Genetically modified organisms, GMOs, are organisms that have been manufactured in laboratories using gene splicing techniques. This biotechnology allows for the DNA of one species to be inserted into the genetic code of another species. Characteristics that can not be obtained through traditional crossbreeding methods are the focus of genetic modification. The most common GMO grains are corn, soybeans and rice. GMO wheat has been researched for years, but not introduced to the global market yet. Although GMOs are banned in many nations, the U.S. is the world leader in GMO research, cultivation and consumption.
According to the USDA, 86 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. in 2009 was from genetically modified crops. The most common modification in corn crops is the addition of a bacterium known as Bt. This bacterium releases a toxic protein that kills pests such as the corn borer. Unfortunately, the pollen of GMO corn is harmful to other insects as well. A Cornell University study found that pollen from GMO corn that drifted to nearby plants killed 44 percent of the Monarch butterfly larvae in the area. GMO corn is found in obvious products such as corn meal, corn syrup and corn starch. However, 90 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is fed to livestock so the presence of GMOs can be found in meats and dairy as well.
In 2001, the genome of the rice plant was mapped out. This led to a substantial increase in research and development of GMO rice. The research was undertaken by a number of different companies and focused on herbicide resistance, beta-carotine content, insect, viral, bacterial and fungal resistances, higher yields, protein and starch content and altering the photosynthesis process. GMO rice can be found in many rice-based products, but also in alcoholic beverages such as beer and sake.
2007 marked the first year where the global soybean crop was predominantly made up of genetically modified crops. 216 million tons were produced that year, with 58 percent made from GMO crops. The United States, Brazil and Argentina are the leading global producers of soybeans and 85 percent of the U.S. crop; 98 percent of the Argentinian crop, and 64 percent of the Brazilian crop were GMO. GMO soybeans are turned into common food additives such as lecithin, an emulsifier found in chocolate, ice cream and margarine. GMO soybeans are also widely used for animal feed.
Although GMO wheat is not commercially available, it is one of the most widely researched crops worldwide. Monsanto, the world's leading producer of GMO seeds, abandoned plans to field test GMO wheat in 2004 due to protests from farmers who were worried the GMO wheat would cross pollinate non-GMO wheat and make it unsuitable for export. The main focus of Monsanto's research was to combat a disease known as leaf rust, which destroys an estimated 20 percent of the U.S. wheat crop every year. However, U.S. wheat farmers changed their stance in 2009 due to acreage losses to GMO crops such as corn and soybeans, which are more profitable. Monsanto estimates that GMO wheat will be commercially grown in the U.S. within the next 10 years.