If you read last week’s blog, you know that there is some ill-intentioned disagreement about what counts as a GMO. Consumers overwhelmingly rejected the first wave of GMOs, so biotech companies are mounting campaigns to convince the public that new GMOs aren’t actually GMOs. Meanwhile, these companies are also working hard to mix up biotechnology and traditional crop breeding in the public eye. This leads people to ask us questions such as: “Aren’t all living things GMOs because all species have undergone genetic changes over time?” The answer, of course, is no! Let’s talk about traditional plant breeding and how it is different from biotechnology and GMOs. 

What is a GMO? What Isn’t? 

A GMO is an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through biotechnology in a way that does not occur naturally by multiplication and/or natural recombination.

This definition clearly does not apply to crops that have changed over time through natural selection. It also does not apply to crops that humans have been breeding since the dawn of agriculture using traditional farming practices (e.g., traditional crossbreeding). Trying to say that everything is a GMO is reductive and misleading. Moreover, it’s an intentional distraction from the real issues at hand.

Traditional crossbreeding methods are distinctly different from GMOs. These techniques rely on multiplication and natural recombination—not gene editing, biotechnology, recombinant DNA technology, or in vitro nucleic acid techniques. Traditional breeding methods occur in vivo; they happen to the whole organism rather than just to its nucleic acids. At the most basic level, these techniques all involve selecting for favorable traits based on observable characteristics or traits (i.e., phenotype-based selection). This is what Gregor Mendel accomplished with his pea plants a century before the first GMO was invented. 

Breeding techniques don’t have to be low-tech in order to be non-GMO.

There are plenty of ways to improve crops through technology that do not involve genetic engineering. Marker-assisted selection (MAS) is a great example of this. MAS allows plant breeders to learn useful genetic information about crops when they are trying to select for favorable traits. It shifts the process of plant breeding from phenotype-based selection to genotype-based section (i.e., selection based on genetic information). MAS uses molecular tools to speed up the traditional breeding process by allowing breeders to more quickly identify traits at the genetic level. This information can then be used to breed plants using other traditional, non-GMO methods. These crops do not undergo in vitro techniques, and modern biotechnology is not applied to them. They aren’t GMOs!

All of these different ways to grow crops can be confusing, but the Non-GMO Project is here to help. We sort through crop breeding technologies so you don’t have to—all you need to do is Look for the Butterfly to know you are choosing products made without GMOs.

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2 Comments

Rita Beitz

I suspect that a local “so called” organic market is selling GMO tomatoes. I bought some and some of them are still as fresh as I the day I purchased them on my counter. They are now 4 weeks old. I went to the market and confronted someone who said that she had worked there for 7 years. She said they have never sold GMO’s and she denyed these tomatoes were GMO. She also said that some of their farms offsite were NOT open to the public. As I pressed her to actually see the tomato plants that had the tomatoes that I purchased. I asked her if she thought any tomato would last fresh for three weeks? She wouldn’t answer me. She denyed everything. I left told her that she had been lied to or that someone was lying. I don’t believe a word of it. I have grown tomatoes all my life and never picked a ripe tomato that didn’t go bad within the first week or thee to four days. There was a campaign promoting a GMO tomotoe back in 1996 that boasted about it’s phenomenal shelf life. This is was I feel this was. It either is this kind of tomato or one that was crossed with this species. I am not an idiot and anyone with a brain who has grown tomatoes would not believe that this is not a GMO tomato. My question is to anyone who could get back to me. I still have some of these tomatoes. Can anyone tell me if these can be tested to verify of their origin? Can you test a veg or fruit and verify that it is either GMO or not?

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Lindsey Rieck

Hi Rita. You are correct in that there was a GMO tomato (Flavr Savr) genetically modified to have a longer shelf life, however, this was taken off the market and currently there are no GMO tomatoes available commercially. In regards to testing GMOs, unfortunately there isn’t a public option for affordably testing if products contain GMOs. However, look for our label on products to find items that have already been tested according to the Non-GMO Project Standard. I You might start with section 5 for more info specifically on GMO Testing.

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