GMO’s: What’s in a name?

“GMO” has become a word that’s used all the time. We see “non-GMO” products on boxes in the store and labels above our vegetables.

Picture from GMO Awareness

We see pictures of a mysterious gloved hand poking a needle into a tomato, adding mysterious substances to our food. But do we really understand what this all means, both the term “GMO” itself and what it means for us? We want our food to be safe, so we want to be cautious and understand what goes into the meals we make.

This episode begins a three-part series that looks at what GMO’s are, how they get to the grocery store, and what they do to us when they reach our dinner table. In this episode, we’re going to be digging into what GMO’s are and laying some foundations so we have a common language and understanding going into the next part of the series.

Where to Find our Guests:

Dr. Kevin Folta works at the University of Florida and hosts a podcast, Talking Biotech. His Twitter handle is @kevinfolta.

Dr. Curtis Hannah works at the University of Florida and is an Ambassador Expert of GMO Answers.


We want to equip you to do your own learning as well. Here are some resources that you can use to learn more:

GMO Answers is a really helpful website where you can connect with professionals and ask the tough questions. They’re committed to respecting personal choices on food products, answering any questions on GMOs, making information easy to access, supporting farmers to grow crops efficiently and respecting their right to choose the seed stock they work with.

Check out this youtube video for an explanation of DNA and how we can get information from it to make an entire plant.

Unfortunately, Dr. Folta was recently questions about a possible conflict of interest. Since then, we have talked to Dr. Folta and the allegations that were made against him are false. Dr. Folta was in compliance with his university’s policies. Conflicts of interest are something that all scientists must manage, and therefore we double and triple-check conclusions against other published works. Below we have posted links and explainations for the science that was presented in this series to do our best to show you what is credible science. We understand this can be confusing and upsetting. Please get in contact with us if you have more questions and we will do our best to help. Here is the original post by Biofortified along with two posts written by Dr. Folta as a response (1) (2).

  1. What do we call GMOs? Speaking with precision is important, as Dr. Folta said. As someone who regularly works with plants, the definitions that Dr. Folta has used- “modify the genes of plants in the next generation by addition complimentary genes from a different genotype or different type of plant”- is a valid description of how plants are modified (see also “This little seed went to market”). Overall, this isn’t really science being presented, as much as it is a discussion about names for the same thing. Here’s a link to the USDA’s website on their new labelling laws.
  2. Is glyphosate safe? There have been several articles published that say RoundUp is found in lots of foods that we commonly eat and drink. In this article, they say RoundUp is found at ~2 parts per billion. And this article summarizes some other RoundUp testing in food. They conclude that RoundUp is in food that we would not expect, which is true, but they also show that in all but one sample (organic cage-free eggs) it is all under the limit set by the EPA. As of 2015, the limit is 0.5 mg per kg of body weight. In 2015, the EPA also said that RoundUp is not considered a carcinogen in the US or in Europe (which usually has more strict guidelines). Article linked here. However, studies from both parties (those who say RoundUp/GMO’s pose medical risks and those who do not) have both come under question. It’s a murky question with lots of strong opinions and conflicting studies. But, our whole life is made up of risks- will we get E. coli from our lettuce? Will we get melanoma from going outside on a sunny day? It’s about assessing those risks and making choices that you feel comfortable with.
  3. Do the plants work? Listen to Joni Kamiya in our next episode for an inside scoop. She’s a farmer’s daughter who’s family needed to switch to GM crops in order to save their farm. And it’s true that most of the crops in fields today aren’t meant to boost yield- they’re changed to give the plant a cutting edge in surviving non-ideal conditions. Hopefully, they don’t experience those, but droughts, heat, and insects are a reality and we want to protect our food sources. In this article, there is a list of 33 GE crops that are on the market and what the modification is supposed to do. Only 1 is marked as high yield. There are crops too- like the “Golden Rice” that are still being improved. It’s hard to get everything right on the first try, but we can identify the problems and make sure that these crops will do what we need them too.
  4. What about the matoke story? Here’s an update from 2017 on this! The motivation that Dr. Folta talked about, that we want to make solutions to help people, is well said. For me, as a scientist, it’s interesting to learn about new things, but it’s worthless unless it can go beyond the wall of my lab and actually help people. As for the pepper gene, the gene that they add helps the plant to “seal off infected cells”. It’s like giving the plant tools tools to quarantine infected areas so the bacteria can’t get any further and harm the rest of the plant.

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