are trying to select for favorable traits. It shifts the process of plant breeding from phenotype-based selection to genotype-based section (i.e., selection based on genetic information). MAS uses molecular tools to speed up the traditional breeding process by allowing breeders to more quickly identify traits at the genetic level. This information can then be used to breed plants using other traditional, non-GMO methods. These crops do not undergo in vitro techniques, and modern biotechnology is not applied to them. They aren’t GMOs!
All of these different ways to grow crops can be confusing, but the Non-GMO Project is here to help. We sort through crop breeding technologies so you don’t have to—all you need to do is Look for the Butterfly to know you are choosing products made without GMOs.