It turns out, the famous "you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes," lyric from 1937's Shall We Dance, is applicable to today's great genetically engineered (GE) food debate. While the dialect is the same, several acronyms that refer to essentially the same concept are muddying up the dialogue. Whether you use GMO, GE or GM, one thing is clear: there's something going on in our food that isn't natural.

Genetically engineered tomatoesWhy is this debate important? GE, or biotech, crops have been adopted by farmers worldwide at higher rates than any other agricultural practice in history, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and since the first significant commercial plantings in 1996 acreage devoted to biotech crops has increased 60-fold.

But perhaps even more important is that consumers still aren't clear on what these terms mean. In 2000, FDA conducted a series of focus groups on the terms to see what was understood and how people responded. The study found:

  • The term "modification" was seen as a vaguer, softer way of saying engineered.
  • The "bio" prefix had a positive connotation.
  • Terms such as "product of biotechnology" or "biotechnology" had the least amount of negative implication.
  • Most participants were unfamiliar with the term "Genetically Modified Organism" (GMO). It seemed to imply that foods are organisms or contain organisms, which people think is inaccurate and unappealing.

This last point was raised by an attendee at a recent GMO education session at NPA MarketPlace. Can you use GMO alone to denote GE plants? Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety says yes. "Nothing about 'GMO' suggests organisms floating around in corn," for example, he said. "The corn is the organism, and organism is a perfectly acceptable general term to refer to living things."

The study revealed that consumers favored terms that the biotechnology industry currently uses most (chicken or the egg?) to describe a genetically engineered crop. How much has the climate changed since then? Here are the most commonly used terms explained according to regulations and industry.