Genetic Engineering: What Is It Really?

— Written By Jody Carpenter and last updated by
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Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms, most commonly known as GMOs, are controversial topics among their critics and supporters, but what are they really? Well, as the name indicates, it is the “act of engineering the genetic material of something to reach a desirable outcome”. (USDA Glossary) Broad definition? Yes. So in relative terms everything is genetically engineered, because genes naturally change with their environment. But what most people are concerned about is if manipulating genes in the lab is creating something different altogether. In reality, what is being changed is the expression of something minuscule such as a protein or an enzyme.

So why is it necessary to engineer the genetic material of an organism? Genetic engineering (GE) is normally used for situations when a slight genetic change can produce a given advantage. For example, genetic engineering is used in medical research to help combat disease. This is accomplished by manipulating certain characteristics in the host organism’s genetic material to make it more resistant disease, or by manipulating the genetic material of the disease to weaken its effects. This gives that organism a better overall advantage in combating the disease.

Information about genetic engineering can often be found on food labels. It is important to note that not every product in the grocery store is genetically engineered. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are only eleven GE products, but only eight of those are commercially available. They include: alfalfa, apple (‘Artic’ trademark), canola, corn, cotton, papaya, pineapple (‘Rose’ trademark), Potato (‘Innate’ trademark), soybean, squash, and sugarbeet. The apple, pineapple and potato varieties are not yet commercially available, as they are still in the testing phase. Most GE crops are not for direct human consumption, but rather are used for animal feed, seed oils, and fuel production.

If safety is your concern with these products, be assured that they are heavily tested by both the manufacturer and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for many safety parameters. Genetically engineered crops are categorized as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by many science and health organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The results of studies and testing have indicated that these products are safe. Products also go through additional testing prior to being commercially released.

There are many articles available on this topic, but keep in mind when searching that some may or may not have research to back up their claims. If you have further questions regarding this topic your local Cooperative Extension Office is always available to help, please contact us at 252-232-2261.

NC State University and N.C. A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, political beliefs, family and marital status, sex, age, veteran status, sexual identity, genetic information or disability. NC State, N.C. A&T, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.