In the past, grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding were employed to modify plant traits. More recently, technology has been developed to directly manipulate genes to change the characteristics of a plant. Many genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been developed to make food crops, such as corn and potatoes, resistant to pests and herbicides. Other GMO crops, such as tomatoes, have been designed with other goals, such as increasing the shelf life of produce, making plants cold- and drought-tolerant, and improving their nutritional content.
Tomatoes were the first of the commercial GMO crops. They were modified to increase their shelf life so when they arrived at market they would still be firm. Corn became another one of the first transgenic GMO crops when genes from bacillus thuringiensis (bt) bacteria were inserted into the corn’s genetic material as an insecticide to control insects that feed on the plant. Since then, genetic engineering with bt has been successful in improving the resistance of other plants to insect predation. Potatoes and cotton are other transgenic GMO crops that have successfully incorporated the bt protein that gives the plants insecticidal properties.
Soybeans and corn are the most widely grown GMO crops. Due to the abundance of soy, corn, and cotton GMO crops, many GMO products have entered the food chain. Although many of the vegetables available in the produce section of the average grocery store aren’t GMO crops, a large percentage of the processed foods sold in the United States contain GMO ingredients.
Corn oil, corn syrup, corn meal, corn starch, and fructose often contain ingredients made from GMO corn. Soybean oil, tofu, tempeh, lecithin, and soy meal are just a few of the products containing GMO soybeans. Vegetable oil and cottonseed oil are products commonly made from GMO cotton.
The use of GMO food crops is a controversial issue. Some claim it is cheaper to produce GMO foods since recombinant DNA technology has made it possible to avoid the use of chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides. Proponents believe that GMO food crops are necessary to feed the growing world population.
On the other side are people who oppose GMO food crops. They often refer to them as Frankenfoods and are concerned that ingesting genetically engineered foods can create serious allergies and other adverse health conditions. For those who are concerned about GMO foods, the best way to avoid them is to buy food that is certified to be 100% organic.