When is a GMO not a GMO? Perhaps when it’s a GE?

Could a non-GMO actually be a GMO? Or is it just GE? Is there a difference? And what exactly does the WHO say about it? Tom Smart battles the acronyms to pick apart the science behind the latest swathe of food-based genetics creeping into our everyday lives. 

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons at the start of the decade. Originally touted as a way to end hunger they were not well received by a public concerned over scientists ‘playing god’ and facts conveniently omitted from food labels. They went on to become a PR disaster, so much so that profit-driven food behemoths including Monsanto have been on a crusade to distance themselves ever since.  

Fast forward a few years and the debate rages on with the industry continuing to grow. Scientists progress in finding new and innovative methods to insert genes into organisms and those products continue to find their way onto retailer shelves. A recent article by National Geographic shows that many people do not even realise they are consuming ‘bioedited’ foods, in particular in the United States where ‘more than 60 percent of all processed foods on U.S. supermarket shelves—including pizza, chips, cookies, ice cream, salad dressing, corn syrup, and baking powder—contain ingredients from engineered soybeans, corn, or canola’.

In truth, humans were consuming genetically modified organism longs before GMO-containing products started hitting the shelves in the mid-1990s. Tomatoes used to be the size of marbles. You may or may not be aware that carrots never used to be orange. Scientists believe farmers growing the traditional white variety stumbled upon purple and yellow derivates by accident, continuing to grow them until the 1700s when the more nutritious orange carrot we so know and love today was brought about through selective breeding. Almost all foods we consume today, from meat all the way to pulses, have at some point been modified via breeding to enhance their properties; be it resistance to pesticides or overall yield. You won’t avoid this long and rich history by purchasing organic. 

But selective breeding sounds so much softer than genetic modification. It is, both literally and metaphorically, more palatable for your average member of the general public. It is carried out in a field rather than a laboratory and generally involves organisms of similar species that are able to breed together. Genetic engineering opened up a whole host of additional possibilities which history shows the general public weren’t ready for. It became conceivable, in theory, for a gene from a mouse to be inserted into a lettuce. Which explains why companies have been attempting to find different ways to genetically modify foods without having to expressly label it as genetic modification for quite some time. 

This avoidance is tolerated because it is actually remarkably difficult to define what a genetically modified organism is. When the science gets complicated, the lines become blurred. The World Health Organisation defines GMOs as ‘organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination’. This seems quite straight forward, but where does gene silencing; a popular technique where a gene for a particular trait is effectively switched off, lie? The answer to such a question varies, and is dependent on who, and more precisely which government, you ask. 

Welcome to the world of genetically edited (GE) crops. Products that have been altered by scientific methods but not to the extent that they have been ‘modified’. Or so the companies producing them say. This has been of particular importance in the US, where Calyxt have been touting their new and heavily edited soybean oil as non-GMO, which has been heavily debated in many circles. The European Court of Justice certainly does not agree. Interestingly the oil is being sold directly to the restaurant industry rather than the general public, perhaps because there are far fewer regulations about what information is required to be presented at point of sale. Something to keep in mind next time you go out for dinner. 

In truth, there is no evidence to back up the sprawling PR disaster that GMOs are in some way unhealthy or dangerous to humans. And given the size of the industry investing in these products there will be sceptic out there who question whether such research would ever surface at all. What is certain is that all products that make it to the shelf undergo rigorous testing to ensure no short-term health issues, while long-term effects are simply not investigable. As the saying goes, only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, consumers want a choice. 

Another reason for scepticism regarding GMOs, GEs and the rest may involve the world around us. There has been continued debate around the risk of introducing them to the environment and the effect it could have on pollinators and other crops. It doesn’t help that these GM and GE crops are often grown by companies that use intensive farming methods linked to environmental damage, soil erosion and global warming. If you want peace of mind and a clear climate conscience, sustainable organic purchases are likely to be the way forward. 

One thing is for certain; GE foods are increasing in number and availability. And if you are buying certain products, particularly processed foods or eating in a restaurant you may not even know you are consuming them. This is highly applicable state-side where regulations are considerably lighter on this subject. For those in the natural products industry however the cloudy nature with which GE foods have surfaced out of the cauldron of GMOs only highlights the need for transparency in the food chain and a greater emphasis on provenance. 

When looking at the ingredients in your products, how much do you really know? It might be worth finding out. If only for your own peace of mind.