Plate-Wise •  4/23/2020

GMOs: What They Are & Why They’re Important

Written By Jeanne Tuttle
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Three Sugarbeets Holding Hands in a Line

You can’t do anything today without seeing labels around GMO, non-GMO, etc. But what exactly does it mean when a plant is genetically modified (GM)? Knowing what GMOs are, and why they are used, is key to making the best decisions when feeding your family.

When thinking about GMOs, it pays to remember that scientists are focused on finding ways to help farmers manage the many challenges of producing food — from pests and disease to drought and erosion. Scientists rely on many old and new techniques to develop the best seeds for farmers. The GMO process is just one of many techniques that can be used, along with others, to create specific seed products for farmers.

What is a GMO?

According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms in which the genetic material (i.e., DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. Genetic modification allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another. In the case of food, crop seed can be genetically modified, which results in genetically modified food.

What the heck does that mean? In short, GM is a process in which scientists transfer beneficial traits from one plant to another to achieve the desired improvement. When scientists find a trait that could be beneficial, they make a copy of the desired gene and put it in the plant’s DNA.

Why is GM needed in agriculture?

1.       Environmental stewardship:

  • When farmers use genetically modified crops that are resistant to herbicides, they can use a small amount of herbicide to control weeds, without killing the crops. When farmers use herbicides instead of tilling to control weeds, it helps protect from soil erosion and keep nutrients and moisture in the soil.
  • Crops can be modified to use water more efficiently, reducing water usage during dry periods or droughts. 

2.       Plant health:

Environmental stewardship and plant health are key in farmers producing more food with fewer resources. For example, below is a diagram that represents corn yield vs. population in the Unites States in 1975 vs. 2018. 

Corn Yield vs. Population in the Unites States in 1975 vs. 2018
  U.S. Population U.S. Average Corn Yield
1975 216 million

75 bushels per acre


327.1 million

175 bushels per acre

Though the statistics above are from the United States alone, our U.S. farmers help feed the world. According to the U.S. Farm Bureau Federation, one U.S. farm feeds 166 people annually in the United States and abroad. The global population is expected to increase by 2.2 billion by 2050, which means the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than what is now produced.

And here’s the thing: The population is growing, but resources are not. The amount of land and water are not increasing, yet farmers are tasked with producing enough food and fiber to meet the needs of a growing world, with the same, or fewer, amount of resources.

Where can I learn more?

GM food is a hot topic, and there’s more information and questions than I can cover here. As with all topics, I recommend doing your research and not just using friends’ recommendations to make the best decision for your family.

Below are some resources that I have found helpful when trying to learn more about GM food and making the best decision when purchasing food for my family.

  • “OMG, GMOs!”: Bill Nye (yes, the science guy) has a great podcast called Science Rules! In this episode, Bill and his guests dive in and cover all things GMO-related.
  • GMO Answers: GMO Answers is an initiative committed to responding to your questions about how food is grown. Its goal is to make information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.