Genetically engineered (GE) foods have had their DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals. Scientists take the gene for a desired trait in one plant or animal, and they insert that gene into a cell of another plant or animal.
Genetic engineering can be done with plants, animals, or bacteria and other very small organisms. Genetic engineering allows scientists to move desired genes from one plant or animal into another. Genes can also be moved from an animal to a plant or vice versa. Another name for this is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The process to create GE foods is different than selective breeding. This involves selecting plants or animals with desired traits and breeding them. Over time, this results in offspring with those desired traits.
One of the problems with selective breeding is that it can also result in traits that are not desired. Genetic engineering allows scientists to select one specific gene to implant. This avoids introducing other genes with undesirable traits. Genetic engineering also helps speed up the process of creating new foods with desired traits.
The possible benefits of genetic engineering include:
- More nutritious food
- Tastier food
- Disease- and drought-resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources (such as water and fertilizer)
- Less use of pesticides
- Increased supply of food with reduced cost and longer shelf life
- Faster growing plants and animals
- Food with more desirable traits, such as potatoes that produce less of a cancer-causing substance when fried
- Medicinal foods that could be used as vaccines or other medicines
Some people have expressed concerns about GE foods, such as:
- Creating foods that can cause an allergic reaction or that are toxic
- Unexpected or harmful genetic changes
- Genes moving from one GM plant or animal to another plant or animal that is not genetically engineered
- Foods that are less nutritious
These concerns have proven to be unfounded. None of the GE foods used today have caused any of these problems. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assesses all GE foods to make sure they are safe before allowing them to be sold. In addition to the FDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate bioengineered plants and animals. They assess the safety of GE foods to humans, animals, plants, and the environment.
Cotton, corn, and soybeans are the main GE crops grown in the United States. Most of these are used to make ingredients for other foods, such as:
- Corn syrup used as a sweetener in many foods and drinks
- Corn starch used in soups and sauces
- Soybean, corn, and canola oils used in snack foods, breads, salad dressings, and mayonnaise
- Sugar from sugar beets
Other major GE crops include:
There are no side effects from consuming GE foods.
The World Health Organization, the National Academy of Science, and several other major science organizations across the globe have reviewed research on GE foods and found no evidence that they are harmful. There are no reports of illness, injury, or environmental harm due to GE foods. Genetically engineered foods are just as safe as conventional foods.
In the United States, labeling of genetically engineered foods is not required by the FDA. This is because there has been no significant difference found in nutrition or safety. The US Department of Agriculture recently proposed a draft rule on the labeling of bioengineered food and food ingredients. The new disclosure statements or symbols must be on most products by January 1, 2020.
Bioengineered foods; GMOs; Genetically modified foods
Hielscher S, Pies I, Valentinov V, Chatalova L. Rationalizing the GMO debate: the ordonomic approach to addressing agricultural myths. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13(5):E476. PMID: 27171102. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27171102.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
United States Department of Agriculture. National bioengineered food disclosure standard. www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/national-bioengineered-food-disclosure-standard. Accessed October 10, 2018.
US Food & Drug Administration. Consumer info about food from genetically engineered plants. www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/geplants/ucm461805.htm. Updated October 4, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018.
US Food & Drug Administration. How FDA regulates food from genetically engineered plants. www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/geplants/ucm461831.htm. Updated January 4, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018.
World Health Organization. Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods. www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/Frequently_asked_questions_on_gm_foods.pdf. Updated May 2014. Accessed October 10, 2018.
Review Date 7/14/2018
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, CNSC, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.