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Genetically Modified Organism

Page history last edited by Lisa 6 years ago

The World Health Organization defines Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” Using technology alternatively known as “modern biotechnology,” “gene technology,” “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering,” individual genes can be transferred from one organism to another, sometimes between different species (World Health Organization 2011). Since the 1980s, the pharmaceutical industry has used the genetic modification of certain organisms to create synthetic hormones (such as Human Growth Hormone), and transgenic animals are often bred with human genes to allow researchers to study genetic determinants of disease (Phillips 2008). Although GM animals are not available for public consumption, the US Food and Drug Administration recently expressed support for the commercial marketing of a genetically modified fast-growing variety of salmon (Kozubek, 2011). Perhaps the most common association with GMOs, however, is with genetically modified food crops.


Since the mid-1990s genetic modification techniques have been employed to increase crop protection. For example, resistance to insect pests can be conveyed to certain crops (most notably corn) by inserting a gene from the bacteria Bacillus theringiensis (Bt). This induces the expression of the insecticidal protein Cry1Ab in corn, rendering it more immune to pest damage. Another common genetic modification technique is the development of glyphosate herbicide tolerant (often called “Roundup Ready”) soy and corn as a result of introducing an isolated gene from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, strain CP4 (Phillips 2008). When pest and/or weed pressure is high, the use of such GMOs can reduce pesticide and herbicide use (World Health Organization 2011). Additionally, GMOs could potentially lead to higher crop yields, reduced food and drug production costs, more nutritious plant varieties, and medical benefits for the world’s population (some in the form of plant-based vaccines) (Phillips 2008).


The use of GMOs for food, however, has prompted several concerns regarding how it may affect human health. One concern is that incorporating genetic material from other organisms may lead to allergenicity in the new food. Additionally, gene transfer from GM foods to human cells or to bacteria inside the gastrointestinal tract could negatively affect human health, especially if antibiotic genes (which are used in the creation of some GMOs) were to be transferred. Finally, outcrossing (the transfer of genes from GM plants into conventional or wild crops) could adversely affect food safety. For example if a GM maize variety approved only for animal feed crossed with maize meant for human consumption, human health could be negatively affected (World Health Organization 2011). In addition to human health concerns, current environmental concerns surrounding GMOs involve detrimental effects on non-pest insects, decreased biodiversity and wildlife, de-emphasis on crop rotation in certain areas, and the transfer of herbicide-resistant genes to other plants (World Health Organization 2011). Other critics of GMOs claim that only large-scale monoculture farms will be able to afford the expensive GM seed, driving smaller diversified farms out of business (Phillips 2008), and worry that the large seed companies’ intellectual property rights will prevent farmers from “owning their own crops” (World Health Organization 2011).


The relative risks and benefits of GMOs are interpreted differently across different cultures and governments. Notably, Europe is known for its anti-GMO stance. Although some GM crops may be grown in Europe (particularly corn), the period from 1998 to 2010 saw the European Union approve no new GM crops—an effective “ban” (GM potato 2010). Additionally, unlike the United States, the European Union requires the labeling of all food that is genetically modified, and has a “zero tolerance policy” which bans even trace amounts of GMO substances in imported food or animal feed (Benson 2011). Policies and attitudes in Europe, however, may be changing, as the European Union has recently proposed ending this “zero tolerance” ban (Benson 2011) and, in 2010, controversially allowed the cultivation of the GM Amflora potato—the first new GM crop allowed in 12 years (GM potato).




Benson, J. (2011, Feb. 5). EU Commission tries to destroy zero tolerance policy for GM contamination. Natural News.com. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from http://www.naturalnews.com/031224_GMOs_contamination.html


GM potato to be grown in Europe. (2010, March 3). Associated Press. The Guardian. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/03/eu-approves-gm-food-potato


Kozubek, J. (2011, Oct. 11). FDA Decision Will Lead To First Ever Genetically-Modified Animal For Consumption. TPM. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/10/fda-nears-decision-on-genetically-engineered-salmon.php


Phillips, T. (2008) Genetically modified organisms (GMOs): Transgenic crops and recombinant DNA technology. Nature Education 1(1). Retrieved on October 29, 2011 from http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetically-modified-organisms-gmos-transgenic-crops-and-732


World Health Organization. (2011). 20 questions on genetically modified food. World Health Organization. Retrieved on October 29, 2011 from http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/


edited: BW

checked: Jessi Moths, LC

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