eli5: What makes a product Non-GMO?

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I was under the impression that almost all products that we grow and eat are greatly modified (usually through selective breeding) from the wild/heirloom versions to maximize size, flavor, crop yields, etc. How do non-GMO products work if they appear to be the same “domesticated” produce? Does selective breeding not count?

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The term’s a bit loose. Taken literally it applies to pretty much every crop we grow today, as you said. When it shows up in public discourse though people generally mean a narrower definition: crops specifically modified through gene editing technology like CRISPR.

It gets talked about because people are skeptical of the safety of such methods compared to “traditional” generic modification methods like selective breeding. (Whether those fears are well-founded is a different issue.)

No, selective breeding does not count. GMOs are above and beyond selective breeding, we’re talking about “completely immune to glyphosate and unable to produce fertile seeds” levels of modification. These modifications are made by literal gene edition.

It’s largely the same thing, enhancing beneficial qualities and diminishing unwanted ones, just massively sped up and more precise because you can make the exact targeted changes you want instead of guiding nature to stumble along in your preferred direction for many generations.

The line of true difference, imo, can be drawn at GMO techniques being able to introduce changes that nature couldn’t/wouldn’t. A plant might never evolve resistance against an overwhelmingly powerful pesticide, but we can engineer that (to some degree). That’s not a bad thing in itself by any means, but of course it opens the doors to some less savoury business practices. We all love to hate Monsanto.