At the Non-GMO Project, part of our goal is to help people better understand the GMO issue so they can make the best decisions for themselves. Through articles like this one, as well as infographics and videos, we educate the public about GMOs and where they might appear. That work often involves combatting common misconceptions.
Here's an example: One common misconception is that GMOs are necessary to feed a growing population. Contrary to biotechnology industry promises, a careful analysis of GMOs finds that they have not meaningfully increased crop yields or reduced global hunger. Or the misconception that new GMOs made with emerging techniques such as gene editing are not GMOs. Common gene editing techniques meet the definition of GMOs.
Under the Non-GMO Project Standard*, a GMO is a living organism to which biotechnology has been applied. We define biotechnology as in vitro nucleic acid techniques — the alteration of genetic material in a petri dish or test tube ("in vitro" means "in glass") — or combining genetic material from different organisms beyond natural reproductive barriers in ways that aren't used in traditional breeding. (You can find more information about what makes a GMO a GMO in our recent article, What Is a GMO?)
How do those misconceptions measure up against our definition of a GMO? In other words, what's not a GMO?
Traditional cross-breeding ≠ GMOs
Here's one myth we'd love to dismantle entirely and forever: The idea that after thousands of years of selective breeding by skilled farmers and indigenous experts, all our modern food crops are genetically modified. In other words, if human hands have played a role in changing an organism, that organism is a GMO.
This idea is categorically false.
GMOs aren't just the end product of change guided by human hands. GMOs are the result of biotechnology, and biotechnology consists of manipulating the genetic material of an organism in glass petri dishes or test tubes (in vitro) or combining genetic material from different organisms in ways that overcome natural reproductive barriers.
How does the claim that "all crops have undergone changes directed by human breeders, so they're all GMOs" measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:
- Are new traits the result of in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the organism's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No.
- Do the new crops combine genetic material from different organisms using techniques different from those used in traditional breeding and selection? No.
Zero out of 2 criteria were met, meaning modern crops are not all GMOs just because humans selectively bred them.
For our next question: What about the mutants?
Mutants and watermelons
It's summertime. As the temperature rises, grocery stores offer big bins of heavy, sweet watermelons, with or without seeds. We frequently hear from people wondering if those seedless varieties are GMOs, and we're happy to set the record straight.
The short answer is no, seedless watermelons are not GMOs. The slightly longer answer is that seedless watermelons aren't GMOs because the process by which they are produced doesn't meet the Non-GMO Project's Standard's criteria for biotechnology.
Seedless watermelons are created through a process called "random mutagenesis." A young watermelon plant is exposed to a chemical compound to induce a genetic mutation in the plant. The mutation causes the plant to develop double the usual number of chromosomes. That plant is then cross-bred with a regular watermelon plant, resulting in a seedless melon. (You can find more information about mutagenesis in our article, Does Mutation Breeding Produce GMOs?)
How does that process of creating a seedless watermelon measure up against the definition of GMOs? Let's see:
- Were the changes made using in vitro nucleic acid techniques (altering the crop's DNA in a glass petri dish or test tube)? No, random mutagenesis is not an in vitro nucleic acid technique.
- Do seedless watermelons combine genetic material from different organisms overcoming natural reproductive barriers? No, the cross-breeding part of the process is between a watermelon and another watermelon.
Again, 0/2 criteria are met. Seedless watermelons are not GMOs.
For more examples of mistaken identity, read Exposing GMOs: Are You Being Fooled By Imposters?
If you have questions about a specific product or crop and want to know if it's a GMO, contact us at email@example.com. We're happy to walk you through the definition and see how a suspected GMO measures up.
*The Non-GMO Project Standard's definitions of GMOs and biotechnology are adapted from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international treaty designed to protect biodiversity from potential risks of GMOs. It is consistent with definitions used by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union's GMO Legislation. By adhering to international standards for clarity and consistency/specificity, the Non-GMO Project upholds the highest standards for rigor, transparency and subject matter expertise.