5 Things You Should Know About the GMOs You're (Probably) Eating

Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs show up in much of what we eat. What should the public know about them?

1. What does the term GMO mean?

As defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, GMOs are "organisms whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favour the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products." More colloquially, the term "GMO" is used to describe agricultural products whose genomes have been intentionally altered, usually with an eventual purpose in agriculture or for consumption. GMOs are also sometimes called "genetically engineered" or just "genetically modified.".

2. What is their history?

As our understanding of DNA, the genome, and the effects of genes expanded in the 1980s, the field of synthetic biology was born. Technological capabilities progressed as well, giving scientists the ability to selectively identify, modify, and transfer genes governing different physical properties of living organisms. There was some worry that the immediate next step would be manufacture of synthetic humans, but ethical dilemmas notwithstanding, the human genome is very complex and difficult to manipulate. The majority of practical synthetic biology research has centered on agricultural products — bigger tomatoes, spinach that resists the first freeze, and so on.

3. Where are they legal?

It is interesting to note the stark legal and cultural differences that can exist on the topic of GMOs, particularly between the United States and Europe. In the United States there are very few restrictions on GMOs. Additionally, very little labeling is required to inform the consumer that they are eating a GMO product. In many EU and European nations, in contrast, GMOs are strictly regulated or banned altogether. This is often a cultural issue, and one of public sentiment — a 2010 poll showed that 95% of Europeans believe that "GMOs are potentially unsafe and lacking in real benefit."

4. What's all the controversy?

There is very little conclusive research proving any adverse health effects from the consumption of GMOs. Although some studies have show detrimental effects in animal models, it is too early to extend much of this research to humans.

Nevertheless, in the United States, there has been a push to require more stringent labeling of GMO products in stores, with growing numbers of consumers and advocate groups pushing for the consumer's "right to know." A recently proposed labeling law was narrowly defeated in California, and in late March President Obama signed into law the Monsanto Protection Act, which exempts mega-manufacturer Monsanto from liability for many potential legal claims related to their GM products. Many allege that the lack of GMO regulation in the United States is simply the result of millions of dollars worth of lobbying from Big Ag. A federal food-labeling bill has been introduced in the Senate to promising bipartisan support, but it remains to be seen whether the balance between public outcry and lobbying power will tip in favor of its passage.

5. How do you solve a problem like GMOs?

A smaller but growing group of opponents to GMOs argue from the point of view of the growing local/organic/natural food movement. The health, environmental, and other risks posed by GMOs prove that we should be fine with what Mother Nature gave us, even if it means smaller tomatoes or corn susceptible to disease.

Certainly we have seen some benefits from GMOs, from increased crop yields to potential applications in health and development. GMOs also seem to be firmly entrenched as a part of our 21st-century reality. While we might increase regulations or require labeling, GMOs are here to stay.

So, as a society, what do we think are the best, most balanced applications for GMOs? How will we reconcile the economic, social, and other costs and benefits of this technology?