What are Genetically Modified Crops?

J.S. Metzker Erdemir

Genetically modified crops are agricultural products that have had their DNA manipulated in order to give them certain traits such as resistance to diseases, pests, or herbicides. Food crops might also be engineered to have other desirable traits, such as faster maturation or increased nutritional content. The genetic modification of foods is hotly debated. More than 40 countries, including the European Union, have strict restrictions on genetically modified food and animal feed while other countries including Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Algeria have banned outright the import and cultivation of genetically modified crops.

Genetically modified sorghum.
Genetically modified sorghum.

Traditional breeding of food crops involves selecting plants with good characteristics like improved flavor, yield, or disease resistance and breeding them in order to create cultivars with these qualities. When crops are genetically engineered, genes from one organism are inserted into another organism using biotechnological techniques. For example, corn can be made resistant to certain insects by inserting genes from a soil-borne bacteria that is toxic for those insects. Genes can also be altered to cause their suppression.

Fruits and vegetables are often genetically engineered.
Fruits and vegetables are often genetically engineered.

Biotechnology companies argue that genetically modified crops will increase food production and protect the world from a global crisis of food security. They claim that these crops reduce pesticide use because they do not need to be sprayed for insects, disease, and noxious weeds. Not only can food crop yields be increased, but nutritional qualities of food can be enhanced, as well as flavor and quality.

The U.S. does not require labeling of genetically modified (GMO) food.
The U.S. does not require labeling of genetically modified (GMO) food.

Environmentalists, scientists, doctors and farmers contend that there are as of yet unknown consequences to people, agriculture, and global ecology. Opponents of genetically modified crops point out that there is plenty of food in the world, and that famine is caused by political and economic forces. Some weeds and other pests are becoming resistant to pesticides, requiring their increased use, and pollen from modified plants can contaminate natural food crops. The World Health Organization cautions that genetically engineered food might develop proteins that cause new food allergies and antibiotic resistance.

Biotechnology companies claim that genetically modifying crops will reduce the chances of famine in developing areas.
Biotechnology companies claim that genetically modifying crops will reduce the chances of famine in developing areas.

Agricultural biodiversity is threatened through increased use of genetically modified seed, which increases the likelihood of crops that can't resist disease and pests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2009, 88 percent of cotton, 91 percent of soybeans, and 85 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. The companies that produce these seeds have patents on them, giving these industries control over as much as 75 percent of all processed food sold in the U.S.

Most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered.
Most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered.
Crop genetic research has produced seeds that can better withstand drought and disease.
Crop genetic research has produced seeds that can better withstand drought and disease.

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Discussion Comments


I know a lot of people like to focus on the cons of genetically modified crops, but I see nothing wrong with the practice. I think we're actually just speeding up nature a little bit.

If you think about it, crops genetically modify themselves over time. They adapt to their environment and self select for certain traits, since the crops that are the strongest survive to spread their seeds. I think we're basically just doing the same thing, but at a much faster rate.


I think genetically modified crops can be very beneficial. However, I do think we need to tread carefully in this area. As the article said, our current agricultural biotechnology is resulting in less biodiversity. This is bad for a number of reasons.

I think that biotechnologists should genetically modify the same food in a few different ways. For example, create a few completely different types of genetically modified corn. That way, if a crop disease pops up that affects one, it might not affect the other.

Also, I think we definitely need to keep stores of seeds of all of these crops in their natural form. If we're not careful, they could be lost forever. Also, stores of seeds that haven't been modified could be a great starting point if something goes wrong with genetic modification.


@elizabeth23- I think I agree with you, and it's definitely not just a religious view. I have a few friends in scientific fields who feel the same, that genetically modified crops are harmful, or could be, and we don't know enough about them to really sanction their use.


@golf07- I am not sure I really see genetically modifying food as a decrease in harmful products, though, even if it's done in a different way.

I also think we need to remember that for centuries, even millennia, people have been growing food without things like pesticides or genetically altered foods. I think the problem is that we are trying to improve nature, and I don't believe you can do that.

I know that is a belief a lot of people don't share, and which many might think is a dim and overly religious idea, but I'm not saying it in terms of God or gods creating the world perfectly. I just think there's a balance that no one species should try so hard to fix. Simplifying, I think, would be better than trying to add more to nature.


I know this is a controversial topic and much debate has been going on regarding this subject.

I am not one to usually sit on the fence, but I can really see both the pros and cons of genetically modified crops.

On one hand I believe that food in its natural state is the healthiest and that is the best way to consume it. On the other hand, the use of pesticides have gotten so out of control, that many times it is hard to grow food that has not somehow been touched by these chemicals.

If genetically engineered crops can drastically cut down on the use of these chemicals and increase food production, I can see that as being a positive thing.

I am sure this debate will continue on for a long time and there will be much heated discussion and research that is done in the mean time.

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