What is a GMO? Different definitions create confusion

Most people have an opinion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Nonetheless, surveys continue to indicate that the terminology remains confusing for a lot of people. While the biotechnology area goes through an extraordinary phase of rapid technological progress, the understanding of the basics among the broader public is definitely not keeping pace.

Maybe that’s not a surprise, but it is one of the reasons that so many public perception challenges exist for a technology that has an unprecedented track record. The other reason is that misinformation and scaremongering by certain activist groups have caused tremendous confusion.

There are actually several definitions for GMOs. The United States does not employ a specific legal definition and puts more emphasis on the products (and whether they are safe) than on the process. In Europe, however, the European Food Safety Authority has defined a GMO as follows:

“The term genetically modified organism (GMO) means an organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through fertilization and/or natural recombination. GMOs may be plants, animals or micro-organisms, such as bacteria, parasites and fungi.”

The problem with this definition is that it may imply that genetic modification alters the genetic structure of an organism, while other breeding techniques do not. From there, it is only a small step for critics to position a GMO as unnatural.

In fact, scientists using genetic engineering to breed is not fundamentally different from conventional plant breeding. The techniques used, such as mutagenesis, have been used in agriculture for more than 80 years.

One of the biggest misunderstandings is that GMOs are perceived as a third type of agriculture — besides conventional and organic farming. Associations with industrialized, high-input mono-cultures are never far away.

But that image is not correct: there is no such thing as “a GMO”. There are GMOs that make plants resistant to insects and diseases and tolerant to herbicides or environmental stresses such as drought. There are GMOs that change the flower color, oil profile or make a plant produce a medicinal compound.

Therefore, the whole “GMO or not” discussion is not so relevant. Much more interesting is the question whether we want to fully benefit from a technology that has enormous potential to help tackle the great challenges of today’s world and the direction we want to steer agricultural innovation.

Filip Cnudde is an agricultural engineer, with a PhD in plant molecular biology. He works as science policy leader for Dow AgroSciences in Brussels.