What is a GMO?

Andrew Pollack had an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday that was ostensibly about companies using various techniques to get around regulations surrounding GMOs.  But, that's not what I think the key point of his article is.  Rather, it emphases exactly how hard it is to define what a "GMO" is and it underscores the lack of precision by opponents of the technology who use the term (and no I'm not referring to the folks shown in the Jimmy Kimmel segment that didn't even know what the acronym stands for).  The article also appropriately raises the issue of the costs and entry barriers that exist with the current regulatory regime (a topic I've previously touched on).  

Here's what I wrote about the definitional difficulties a couple months ago in the Milken Review:   

Genetic engineering involves the transfer of a gene (or multiple genes) from one species to
another through synthetic means. Just because the process occurs in a lab, it doesn’t follow that the resulting seeds couldn’t have been produced by “natural” means. . . . Resistance to certain herbicides, for example, can also be attained, albeit at a slower rate, via traditional plant breeding. Indeed, many strains of rice grown today are conventionally bred to be resistant to herbicides. Traditional plant breeding requires the breeder to find wild or unusual cultivars that display the trait of interest and repeatedly crossbreed them with a commercial variety until getting an offspring that is similar to the original commercial variety yet exhibits the desired trait.

Genetic engineering, by contrast, attempts to speed up the process by moving only those genes of interest into the commercial variety. Sometimes these genes come from wild
variants of the same species (using so-called cisgenic technology) or from entirely different species (using transgenic technology) [Pollack’s NYT article seems to mainly be about gene editing - turning on and off genes already present in a plant]. As the comparison of cisgenic and transgenic technologies suggest, the dividing line between what is and what is not genetically engineered is fuzzy and somewhat arbitrary: Transgenic is often considered genetic engineering, whereas cisgenic is not, despite the fact that both approaches use the same methods and differ only in the origin of the genes transferred.

Some of the unusual cultivars used in aforementioned conventional crossbreeds are created by mutagenesis – that is, exposing seeds to radiation or to chemicals in hopes of random, beneficial, mutations. This approach has been used for more than half a century and is not considered genetic engineering, nor is it regulated as such. In fact, certified organic
seeds can arise from varieties produced via mutagenesis.

Then, later in the same article . . .

Ultimately, it must be recognized that genetically engineered foods are not a single “thing.” To broadly claim that they cause harm lacks precision (not to mention evidence). One needs to tie a specific genetic alteration to a specific type of harm. It is possible to imagine genetic modifications that could trigger allergies (the purely hypothetical example of inserting a peanut gene into corn comes to mind). But most of the commercially used applications on the market today are not of this sort, and new GE crops that were couldn’t pass regulatory muster.

Some plant researchers from UC Davis were quoted in Pollack's article as saying,

the regulatory framework had become “obsolete and an obstacle to the development of new agricultural products.”