Crossbreeding is such a tried-and-true method for developing new crops that it's no wonder the GMO (genetically modified organism) crowd wants to "genewash" us into believing they're doing pretty much the same thing. But in fact the two techniques are worlds apart. Usually, the process of genetic modification involves genes from totally different species that could never be crossbred—wheat genes injected into soybeans, for example. Sometimes, genes are transferred not just from another species, but from a different kingdom, such as animal cells injected into plant cells.
Genetically engineered crops are usually created one of two ways. The first is through a "gene gun." "You basically shoot millions of genes into a plate of cells, which you then clone into a plant," Smith says. The other way is through a bacterial infection; scientists create tumors out of various bacterial strains that "smuggle" the new gene into another plant's cell.
"The process creates extensive mutations," says Smith. "Inserting those genes can damage the DNA of the original plant." He adds that genes in the original plant can then change the way they function, so that, for instance, a corn gene that's normally silenced or inactive in a non-GMO variety could suddenly become active in a GM variety and trigger allergies, increase certain biological toxins, or become carcinogenic. Genetically modified crops are often designed to manufacture their own pesticides, he adds, and we're essentially eating those pesticides when we eat GM crops. "Genetically modified corn and soy have higher levels of lignin, which also produces rotenone," Smith says. Rotenone, a pesticide, has been linked to higher rates of Parkinson's disease.
"It's genetic roulette," Smith says. "We really are babes in the woods with this technology, and we're feeding the products of an infant science to the public."
One other major difference between the two: Hybrid seeds are allowed for use in organic production, while GMO seeds most definitely are not. To totally avoid GMO crops, buy products that are USDA Organic certified or that participate in the Non-GMO Project Verified program. And keep reading our blog as Rodale.com's editors try going GMO free for the month of October.