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Genetically modified (GM) plants: questions and answers

What are genetically modified (GM) plants? Is genetic modification safe? Where are GM crops grown and eaten?

Food security is one of this century's key global challenges, as noted in our earlier report Reaping the Benefits, and due to the scale of the challenge, we should really think carefully before we rule out any technology that might help deal with the problem. The questions and answers given here are intended to provide a resource to those who are interested in what GM is, how it is used and potential future uses.

The Royal Society commissioned Ipsos MORI to find out what people want to know about GM plants, and then drew on a panel of expert, independent scientists to answer your questions. We hope that these answers explain the science behind GM and help you form your own view.  

Explore 18 questions about genetically modified (GM) plants

  • Introduction to GM plants: questions and answers

    The Royal Society has drawn on a panel of expert, independent scientists to answer your questions about GM plants.

    Read more

  • Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society

    The Royal Society has drawn on scientific experts to answer a number of questions about scientific and technological issues relating to GM crops.

    Read the foreword

  • What is genetic modification (GM) of crops and how is it done?

    GM is a technology that involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism...

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  • How common are genes in food?

    All food from plants or animals contains genes. In cooked or processed foods, most of the DNA has been destroyed...

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  • How does GM differ from conventional plant breeding?

    The goal of both GM and conventional plant breeding is to produce crops with improved characteristics by changing their genetic makeup...

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  • What about unforseen consequences of GM?

    There is no evidence that producing a new crop variety using GM techniques is more likely to have unforeseen effects than producing one using conventional cross breeding...

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  • Which genes have been introduced into GM crops so far and why?

    The most prominent examples include genes that make the crops resistance to insects, viruses and herbicides...

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  • What GM crops are currently being grown and where?

    In 2015, GM crops were grown in 28 countries and on 179.7 million hectares...

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  • Where are GM crops being eaten?

    The main GM crops, maize (corn) and soybean, are used mostly for feeding animals...

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  • Is it safe to eat GM crops?

    Yes. There is no evidence that a crop is dangerous to eat just because it is GM...

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  • Could eating GM food have an effect on my genes?

    No. Eating GM food will not affect a person’s genes. Most of the food we eat contains genes...

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  • Have GM crops caused damage to the environment?

    Crops do not damage the environment simply because they are GM...

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  • If we grow GM crops will they cross breed with other plants?

    Yes. GM crops may cross breed with closely related plants... 

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  • What can be done to prevent cross breeding of GM crops?

    Research has been conducted aimed at making GM plants that cannot reproduce...

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  • GM crops have only been around for 20 years, might there still be unexpected and untoward side effects?

    Yes, there could be unexpected side effects from any new crop variety...

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  • How are GM crops regulated?

    GM crops cannot be grown, either for experiments or commercial farming, without approval by the appropriate regulatory agency...

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  • Who is paying for GM crop development and who owns the technology?

    The discoveries that enabled GM technology were largely made by public sector scientists...

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  • Are there examples where GM has not delivered the promised improvements in crops?

    Yes, there are cases where a GM crop has not delivered the intended improvements...

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  • What new GM crops are being developed?

    GM crops are being developed to be more disease-resistant, to have enhanced nutritional value...

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  • What methods other than genetic improvement can improve crop performance?

    Crop genetic improvement, by GM or conventional approaches, is only one...

    Read the full answer

Further reading

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) report: Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects 

The Council of Science and Technology: GM Science Update (PDF)