This guide is intended as a very basic introductory overview of GMOs.
We outline and discuss some of the most important basic information about GMOs in general, and specifically GMO crops and food.
Summary – An Overview Of GMOs
Below we outline:
– What GMOs are
– The difference between selective breeding vs genetic breeding, and the difference between genetically altered vs transgenic organisms
– Common types of GMOs, and their potential uses/benefits
– What GMO foods and crops are, examples, and their engineered traits and uses
– The countries who are the predominant growers/cultivators of GMO crops and food (in hectares)
– Interesting or important GMO stats and facts
What Are GMOs
A GMO is usually an organism that has has it’s DNA altered or modified through the biotechnology technique of genetic engineering
Selective Breeding vs Genetic Breeding
Selective breeding is purposeful breeding for certain characteristics (this is common in plants for example)
Genetic breeding on the other hand involves biotechnology, and involves genetic altering of an organism, or, adding genetic material from one organism to another
Genetically Altered vs Transgenic Organisms
A genetically altered organism might have it’s genetic material altered without adding genetic material from another organism e.g. turning off a trait or characteristic
But, there’s also transgenic organisms that have genetic material added to them from another organism e.g. a desirable trait from one organism is added to another, such as a drought resistance trait in a crop plant
Examples Of GMOs
GMO crops and foods are one main type of GMO
Other examples of GMOs include but aren’t limited to microorganisms (like bacteria, viruses and yeast), plants, mammals, fish, frogs, and invertebrates
Potential Uses (& Benefits) Of GMOs
In crops and food, GMOs are claimed to deliver a range of claimed benefits including but not limited to insect resistance, drought resistance (with better moisture retention, and needing less irrigation), herbicide resistance, disease resistance, enhance nutritional content, reduce browning and bruising, and improve the cellulose conversion process (for improved biofuel production for example)
Other GMOs can be used beneficially for things such as bacteria that produce proteins and treat diseases, yeast that help with fermentation, plants that create different crops, animals that help with producing consumer or industrial products, or improving animal health and disease resistance, and so on
Examples Of GMO Crops & Foods (& Their Engineered Traits & Uses)
There’s different types of GMO crops and foods commonly grown and available commercially in a few different countries around the world.
In the US, the GMO crops and foods that are commercially available are alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets
Comparatively in a country like Australia, in 2016, only GM cotton and GM canola were being grown on a commercial broad acre crop level (although other crops were being developed and trialled)
Each GMO crop/food can be engineered to have different GE traits
Cotton for example might be engineered with insect and herbicide resistance
Apples as another example might be engineered for non browning
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Different Countries
When it comes to GMO crops and food, different countries may allow one of, a combination of, or none of the following – cultivation/growing, making produce commercially available, using produce as ingredients, not allow cultivation but allow importation, the development of new GMO crop types and crop varieties.
Some countries have restrictions on GMO crops and food, some have partial bans, and some have full bans.
Of the countries that grow GMO crops, some countries grow a lot more than others
The guide below contains a list of the countries that grow GE, and the crops and foods they grow.
Note that some countries don’t allow the growing of GE foods/crops, but might allow the importation of ingredients (we’ve used Australia as an example of this).
The USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India all lead the world in 2016 in growing the most GMO/Biotech crops by area (in hectares)
In total, 26 countries have total or partial bans on either the cultivation, or importation of GMO foods – just two examples are Europe and Russia … with 60 others having heavy restrictions on them
In total, 38 countries ban the cultivation of GMO crops (as opposed to importing them which is different)
In the lists below – over time countries develop and test new GMO crops and foods, so these lists will change in the future as more GMO crops are developed, and also are made commercially available.
Interesting Or Important GMO Stats & Facts
Majority of commercially available GM crops grown in the US today are used for livestock feed
Soybeans, cotton and corn are some of the most common crops that are grown GM crops worldwide, but, it differs country to country, and new crops can be getting developed and approved as time goes by
A very small number of companies (about 5 plus Monsanto) control the GMO seed market
In 2008, Monsanto also made a significant amount of money from herbicide sales
Monsanto can potentially sell both Roundup herbicide and Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans to farmers, who must repurchase the seeds every year
Sales of some the most popular herbicides have increased 15 fold since GMOs were first introduced
There is currently a scientific consensus that (paraphrased) ‘available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food, but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction’.
There’s also been challenges to this consensus that it isn’t conclusive enough
What Are GMOs?
A GMO is a ‘genetically modified organism’ that has had it’s DNA (genome) altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering
Genetic engineering involves direct modification/manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology
Selective Breeding vs Genetic Engineering
There’s two main ways for humans to change an organism’s DNA – selective breeding, and genetic engineering.
… selective breeding [involves purposeful breeding for specific characteristics and this has been happening for] hundreds of years with wolves and dogs, and with plants.
… genetic engineering [however is a newer biotechnology technique]
Scientists use biotechnology to insert one or more genes from one organism into another to give the second organism the specific trait controlled by the transferred gene or genes
Genetically Altered Organism vs Transgenic Organism
Another way to distinguish between GMOs is by genetically altered organisms, and transgenic organisms.
Transgenic organisms have their genetic makeup altered with the addition of genetic makeup from another organism, whilst genetically altered organism only have their existing genome altered without the addition of another organism’s DNA.
Genetically Altered Organisms genetic makeup has been altered without the addition of genetic material from an unrelated organism.
[an example includes turning off or moving a certain genetic trait within an organism]
[transgenic organisms have had their] genetic makeup … altered by the addition of genetic material from an unrelated [separate] organism
[one example of this is adding a desirable genetic trait from one organism to another]
In most cases, GMOs [are transgenic]
Types Of GMOs, Their Uses, & Traits
Some of the types of organisms that have been genetically modified are:
Including bacteria, virus and yeast
Including for crops (food, and fibres/seeds like cotton), and conservation
Mammals for research use, human therapeutics and xenotransplants, food quality traits, human gene therapy, and conservation Use
And, invertebrates like fruit flies, mosquitoes, bollworms, and cnidaria
The wikipedia.org resource in the sources list below also outlines how the different organisms are being engineered, what for, and their various traits.
What Are GMO Foods & Crops
GMO foods and crops are developed through genetic engineering (also referred to as biotechnology).
GMO foods and crops can be both genetically altered, and transgenic – there’s the option to either turn off or move an existing genetic trait, or insert a new desirable trait
Examples Of GMO Crops & Foods
In The US
According to gmoanswers.com:
There are 10 genetically modified crops commercially available in the US today: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets.
[only a few may be available in the] produce section: rainbow papaya, summer squash, sweet corn, potatoes and apples.
Uses For GMO Crops & Foods
The main use of GMO foods and crops seems to be livestock feed in a country like the US, and even globally.
Other uses though may include human consumption, and as ingredients in common foods.
The majority of [the 10 genetically modified crops commercially available in the US today] like alfalfa, field corn and soy are actually used for livestock feed.
Other uses for these crops include common food ingredients, such as sugar, canola oil, corn starch and soy lecithin.
Globally, food-producing animals consume 70% to 90% of genetically engineered crop biomass, mostly corn and soybean.
In the United States alone, animal agriculture produces over 9 billion food-producing animals annually, and more than 95% of these animals consume feed containing GE ingredients.
The numbers are similar in large GMO producing countries with a large agricultural sector, such as Brazil and Argentina.
Engineered Traits Of GMO Crops & Food
Some of the general engineered traits for GMO crops and foods are:
– Insect Resistance
Against insect pests for example
– Drought Tolerance
Crops can better retain water and moisture, and as a result, are either more drought resistant, and/or need less irrigation and watering
– Herbicide Tolerance
Allows farmers to fight weeds better
– Disease Resistance
Against diseases that are a problem for specific crops. This can protect a farmer’s business, reduce waste, and lead to greater output/yield
– Enhanced Nutrition
Engineering for certain nutritional profiles, or increased macro or micro nutrients, leads to better food nutrition
– Reduce Food Waste
When foods are engineered to reduce browning and bruising (of foods like potatoes and apples)
– Improved Manufacturing Processes
More efficient biofuels production by improving the process through which cellulose and/or starch is broken down and converted to fuel
Also from gmoanswers.com:
… certain crops and foods like tomatoes, soybeans, corn and so on, can have desirable genes added [from other organisms] for drought, pest, or disease resistance
In The US Specifically
gmoanswers.com outlines the traits and uses of the 10 commercially available GMO crops and foods in their resource.
GMO Crops & Foods In Australia
A country like Australia has far more restrictive regulations on growing GE foods and crops than the United States.
According to choice.com.au, in 2016, there are only two commercial GM broad-acre crops grown in Australia, with others being developed:
– GM cotton
There are three types of GM cotton in use and all are owned by Bayer or Monsanto, which are on the brink of merging.
Two of these cottons are herbicide-tolerant to help the control of weeds, and the other has an inbuilt resistance to a pest, reducing the need for insecticides.
– GM canola
There are six types of GM canola licenced for use in Australia.
All have been developed to be resistant to the herbicides used to control weeds.
Five of these are owned by Bayer or Monsanto.
– Crops Being Developed
Other GM crops are being developed and trialled around Australia (but not yet commercially available) include sugarcane, safflower, banana, wheat, barley and white clover.
GMO Crops In Developing Countries
In recent years, GM crops expanded rapidly in developing countries.
In 2013, approximately 18 million farmers grew 54% of worldwide GM crops in developing countries.
% Of Foods & Crops That Are GMO
… the [following] crops [are] most intensively reliant on big GMO seed companies like Monsanto.
With 83 percent of cotton coming from GMO seeds, it one one of the top four GMO crops produced in the world alongside soy (89 percent), canola (75 percent) and corn (61 percent).
In The US
In the US, by 2014, 94% of the planted area of soybeans, 96% of cotton and 93% of corn were genetically modified varieties (wikipedia.org)
… GMOs now account for 90% or more of the most common crops that are grown by American farmers (vittana.org)
More than 99% of planted cotton in Australia is GM (choice.com.au)
In Other Countries
%’s of crops that are GMO differ significantly country to country.
Countries That Grow GMO Crops
Per gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org, as of 2016:
Brazil, United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Bolivia, Philippines, Spain, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Colombia, Honduras, Chile, Sudan, Slovakia, Costa Rica, China, India, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, Portugal, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Countries That Grow The Most GMO/Biotech Crops (In Hectares)
The US, Brazil and Argentina lead all countries in terms of hectares of land for GMO crops in 2016.
As of 2016, [the three top countries in terms of hectares of land committed to GMO crops were]:
USA – 72.9 Million Hectares
Brazil – 49.1 Million Hectares
Argentina – 23.8 Million Hectares
[Canada was fourth at 11.6 Million Hectares, followed by (in order) India, Paraguay, Pakistan, China, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Spain, Sudan, Mexico, Columbia, Vietnam, Honduras, Chile, Portugal, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Slovakia, and Czech Republic]
Growing GE Food vs Importing GE Food Ingredients
A country like Australia that is currently restrictive on growing GE (genetically engineered) foods, may make more of an allowance for imported GE food ingredients.
For example, in Australia, they allow the following GE food ingredients in common foods available in supermarkets (according to choice.com.au):
Imported GM (genetically modified) soya, imported GM corn, imported GM sugar beet, cottonseed oil from GM cotton, imported GM potatoes, GM canola
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In The United States
Alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets (gmoanswers.com)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Brazil
Soybean, maize and cotton (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Argentina
Soybean, maize and cotton (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Canada
Canola, maize, soybean, sugar beet, alfalfa (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In India
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Paraguay
Soybean, maize and cotton (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Pakistan
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In China
Cotton, papaya, poplar (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In South Africa
Soybean, maize and cotton (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Uruguay
Soybean, maize (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Bolivia
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Australia
Cotton, canola (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods Ingredients Imported To Australia
Imported GM soya, Imported GM corn, Imported GM sugar beet, Cottonseed oil for GM cotton, Imported GM potatoes, GM canola (choice.com.au)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In The Philippines
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Myanmar
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Spain
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Sudan
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Mexico
Cotton, soybean (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Columbia
Cotton, maize (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Vietnam
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Honduras
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Chile
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Portugal
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Bangladesh
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Costa Rica
Cotton, soybean, pineapple (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Slovakia
GMO Foods & Crops Grown In Czech Republic
Countries With Partial Or Full Bans On The Growing Or Importation Of GMO Foods & Crops
There can be a partial, or total ban, on either the cultivation or importation of GMO crops and foods in different countries across the world.
Total Or Partial Ban, & Restrictions
26 countries had total or partial bans on GMOs, “including Switzerland, Australia, Austria, China, India, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Italy, Mexico and Russia,” and … “significant restrictions on GMOs exist in about sixty other countries.” (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
Banning The Cultivation Of GMOs
In 2015, anti-GMO group Sustainable Pulse said that 38 countries ban the cultivation of GMO crops … The group’s list includes Algeria and Madagascar in Africa; Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia in Asia; Belize, Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela in South and Central America; and 28 countries in Europe (gmo.geneticliteracyproject.org)
Interesting & Important GMO Facts & Stats
How Many People Eat GMO Foods
Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are something [many people have eaten] at least once (vittana.org)
Companies Involved In The Use Of GMO Crops & Food, & Where The Money Goes
There are 5 other companies that, along with Monsanto, control nearly all of the GMO seed market.
This include Sungenta, Dow Agrosciences, Bayer, BASF, and DuPont.
This means a majority of corn and soybean products are not only profiting the farmer, but they are profiting companies as well.
Biotech companies have certainly profited from GM crops, not least because seeds and genetic innovations can be patented.
Monsanto, for instance, can sell both Roundup herbicide and Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans to farmers, who must repurchase the seeds every year.
[Of the global market for genetically modified crops] … [some studies say that] somewhere around one-third of the total economic benefit of GM crop technology goes to seed and chemical companies … [with] Another third accrues to US farmers … [and] The remaining third is split between US consumers and the rest of the world
[In 2008 Monsanto made] nearly as much on herbicide as it [did] on corn seeds (gmwatch.org)
Pesticides & GMO Crops
More than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered for herbicide tolerance.
As a result, the use of toxic herbicides, such as Roundup®, has increased fifteen fold since GMOs were first introduced
Consensus On GMO Crops & Foods
There is a scientific consensus that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food, but that each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction (wikipedia.org)
To date, more than 3,000 scientific studies have assessed the safety of these crops in terms of human health and environmental impact.
These studies together with several reviews performed on a case-by-case from regulatory agencies around the world have enabled a solid and clear scientific consensus: GM crops have no more risk than those that have been developed by conventional breeding techniques.
In addition, there is also extensive literature that compiles the socioeconomic and environmental benefits that transgenic crops have reported in two decades of commercialization
Questions Over The Research Of, & Use Of GMO Crops & Foods
Despite the consensus on GMO foods and crops, there is still some who question the research and study that goes into making up that consensus.
Regulation Of GM Crops & Foods
Read more about the regulation of GM crops and foods around the world in this guide.