What Is a GMO Food? Not Something With A Syringe.

what is a gmo? Not this.

When you search online for “what is a GMO” you get inundated with images that look like the one above. I found it on photodune, a stock image site, by searching for “gmo.” You know what the title of the image was? “Scientist Injecting GMO Into The Tomato.”

Only this is NOT a GMO. This is theatre. This is like children playing cops and robbers or doctor. Your children are neither cops nor robbers. They are just having fun playing. Your daughter is not a doctor curing your headache – she’s pretending. She can’t even count to 100 yet. The doctor’s “robe” she’s wearing was bought for Halloween and the stethoscope was bought from a toy store. They’re not supposed to be real. And that’s ok, because it’s children’s play and everybody knows that – including your child.

That’s exactly what is happening with this image – and even its title shows its ridiculousness. You don’t genetically modify a tomato by injecting some substance or by injecting a “gmo!” (And following the photographer’s logic, if you inject a gmo then how did you create the gmo in the first place?)

The photographer placed the produce with a white background, bought a white glove, bought a syringe, possibly cranberry juice or something similar, and voila! That’s how this picture was created. This hand is not the hand of a real scientist and the concept has nothing to do with how GMOs are actually produced.

However, images like that show the state of misinformation around this subject. When you get inundated with images that show produce and injections, then you believe this is what a GMO food is. The situation gets even worse when false information is spread by people of authority. Check out this image shared by a politician:

gmo tomato
There are no GM tomatoes available commercially. Someone please tell this politician.

Only there are no genetically modified tomatoes available commercially. Fail. Let’s break out of imaginary GMOs and actually learn what a real gmo is.

What is a GMO food and is it part of a healthy diet?

If that’s what you’re wondering you’re at the right place! In this article we’ll discuss:

  • What is a GMO food?
  • What is NOT a GMO?
  • Are GMOs “natural?”
  • Are GMOs part of a healthy diet?

Let’s go!

What is a GMO food?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Now, this term is very generic and could be applied to almost any food, because almost every food that we nowadays consume has been modified genetically. However, in the context of how we most commonly use this term, we refer to foods that have been genetically engineered.

(GMO can also refer to any organism not just food, but we’re keeping this to food for this discussion.)

So what does genetic engineering really refer to? How is a GM food born? I asked Anastasia Bodnar, the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc and a scientist with a PhD in genetics, to explain it to me:

Genetically engineered foods start with researchers finding a gene that causes a desired trait, such as disease resistance. Then, they need to get that gene into the species they want to change. There are different ways to do this, but the most basic starts with extracting DNA from the species that has the gene. They use molecular scissors to cut out the gene. Then, the researchers use a “gene gun” to push the gene into plant cells and some of those cells will take up the DNA into their genomes. The researchers grow the cells into whole plants and choose the ones that have the trait they want.

Another method uses a natural soil bacteria called Agrobacterium. This bacteria has the ability to move its genes into a plant and force the plant to grow food for it. Researchers can swap out the bacteria’s genes with the genes they want, and let the bacteria do its work. As with the gene gun, researchers then choose the plants that have the trait they want.

Now plant breeding is another method humans have been using to change traits in crops. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and have modified virtually every crop. Here are a few examples showing the evolution of corn, watermelon, and peach.

I asked Anastasia to explain to me how plant-breeding works:

For plant breeding, researchers start by selecting the trait they want. They don’t need to know the exact gene or genes causing the trait, though that can be helpful. As with genetic engineering, there are many ways to go about plant breeding, but the most basic is just selecting the plants that are closest to what you want. This may mean choosing a wild relative of the crop plant. Instead of moving the gene over directly, researchers have to cross a wild relative and a crop plant. They grow the resulting seeds and choose the ones that are closest to what they want. Over many generations, researchers may be able to get a crop variety that has the trait they wanted, but it can be difficult and time consuming since wild relatives have many undesirable traits.

Now when needed, scientists may turn to another crop modification technique, mutagenesis.

Sometimes it’s not possible to find the trait you want in a crop relative, so researchers may turn to mutagenisis to create a new trait. This involves using chemicals or radiation to cause random changes in the plant’s DNA. The researchers then have to screen hundreds or thousands of plants to choose the one that has the desired trait.

But unlike genetic engineering where we can be specific, with both plant breeding and mutagenesis we cannot control exactly what genes get affected. The result is we may end up with a crop that has been improved in one way but suffers in another. “With mutagenesis, many genes can be mutated, not just the one that you want to change. With plant breeding, wild relatives bring in traits like small seeds, which may make them more difficult to harvest or/reduce their yield, along with desired traits like disease resistance,” says Bodnar.

Ok and now that our “Introduction to what is a GMO?” is over let’s review what is NOT a GMO.

What is NOT a GMO?

Since we’re inundated in “gmo images” that are not really gmo images, let’s expose a few more of them.

There are no GM tomatoes commercially available. But this board here would be a fun way to take pictures in halloween. Notice the “unnaturally” word. I’ll talk about this later.

gmo lies
Tomato Fish / GMO by elizaIO, CC BY-SA 2.0


Cute car and this corn/fish is a nice piece of art. It just has nothing to do with the true nature of GMOs.

gmo fear-mongering
Right 2Know March (GMO Labeling) by Daniel Lobo, CC BY 2.0


Apparently fish art-work is in fashion in anti-GMO circles. I’m not even sure what this is supposed to show, but it’s definitely cute. My inner child wants to play.

Photo by John Leszczynski, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by John Leszczynski, CC BY-SA 2.0

What is a GMO? Not something that’s half-fish, half-something else. Children’s play aside, these images are fictional. They depict their creators’ imaginations. They don’t depict how GMOs are created, how they look like, or what they do. However, if you liked this artwork there are more examples here.

So why did we create GMOs in the first place?

For exactly the same reason we’ve been using plant-breeding. To create better-tasting food that’s more resistant to diseases and the plights of nature (e.g., floods and drought are good examples.)

But aren’t GMOs “unnatural?” Not really, because nobody can define what the standards for “natural” are.

“Natural” is all the rage now. The FDA has been (unsuccessfully) trying to define this term for decades. Part of the problem is our standards for “natural” differ from food to food (other standards for ice-cream say vs. fruits) and also from person to person. Some people connect it to their religion, others connect to what they think nature can or cannot do (more on that later); it’s all a maze.

What’s interesting though is that since forever and until a few decades ago, “natural” was frowned upon.

From this NPR piece on the government’s most recent attempt to define what “natural” really means:

For most of history, people wanted the most refined, the most processed, the most thoroughly cooked food possible. This was regarded as the most simple and natural food, because all the dross had been removed by the purifying effects of processing and cooking, particularly fire.

Nobody wanted raw meat. Cooked vegetables are easier to digest and safer to eat. People wanted more processing.

Now the trend has reversed, only our understanding of “what’s natural” is all over the place. If you really want a “natural” banana, go eat the one with the seeds and see how filling that is. Because the seedless one was not born by accident, we helped create it.

wild banana
wild banana, photo by Rita Banerji used with permission

Are you objective or employing double standards?

In my opinion, we are part of nature so I really don’t get why we have double standards. So why is something that we help create unnatural while something that other species create natural? So a bird’s nest is natural, but our houses are unnatural; double standards.

But double standards are not just applied on humans vs. other species. They are also applied between technologies. So every food processing is frowned upon but we love computers right? Or what about the ability to fly? Isn’t this unnatural? We were never supposed to fly and that’s why we don’t have any wings. Let’s ban airplanes.

I just can’t help myself, I must share this from The SkepDick:

gmo truth


There are even double standards between scientific facts. So we can all accept climate change while at the same time denying the scientific consensus on vaccines or the scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. Hmm…

There are many attempts to position GMOs as unnatural – even when nobody can really define what natural is.

What is a GMO? Not something unnatural! Think twice before you think you know what’s going on in nature or what nature can or cannot do. You don’t want to embarrass yourself with tweets like that:

what is a gmo
Scientist Layla Katiraee calling out GMOInside for their scientific illiteracy.


Are GMOs part of a healthy diet?

This question doesn’t really make sense because pretty much everything is genetically modified (remember plant breeding?) There are no nutritional benefits by consuming non-GMO food. GM crops are as safe as their non-GM counterparts. So, yes, GMOs are part of a healthy diet just like any other crop. Whether your diet is healthy depends on the mix of nutrients you get, not on the way a crop was produced (whether that is plant breeding, mutagenesis, or GE – just to name a few.)

The problem with children’s play masquerading as science.

There’s one thing about GMOs that makes me very emotional.

Children’s play masquerading as actual science has led many people to have anti-GMO sentiments. I would be more tolerant to science illiteracy if people didn’t die because of anti-GMO culture. Greenpeace, an anti-GMO organization, has already been accused of committing crimes against humanity for its opposition to Golden Rice, a genetically engineered rice that can counter Vitamin A deficiency and prevent 500,000 children from going blind annually (numbers differ depending on what children are included. You may see this reported in the millions, so the 500k number is conservative.)

(Greenpeace has actually tried to destroy GM crops, including the life-saving Golden Rice – that’s the extent of their fervor against a food technology we should be grateful for.)

If these children were in the US, would we act the same? No. If these were “our” children we’d do anything we could to protect them as soon as possible. We wouldn’t say BS arguments like “we can save them by reducing food waste,” when we don’t actually know how to do that and while we have a solution that can work almost immediately. If we get to the point of saving these people 20 years from now by reducing food waste or improving other methods, then that’s 500,000×20 = 10 Million children that will have already gone blind or died for no reason other than the fact we chose to be scientifically illiterate. Please don’t comment on Golden Rice before you read this.

So don’t be afraid of science. Understand how GMOs work. Call out your friends who post pictures of “GMOs” with syringes. Challenge yourself to go beyond superficial understanding on biotechnology issues. If you find this hard to do, don’t settle for mediocre understanding – ask a scientist. You simply cannot make informed decisions about labeling or any other GMO issues without understanding the science behind GMOs first.

what is a gmo

When I asked Bodnar about her opinion on GM foods being depicted with syringes all over the web, her answer was: “It’s just silly. We don’t wear biohazard suits to work on GMOs, either.”

The best resource to get informed about all things GM-crops (yields, herbicides, safety, etc) is to go over this 388-page report by the National Academies of Science or read the National Geographic summary here.

Now leave a comment: Did you also start out thinking the GMOs were something with a syringe? Tell us your GMO journey in the comments below.

Note: I know GM discussions can get heated, so I’m letting you know in advance, personal attacks or name-calling are not permitted. I care about helping people engage in a constructive discussion, not in meaningless name-calling and ad hominems. Comments that violate this policy will be deleted without warning.

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  1. But g.e. crops use roundup, so they must be horrible. Wrong. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10854122
    But evil corporations patent life, for profit. Every company that has a research department patents their products. One of my friends holds patents on several Lantanas, including “Anne Marie” named after his youngest daughter. Profit is good and necessary and patents expire.