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What Do You Need to Know About GMOs?

Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has been a leader in raising awareness of GMOs in the food supply. It's an […]

What Do You Need to Know About GMOs?

Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has been a leader in raising awareness of GMOs in the food supply. It's an […]

Since 2007, the Non-GMO Project has been a leader in raising awareness of GMOs in the food supply. It's an issue that impacts every single one of us, at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today, an estimated 96%1 of Americans are familiar with the GMO issue. 

However, our work isn't done. The bioengineering landscape continues to evolve alongside a barrage of industry messages about novel food ingredients. New terms, new techniques, and misguided or misleading information add to the confusion. 

Having the basics at your fingertips is essential for making the right decision for yourself and your family about whether or not to consume GMOs. So let's get down to it: How are GMOs created? What are "new GMOs" and how does the changing landscape of biotechnology impact your food supply?

What are GMOs?

A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a living thing whose genetic makeup has been altered using biotechnology. Biotechnology includes techniques such as using synthetic genetic sequences to change the organism's genetic material (i.e., DNA or RNA), or forcing the combination of very unrelated organisms that would not normally reproduce in nature. Manipulating a living organism's genetic material can change its fundamental characteristics and may result in gene sequences never before seen in nature.

Some biotechnology techniques force the combination of organisms that are not reproductively compatible by inserting foreign DNA into a target organism. The result is called a "transgenic GMO." The most common example of a transgenic GMO is a soybean plant with bacterial genes that make the plant immune to certain weedkillers. Other transgenic GMOs include genetically engineered corn, canola, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, pineapple and papaya.

Transgenic GMOs represented only a handful of crops, but they've had a massive impact on North American acreage and the food supply. Today, most conventional prepared foods in the grocery store contain ingredients and inputs derived from GMOs. Meanwhile, a new generation of GMOs made from emerging techniques is proliferating in the supply chain. 

What are "new" GMOs?

New GMOs, also known as "NGTs," are made from emerging technologies such as gene editing. They have crucial differences when compared with traditional, transgenic GMOs  — we'll unpack those below. However, new GMOs are still made using biotechnology, and that means they are GMOs under the Non-GMO Project's definition and under existing international standards.

So, new GMOs and transgenic GMOs are both created using biotechnology. There are also important differences between them, including the following:

  • New genetic engineering techniques don't necessarily use foreign DNA to modify an organism. This can impact whether or not their production has government oversight or whether the products must be labeled as a GMO.
  • Some new GMOs that use foreign DNA are made into highly processed ingredients, so the modified genetic material is removed from the final product. Again, this often results in the product not being labeled as a GMO.
  • Some new techniques are cheaper and more accessible than transgenic technology. We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of biotech developers exploring the field.

Because of these differences, products made with new genetic engineering techniques largely side-step regulations and labeling requirements designed for transgenic GMOs, meaning new GMOs are increasingly entering the food supply unlabeled and unregulated.

New GMO techniques involve altering an organism's genetic material by adding, removing or cutting DNA or interfering with gene expression. While new techniques have been heralded as precise tools with which to modify an organism's genome, significant uncertainties remain. Genes are incredibly complex, powerful and delicate things; unintended outcomes and off-target effects are common in biotechnology.

Do GMOs feed the world?

We've mentioned that most processed, conventional food in grocery stores is made using GMOs. Because GMOs are so prevalent in the food system, many people are surprised to learn that most GMOs aren't used to feed people. 

GMO crops such as corn, soy, cotton and alfalfa are grown on more than 200 million acres in the U.S. alone. More than half of the crops grown on that land end up in animal feed. Another 40 million acres-worth goes toward biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. The fraction that goes toward human consumption shows up as highly-processed, low-nutrient additives. 

GMOs are in our food, but they don't feed us and they certainly don't nourish us. In fact, most people on Earth, around 70%, rely on the expertise of small-scale farmers who operate outside of the industrial agriculture system favored in North America. 

GMOs are an effective tool to increase the profit margin of massive agrochemical corporations. GMO crops and their growing systems often require excessive chemical inputs to ensure production, and the costs associated with growing GMOs can push farmers into debt. The vast monocultures where GMO flourish invite disease, pest infestations, and soil degradation for which the agrichemical industry offers even more accompanying chemical or fertilizer “solutions” (for a price). 

Every day, we all make choices about the kind of food system we want to create and leave for future generations. The Non-GMO Project protects your right to choose non-GMO at every meal.

Note: This post was originally published on October 6, 2023 and since has been updated to reflect the latest data.

1 Organic & Natural 2022, ©2022 The Hartman Group, Inc.

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