When it comes to what we eat, few things spark more angst and hysteria than the topic of genetically modified foods (also referred to as GM, GMO, or GE foods for short). The tenn itself brings to mind thoughts of Frankenstein-like abominations, earning them the nickname ‘Frankenfoods.’ Yet many people don’t even fully understand what genetically modified foods are. “So great is the level of confusion,” writes Mike Gibney, “that a staggering one in three European citizens agrees with the statement that ‘ordinary tomatoes don’t have genes but genetically modified ones do.”’

What are genetically modified foods?

All Iifefonns on earth have a genetic code, from simple bacteria to plants and animals like us. These genes dictate the traits and characteristics a life form develops, and are constantly mixing and matching in the wild to create new genetic variations. Recently humans have begun to tinker with this process themselves, creating new and useful genetic variations of both livestock and crops. GMO foods come from plants or animals that have been tweaked to bring out certain genetic traits.

The truth is that humans have been genetically modifying crops for at least 10,000 years. Com, for example, started out as a weed with a cob no bigger than a shaft of wheat. Then Native Americans came along and began selectively cultivating plants with the biggest, most nutrient-rich grains, transforming it into the behemoth we know today. This was done naturally without the benefits of modem science. The only difference is that today scientists can use modern gene editing tools to accomplish this task much faster while combining a broader array of genetic traits

There are reasons to be thrilled about the prospect of genetically modified foods (cassava plants that el iminate vitamin A deficiencies that cause blindness in Africa, crops that are more resistant to drought), along with some reasons to be much more cautious and concerned (crops bred to produce their own pesticides, for example). But GM foods are not evil in and of themselves.

How are genetically modified foods created?

Scientists use modem gene-splicing tools such as CRISPR to cut and/or add genes into the genome of a particular plant or animal. The potential for GM crops first emerged when researchers found a bacterium called A. tumefuciens that was altering the genetic code of infected plant cells by lending them genes, causing them to grow out of control. The bacterium broke into the plant cell and penetrated its DNA, inserting up to 25,000 base pairs of its own genetic code. Scientists took this bacteria’s hollowed-out plasmids as a delivery vehicle, replacing the original DNA with the desired added genes. The hollowed-out bacterium then breaks into the plant cell and inserts the desired genes into the plant’s DNA, creating a genetically altered crop. Essentially, scientists have harnessed the penetrative power of certain bacteria and viruses to use them like microscopic cut and paste tools, removing certain undesirable genes while inserting others.

The process isn’t perfect; when CRlSPR makes a cut, for example, DNA strands can be haphazardly

glued back together, creating a mutation that breaks the gene (the primary reason genetic tinkering isn’t yet available for humans). But scientists can simply try over and over again until they get a viable cell with the genetic qualities they’re looking for. They then grow and harvest the seeds from this parent plant, creating a genetically modified crop.

How prevalent are GMO foods in the American food supply?

Most Americans are under the impression that they don’t eat GMO foods. Yet the truth is that most do so every day. GM foods make up more than 30% of the cropland and growing. A full 93% of soy grown in the US is genetically modified, for example.

Information on genetically modified foods

The following information will help families better understand the science and safety of genetically modified foods: