DEFINITION of 'Genetic Engineering'

The artificial modification of an organism’s genetic composition. Genetic engineering (GE) typically involves transferring genes from one organism into another organism of a different species in order to give the latter specific traits of the former. The resulting organism is called a transgenic or genetically modified organism (GMO). Examples of such organisms include plants that are resistant to certain insects and plants that can withstand herbicides. Genetic engineering is also being used on farm animals, with research objectives such as ensuring chickens cannot spread avian flu to other birds, or that cattle cannot develop the infectious prions that cause “mad cow” disease. However, no genetically engineered animal products have yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human consumption.

BREAKING DOWN 'Genetic Engineering'

Commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops such as soybean, maize, canola and cotton started in the early 1990s and has grown very substantially since then. Genetically engineered or GMO crops were commercially planted on 150 million hectares in 22 developed and developing nations as of 2010, compared with less than 10 million hectares in 1996.   

Genetic engineering and GMO are topics of spirited debate between its adherents and opponents. Supporters of genetic engineering claim that genetic engineering can boost agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields and lowering pesticide and fertilizer applications. Higher productivity will boost incomes and help alleviate poverty in many developing nations. Detractors list a number of concerns surrounding GMO, including allergic reactions, gene mutation, antibiotic resistance, and potential environmental damage.  

A large number of crops have already been subjected to genetic engineering or modification, including – canola, cotton, maize, melons, papayas, potatoes, rice, sugar beets, sweet peppers, tomatoes and wheat. The uncertainty about the potential long-term detrimental effects of these GMO crops has given rise to widespread aversion to so-called “Frankenfoods.” The controversy over GMO has also made Monsanto, the agricultural giant that supplies seeds and other products to farmers, one of the most reviled companies in the U.S., according to a 2014 Harris Poll.

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