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Food For Thought: The Difference Between GMO And GE Foods


Supporters gather to announce a new initiative that would allow Oregon voters to decide if all GMO products sold in the state should be labeled.

Supporters gather to announce a new initiative that would allow Oregon voters to decide if all GMO products sold in the state should be labeled.

Cassandra Profita/OPB

GMO. GE. GM. Ever wonder what’s in alphabet soup? 

In November, Oregonians will vote on Measure 92, which requires food manufacturers and retailers to label all genetically engineered foods. 

And that got me wondering why I keep hearing about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, when people talk about the measure. Are “genetically engineered” — which is the designated ballot measure language — and “genetically modified” really interchangeable?

It turns out, not so much. 

The problem with calling these foods GMO is that it’s too broad of a definition. In an interview with the Huffington Post, geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam at the University of California, Davis, says that virtually every food has been genetically modified in some way. If two plants in nature happen to exchange pollen and produce a changed plant, that’s technically genetic modification.

The FDA, on the other hand, defines genetic engineering as “the name for certain methods that scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism.” Those methods include things like the targeted introduction or suppression of genes to get a specific response out of a plant or animal. An example of these types of plants would be herbicide resistant soy beans or corn. 

Genetically engineered foods using those targeted techniques have only been in the food supply since the 1990s, whereas GMOs have been around since time immemorial. 

It may be a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one to keep in mind when talking about the labeling measure because neither side wants every single item at the grocery store shelf to have a label if Measure 92 passes in November. 

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