Many buzzwords fly around in the food industry, sometimes without clear definitions. After glazing over a few acronyms, the average consumer can move on feeling overwhelmed instead of educated. Food Dictionary 101 is a new series to help demystify some of the common terms that you often hear, and help give some context to their meanings. First up: GMOs.


Definition: GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms. A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

History: GMOs have a history dating back to the 1900s when European plant scientists began using Gregor Mendel's genetic theory called "classic selection" to manipulate plant species. It wasn't until 1987 that the first genetically engineered crops (tomato and tobacco) were conducted in the United States. By 1994, the FDA declared that genetically engineered foods did not require special regulation and were "not inherently dangerous."

GMOs today: Today, GMOs remain largely unregulated and are found in 80% of packaged foods in the U.S. Forty countries (including European Union nations, Australia and Japan) have significant use limitations or complete GMO bans.

The most popular genetically modified foods are cotton, canola, soy and corn. Other ingredients are being experimented with, including Atlantic salmon by AquaBounty who spent 16 years and $67 million developing the fish.

In January 2011, the government approved the unregulated planting of bioengineered alfalfa, along with two other bioengineered crops—sugar beets and a type of corn used in ethanol production. This prompted retaliation from the organic community. Alfalfa is a key source of feed for cows and is inextricably linked to milk, often considered the gateway product for families new to organic foods. Genetically engineered crops certainly have the capacity to drift into nearby farmland and jeopardize organic crops.

The debate over GMOs is in full-force and many organizations are fighting for regulations and labeling. In 2007, labeling GMOs was one of President Obama's campaign promises (watch the video here) that has yet to be fulfilled.

Get Involved: It takes just a few seconds to add your name to a petition organized by Food Democracy. If you want to avoid GMOs in your food, go organic. USDA certification states that "irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms" are not used in organic products.

News around the web

The Daily Beast | Political Battle over Genetically Modified Foods (10/12/11)

Grist | What do you know about GMOs? (10/12/11)

Slow Food | Food Crisis as Kenya Opens its Doors to GMOs (11/3/11)

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