What is genetic engineering? Genetic engineering (GE) is the process of copying a gene from one living organism (plant, animal or microbe) and adding it to another living organism. More recently, the definition has come to include changing the expression of existing genes in an organism. These products of biotechnology are often referred to as “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs” although scientists generally prefer the term GE.

When was genetic engineering developed? The first transfer of a gene from one organism to another through genetic engineering was accomplished in 1972 and the first GE product was human insulin. Virtually all the insulin in use today is GE as are many other pharmaceuticals industrial products. The first GE agricultural crops were produced in 1995.

Who grows GE crops? In 2012, GE crops were grown in 28 countries on more than 420 million acres. The US is the largest producer of GE crops followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India. Five European countries grow GE crops.

Why have some crop plants been genetically engineered? Genes are the instructions all living things use to build and maintain their cells. Adding a new gene to a plant, or altering the expression of an existing gene, can give the plant traits that may be beneficial to growers or consumers, making plants that are more resistant to insects and disease, and in some cases, allow reduced pesticide use, simplify weed control and reduce soil erosion, or produce fruit that will stay fresh longer.

Who regulates genetically engineered agricultural products? In the United States, three agencies regulate genetic engineering: the Food and Drug Administration (food safety for animals and humans), the Environmental Protection Agency (safety of GE plants in the environment) and the United States Department of Agriculture (environmental release and safety).

Am I eating genetically engineered foods? Recent estimates suggest that about 70% of processed foods contain at least one ingredient from a GE plant—largely due to the widespread adoption of GE corn and soybean by farmers. Many of these crops eventually become processed ingredients, such as corn syrup or soybean oil, and traces of genetic engineering can no longer be detected. 

Are GE foods safe to eat? The FDA considers the safety of a new GE food in comparison to a similar non-GE food. A GE food must be labeled or kept off the market entirely if it has any detectable difference in nutrition or allergens from the comparable non-GE food—but no GE foods currently on the market do. There is no evidence to date that GE foods on the market are less safe than their non-genetically engineered counterparts.

What if I don’t want to eat food made with GE ingredients? Certified organic standards do not allow use of genetically engineered foods or processing aids. More and more stores have an assortment of certified organic foods. Because there is no scientific evidence that organic foods are safer than those produced through biotechnology, organic foods can’t be labeled as being safer.