It turns out, the famous "you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes," lyric from 1937's Shall We Dance, is applicable to today's great genetically engineered (GE) food debate. While the dialect is the same, several acronyms that refer to essentially the same concept are muddying up the dialogue. Whether you use GMO, GE or GM, one thing is clear: there's something going on in our food that isn't natural.
Why is this debate important? GE, or biotech, crops have been adopted by farmers worldwide at higher rates than any other agricultural practice in history, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and since the first significant commercial plantings in 1996 acreage devoted to biotech crops has increased 60-fold.
But perhaps even more important is that consumers still aren't clear on what these terms mean. In 2000, FDA conducted a series of focus groups on the terms to see what was understood and how people responded. The study found:
- The term "modification" was seen as a vaguer, softer way of saying engineered.
- The "bio" prefix had a positive connotation.
- Terms such as "product of biotechnology" or "biotechnology" had the least amount of negative implication.
- Most participants were unfamiliar with the term "Genetically Modified Organism" (GMO). It seemed to imply that foods are organisms or contain organisms, which people think is inaccurate and unappealing.
This last point was raised by an attendee at a recent GMO education session at NPA MarketPlace. Can you use GMO alone to denote GE plants? Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety says yes. "Nothing about 'GMO' suggests organisms floating around in corn," for example, he said. "The corn is the organism, and organism is a perfectly acceptable general term to refer to living things."
The study revealed that consumers favored terms that the biotechnology industry currently uses most (chicken or the egg?) to describe a genetically engineered crop. How much has the climate changed since then? Here are the most commonly used terms explained according to regulations and industry.
Genetically Engineered (GE)
In a Sept. 1996 report on biotechnology [PDF], the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) defined genetically engineered as "made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes."
The NOSB makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) about whether a substance should be allowed or prohibited in organic production. It outlined several GE practices in the report, including recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene and changing the positions of genes. However, according to NOSB, GE does not include breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in-vitro fertilization and tissue culture.
The USDA's current definition of genetic engineering is "manipulation of an organism's genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques." The Biotechnology Industry Organization, the world's largest biotechnology organization, also refers to this regulatory definition in its literature.
Internationally, genetic engineering is defined largely by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an organization formed in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization topromote coordination of all food standards work by international governmental and non-governmental organizations. Codex's definition [PDF] is similar to the United States' definition: "Genetically engineered/modified organisms, and products thereof, are produced through techniques in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination." Codex also says GE organisms do not include organisms resulting from transduction.
The Center for Food Safety, an organization which works to promote organic and sustainable agriculture, most commonly uses the term genetically engineered, but "in our materials we use the same definition and then suggest that the abbreviation could be GE, GM and GMO," said Rebecca Spector, West Coast Director for the Center.
The Center's definition states: "agricultural biotechnology refers to the use of recombinant DNA techniques and related tools of biotechnology to genetically engineer crops used in the production of food, feed, and fiber. The resulting products are referred to interchangeably as 'transgenic' or 'genetically engineered' crops and foods."
Genetically Modified (GM)
The terms genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GM) are synonyms, said Bill Freese, Science Policy Analyst for the Center for Food Safety. The only difference among their usage lies in geographical familiarity. In Europe, genetically modified is more common, while in the U.S. genetically engineered is used.
Karen Batra, director, Food and Agriculture Communications of the Biotechnology Industry Organization also acknowledged that GE is used more in the U.S. "perhaps because the technology we're referring to here is mostly genetically engineered using recombinant DNA techniques."
The USDA's regulatory definition of genetic modification is "the production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods."
This differs from its aforementioned GE definition by eliminating the use of "manipulation of an organism's genes" in favor of "the production of heritable improvements." The GM definition also includes "genetic engineering" but does not specifically call out "recombinant DNA techniques," and includes a mention of "more traditional methods."
The biotech industry prefers to use "genetically modified," said Freese. "The term lends itself to one of their favorite arguments: Humans have been genetically modifying plants for millennia (through natural plant breeding) and GE is just 'an extension' of that," he said. "They thus gloss over the insertional mutagenesis, the generation of novel compounds never before in our food supply, and the breaching of species barriers that are all unique to GE."
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
A genetically modified organism is an organism produced through genetic modification, according to the USDA. Of all the terms, GMO is the term that is most recognizable to North American consumers.
"Because consumers are more familiar with GMO, the organic and non-GMO industry has used GMO," said Spector. "Industry is using it because consumers are using it" and not the other way around.
Perhaps the term became popular thanks to recent media coverage and initiatives such as the Non-GMO Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the availability of non-GMO food and products. In 2008, the Non-GMO Project began enrolling products in its 3rd party verification program. The Project's spokeswoman was unavailable at the time of publication for comment.
GMO is also used in front of a plant, such as "GMO corn." Freese said this is technically incorrect because it's redundant. "It says literally 'genetically modified organism corn.' The proper term is 'GM corn' or 'GE corn,'" he said.
The biotechnology industry does not use the GMO term as frequently. "I tend to use 'biotech crops' or 'biotech plants' in most of my communications to avoid confusion," said Batra of Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Genetically engineered organism (GEO)
According to the USDA, GEO is an organism produced through genetic engineering. This term is rarely used.
Non-GMO, as the name suggests, means an organism that has not been genetically modified. The Non-GMO Project is the only North American independent verification program that allows products to sport a "Non-GMO Project Verified" seal. In the organic industry, the term Non-GMO implies organic, and supporters of organic are worried that the extra Non-GMO label may take away from organic advocacy efforts or create an unwanted distinction between Non-GMO and organic.
These terms are not defined by the USDA and are rarely, if at all, used as synonyms for Non-GMO.
This claim is a cue to be skeptical. "GMO free" and similar claims are not legally or scientifically defensible, according to the Non-GMO Project. This is because GMOs have proliferated so much in our food system that it is unreasonable to expect that even trace amounts have not made their way into final products. The USDA reported in 2009 that 93 percent of soy and cotton and 86 of corn grown in the U.S. was genetically engineered.