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A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.

Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, insects, plants, fish, and mammals. GMOs are the source ofgenetically modified foods, and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. The term GMO is very close to the technical legal term, 'living modified organism' defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates international trade in living GMOs (specifically, "any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology"). the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material People have been altering the genomes of plants and animals for many years using traditional breeding techniques. Artificial selection for specific, desired traits has resulted in a variety of different organisms, ranging from sweet corn to hairless cats. So what exactly are genetically modified organisms? GMOs are plants or animals that have undergone a process wherein scientists alter their genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides. But haven't farmers been selectively breeding crops to get larger harvests for centuries? How is this any different? Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson has a great answer to this questionbut in a nutshell: Yes, farmers throughout history have been raising their plants to achieve certain desired traits such as improved taste, yield, or disease resistance. But this kind of breeding still relies on the natural reproductive processes of the organisms, where as genetic engineering involves the addition of foreign genes that would not occur in nature. Am I eating GMOs? Probably. Since several common ingredients like corn starch and soy protein are predominantly derived from genetically modified crops, it's pretty hard to avoid GM foods altogether. In fact, GMOs are present in 60 to 70 percent of foods on US supermarket shelves, according to Bill Freeze at the Center for Food Safety; the vast majority of processed foods contain GMOs. One major exception is fresh fruits and veggies. The only GM produce you're likely to find is the Hawaiian papaya, a small amount of zucchini and squash, and some sweet corn. No meat, fish, and poultry products approved for direct human consumption are bioengineered at this point,

though most of the feed for livestock and fish is derived from GM corn, alfalfa, and other biotech grains. Only organic varieties of these animal products are guaranteed GMO-free feed.. How about organic foods? Since the late '90s, USDA organic standards have prohibited any genetically modified ingredients. Originally, the agency tried to include GE foods under the organic umbrella, but it backed down in 2002 after a massive public outcry to save organic standards. How long have I been eating GE food? Scientists conducted the first GE food trials the late 1980s, and in 1994, a biotech company called Calgene released the first GMO approved for human consumption: the "Flavr Savr tomato," designed to stay ripe on the vine longer without getting squishy. The product, which Monsanto eventually picked up, flopped, but it paved the way for others: Biotech companies have made billions since with GE corn, soy bean, cotton, and canola. Aren't food companies required to let me know whether their products contain GMOs? Not in the United States. Sixty-four developing and developed countries require GMO food labeling, according to Freese at the Center for Food Safety. You may have heard about the recent string of "Right to Know" bills in state assemblies across the country. The bills are aimed to require food companies to label any products that contain genetically modified organisms. Connecticut and Maine recently passed laws that would require food manufacturers to reveal GE ingredients on product packaging, but those laws won't go into effect until other states adopt similar measures. Americans overwhelmingly support such laws, with poll after poll showing that over 90 percent of respondents support mandatory labeling. Biotech companies and the food industry say that such labeling would be expensive and pointless since genetically engineered foods have been declared safe for human consumption. So if the food is safe, what's all the fuss about them? First off, not everyone agrees that GMOs are safe to eat, especially over the long term. The European Union remains decidedly skeptical, with very few approved GE crops grown on the continent and mandatory labeling in place for products that contain GMOs. Some scientists fear that GMOs could cause allergies in humans. Others point to the environmental consequences of the farming of GE crops. How do GMOs affect the environment? One word: Pesticides. Hundreds of millions of extra pounds of pesticides. The six biggest producers of GE seedsMonsanto, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, BASF, Bayer, and Pioneer (DuPont)are also the biggest producers of chemical herbicides and insecticides. Monsanto's

Roundup Ready crops, for example, are genetically engineered to be immune to herbicide so that farmers can destroy weeds without killing their cash crops. But the process has spawned Roundup resistant weeds, leading farmers to apply greater and greater doses of the chemical or even resort to more toxic methods to battle back the superweeds.

Genetically Conferred Trait

Example Organism

Genetic Change

APPROVED COMMERCIAL PRODUCTS Herbicide tolerance Soybean Glyphosate herbicide (Roundup) tolerance conferred by expression of a glyphosate-tolerant form of the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS) isolated from the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, strainCP4 Resistance to insect pests, specifically the European corn borer, through expression of the insecticidal protein Cry1Ab from Bacillus thuringiensis High laurate levels achieved by inserting thegene for ACP thioesterase from the California bay tree Umbellularia californica Resistance to plum pox virus conferred byinsertion of a coat protein (CP) gene from the virus

Insect resistance

Corn

Altered fatty acid composition

Canola

Virus resistance

Plum

PRODUCTS STILL IN DEVELOPMENT Vitamin enrichment Rice Three genes for the manufacture of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, in the endosperm of the rice prevent its removal (from husks) during milling Hepatitis B virus surface antigen (HBsAg) produced in transgenic tobacco induces immune response when injected into mice Fusion protein (F) from Newcastle disease virus (NDV) expressed in corn seeds induces an immune response when fed to chickens

Vaccines

Tobacco

Oral vaccines

Maize

Faster maturation

Coho salmon

A type 1 growth hormone gene injected into fertilized fish eggs results in 6.2% retention of the vector at one year of age, as well as significantly increased growth rates

Risks and Controversies Surrounding the Use of GMOs Despite the fact that the genes being transferred occur naturally in other species, there are unknown consequences to altering the natural state of an organism through foreign gene expression. After all, such alterations can change the organism's metabolism, growth rate, and/or response to external environmental factors. These consequences influence not only the GMO itself, but also the natural environment in which that organism is allowed to proliferate. Potential health risks to humans include the possibility of exposure to new allergens in genetically modified foods, as well as the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes to gut flora.