When people hear the term genet­i­cally mod­ified organism, many think of sci­en­tists hunched over lab benches, injecting chem­icals into grotesquely shaped veg­etables. Admit­tedly, the concept of changing the genetic makeup of our food can sound intim­i­dating or scary thanks to the abun­dance of fear­mon­gering about GMOs.

Stripping away the scary ter­mi­nology is the first step to showing GMOs’ pos­itive con­tri­bu­tions to agri­culture — con­tri­bu­tions that out­weigh the over­hyped uncer­tainties. GMOs help solve food shortages and mal­nu­trition by pro­viding faster-growing, healthier crops. And no, these foods won’t glow in the dark.

The root cause for most of the mis­in­for­mation about GMOs can be traced to a lack of under­standing about the science behind these crops. Kate Krepps, asso­ciate field crop spe­cialist for Michigan Farm Bureau, com­pared the process of mod­i­fying plant genes to replacing a page of a book, since all organisms share a common lan­guage in their genetic material.

“Really, you’re pulling one piece out and inserting another piece that’s found nat­u­rally within that plant,” she said. “It’s just like stopping that book on that page, ripping it out, and replacing it with another page from the book. Mod­ified, yes, but still part of the same book.”

For thou­sands of years, humans have used genetic selection: Farmers cul­tivate seeds from the plants that produce the juiciest tomatoes, the largest ears of corn, and the most tender spinach leaves. They breed cows that can produce the most nutri­tious milk, and more of it. By main­taining animals or planting seeds that contain desirable genes, farmers have already manip­u­lated the plant or animal’s genome by replacing one set of traits with another. The genetic mod­i­fi­cation of organisms is merely a more precise and direct con­tin­u­ation of this selection process rather than waiting hun­dreds of years to achieve the same effect.

It’s also a myth that GMOs are pro­duced without super­vision, slipping insid­i­ously onto super­market shelves without safety checks. Bob Boehm, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s com­modity and mar­keting department, said there is a thorough research process that occurred for each of the eight GMO products cur­rently on the market: alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, sugar beets, and summer squash. According to Boehm, genet­i­cally mod­ified crops are studied an average of 13 years, with research invest­ments aver­aging around $136 million before the products are made available to con­sumers.

In addition to the rig­orous research required to demon­strate a GMO’s safety, the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency ensures they are safe for the envi­ronment, the Department of Agri­culture ensures that they are safe for farmers, and the Food and Drug Admin­is­tration ensures they are safe for con­sumers. Boehm referred to these as the “three-legged stool” of reg­u­lation that ensured the safety of any GMO product on the market.

Choosing to consume GMO products is up to the indi­vidual, but genetic mod­i­fi­cation is a ben­e­ficial process, not a harmful one. According to the Food and Agri­culture Orga­ni­zation of the United Nations, GMOs allow farmers to produce more nutri­tious food. For example, genet­i­cally engi­neering rice to contain more vitamin A can reduce vitamin A defi­ciencies and the resulting blindness that may occur for the 50 percent of the world’s pop­u­lation that relies on rice as a dietary staple.

The United Nations projects that the global pop­u­lation will con­tinue to grow, adding as many as 83 million new mouths to feed each year. GMOs will help ensure that there is enough nutri­tious food to meet the growing needs of the human race.

“What we’re trying to do is provide safe food. So as the tech­nology moves, we learn that there’s a better way,” Boehm said. “The impact of tech­nology changes how we do every­thing. Agri­culture is no dif­ferent.”

Although genetic mod­i­fi­cation is still rel­a­tively new to con­sumers, it serves as one of the best available methods for farmers to combat pests and crop ill­nesses in a manner that will still be safe for humans. Pests evolve and find new ways to adapt and survive; GMOs are one of many tools that make sure crops survive long enough to end up at the grocery store.

Once the mis­con­cep­tions and pro­pa­ganda about genet­i­cally mod­ified foods dis­appear, GMOs show promise as part of the solution for pro­viding people with more nutri­tious, cost-effi­cient food.

Madeleine Jepsen is a senior studying bio­chem­istry.