Over the past few months, an acronym keeps popping up in newsfeeds across the country and restaurants across town: GMO. In fact, a new decal shines in Chipotle’s front window, reading, “A farewell to GMOs; When it comes to our food, genetically modified ingredients don’t make the cut.”
But what does this buzzword, that keeps appearing in social media and local restaurants, actually mean?
Well, GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” and is defined as “a living plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium that has been altered by insertion of a new gene (or genes) through a process called transformation,” according to an article written by Michael Boland, assistant professor of agricultural economics, and Robert Bowden, associate professor of plant pathology.
Genetic modification of plants is not a new phenomenon. Prehistoric humans have isolated different qualities in crops and animals for thousands of years.
Widely considered the “Father of Genetics,” Gregor Mendel first began experimenting with characteristics of pea plants in the 1800s by cross breeding plants with different traits and examining the traits of the offspring. His work led into some of the basic laws of genetics that are still recognized today.
If genetic modification is a standard practice reaching back into history, why is there suddenly so much controversy surrounding this topic?
According to Boland and Bowden’s article, “Economic Issues with Genetically Modified (GM) Food and Feed Grains,” traditional methods of genetic modification are imprecise, usually leading to thousands of genes being transferred between two organisms. Using genetic engineering allows for single gene manipulation, thereby manipulating traits more effectively.
“The distinguishing feature of (genetically modified) crops is that new traits are derived from artificially inserted genes,” Boland and Bowden said in their article.
The process of genetic engineering began in the 1980s, and the term GMO first became prevalent in the 1990s.
When asked, the local Manhattan Chipotle directed questions about GMOs to their website, chipotle.com/gmo. On the page, Chipotle said one of its major reasons for removing all GMO products were due to concerns with increasing pesticide use. The website states, “One recent study by researchers at Washington State University estimated that between 1996 and 2011, pesticide and herbicide use increased by more than 400 million pounds as a result of GMO cultivation.”
Emily Jorgensen, senior in biology, said she is aware of concerns with GMOs, but does not avoid something specifically because it is genetically modified.
“I think (the hype) is kind of unnecessary,” Jorgensen said. “If you take GMOs completely out of the picture, you would be left with nothing to eat.”
This statement is echoed with information provided on Chipotle’s website. Although Chipotle’s corn and soy products are now GMO free, many other products in their stores still contain GMO materials. The meat and dairy products come from cattle that could have been fed with GMO feed, and the fountain drinks could have been made from GMO corn syrup.
Alongside certain risks, there are also benefits to using GMOs. Crops have been modified for insect resistance, herbicide resistance and disease resistance.
According to Boland and Bowden’s article, “new genetic traits could result in food that tastes better, has better nutritional content, better shelf life, or has fewer detrimental compounds such as allergens.”
Jorgensen said she believes that ignorance about GMOs is driving much of the current debate.
“I think most of the controversy comes from people who don’t understand what GMOs are,” Jorgensen said. “Something that is genetically modified scares them.”
Boland and Bowden advocate caution when forming opinions on the topic.
“It is almost impossible to make blanket statements about GM crops since each GM trait and crop is different,” Boland and Bowden said in their article. “Risks of GM crops must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.”