During the month of October, GMO Answers encourages you to Get to Know GMOs. Ask your questions and join the conversation online. Each week we’re posting new information to help you get to know GMOs and better understand the role of biotechnology in agriculture. For week one we discussed the biggest misconceptions about GMOs and for week two we covered GMO basics. Moving into week three now, we’re demystifying the science of GMOs, showing how science is used to ensure the safety of GMOs for humans and the environment, and more.

Below are highlights from this week’s post on Get to Know the Science Behind GMOs. We encourage you to read the post in its entirety to learn more on the science behind plant breeding and biotech safety.

Farmers have grown commercial GM crops for about 20 years, but genetic modification in crops is much older. Farmers have been intentionally changing the genetic makeup of all domesticated crops for about 10,000 years. Every fruit, vegetable and grain that is commercially available today has been altered by human hands, including organic and heirloom seeds.
Then, in the late 20th century, advances in technology enabled us to expand the genetic diversity of crops through genetic engineering; a major result of this was GM seeds. Kent Bradford, director of the University of California, Davis Seed Biotechnology Center explains, “From the scientists’ point of view,

[genetic engineering] was just an obvious extension of breeding and crop improvement methods that they were excited to utilize.”

CropLife International’s “Seed Story” takes us on a journey about seeds, from very early breeding methods and adaptations to today’s technologically sophisticated seed research and development. Check out this interactive infographic to follow the story of plant biotechnology in agriculture. This infographic also explains the many breeding techniques utilized to develop seeds for modern agriculture, including selective breeding, advanced breeding and GM plant breeding.

The Safety Behind Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

 Safe for the environment: In this post, Graham Brookes, Agricultural Economist, PG Economics Ltd, highlights how biotech crops have actually improved the environment by explaining that, “In addition to the reduction in the number of insecticide applications, there has been a shift from conventional tillage to no/reduced tillage facilitated by GM HT technology. This has had a marked effect on tractor fuel consumption because energy-intensive cultivation methods have been replaced with no/reduced tillage and herbicide-based weed control systems. … In 2012, the permanent CO2 savings from reduced fuel use associated with GM crops was 2,111 million kg. This is equivalent to removing 9 million cars from the road for a year.” And this infographic from ISAAA discusses the contribution of biotech crops to sustainability by reducing fuel usage and the environmental impact from herbicide and insecticide use, as well as conserving biodiversity.
 Safe to eat: GMOs on the market today are as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. They do not cause new allergies, cancer, infertility, ADHD, autism or any other diseases or conditions. In fact, scientific authorities around the world, such as the World Health Organization, American Medical Association and the American Association for Advancement of Science, agree that GM food crops do not pose any more risks to people, animals or the environment than any other foods. More on the scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs available here and in this video from the Nebraska Corn Board’s Kernels of Truth.
 Safe to grow: GM plants are extensively tested, and researchers look for any difference between the GM plant and conventional plants to make sure the GM variety grows the same as the non-GM variety. They’re also tested to make sure that they demonstrate the expected characteristic (e.g. insect resistance). More about the characteristics GM crops exhibit is available in our Get to Know GMOs – GMO Basics.

Where Does Genetic Modification Go From Here?

GM technology can help provide plant solutions for many types of real world problems. For example, a GM tobacco has been used to develop a treatment for the Ebola virus. GM citrus could help fight citrus greening, a plant disease that is devastating the citrus industry. A research center is developing BioCassava Plus – more nutritious, higher yielding, and more marketable cultivars of cassava, a staple crop consumed by more than 700 million people worldwide. We may also be able to restore a near-extinct plant species in genetically modifying the American chestnut tree to withstand the blight that has nearly wiped out this iconic hardwood tree. Herbicide and insect resistance might be the most well-known applications for genetic engineering right now, but the technology has endless potential applications for human and environmental benefit.