In early December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its final rules on GMO (or genetically modified organisms) labeling, for the first time requiring most food manufacturers to label food made with genetically modified produce in 2020.

Although there are just 13 items on the list - such as apples, soybeans and corn - they are key ingredients in thousands of food products.

Here's our quick guide on GMO foods.

What is a GMO?

GMOs, according to the Organic Trade Association, are organisms that have been genetically modified, through injection of genetic material, from a different species. GMOs can be referred to by a few names; genetically engineered seeds (GE seeds), herbicide-tolerant (HT), or Bt crops.

Why use GMO seeds?

By using genetically engineered seeds, farmers can grow crops that are more resistant to environmental changes, pests, weeds and infection, noted Modern Agriculture magazine.

In 1996, GE seeds were introduced for commercial sale. Currently, genetically engineered seeds lead the corn, soybean, and cotton production industry in the United States.

GE seeds can carry one or both of two categories of traits:

HT crops, are genetically engineered to endure contact with herbicides during growing season. Such substances would typically ruin the crop. Therefore, HT crops are commonly known as “herbicide tolerant crops” or “Roundup Ready crops.”

Bt crops are genetically engineered to produce toxins which kill off pests.

How are GMO and Organic Products regulated?  

The Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency work together to regulate genetically engineered crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a program to regulate organic products. The National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits the use “excluded methods” during production or handling of any organic product.

These excluded methods are “used to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.” This term essentially defines a product as genetically engineered.

Are GMO products really safe to eat?

As reported by National Geographic in May 2016

Genetically-engineered crops are as safe to eat as their non-GE counterparts, they have no adverse environmental impacts, and they have reduced the use of pesticides. That’s according to a comprehensive report released by the National Academy of Sciences today—a group founded by the U.S. Congress to provide expert scientifically-based advice on a wide variety of issues.

But the academy also found that GE or (genetically-modified organisms or GMO) crops didn’t increase those crops’ potential yields, and they did lead to widespread and expensive problems with herbicide-resistant weeds.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates food for consumption by animals and humans. This regulation of food extends to genetically engineered products. GE plants must meet the safety requirements that are set for foods “derived from traditionally bred plants.”

According to its website, the Food and Drug Administration requires genetically engineered food developers to compare levels of nutrients as well as other factors in GE foods compared to the traditionally bred equivalent.

For consumers worried about genetically engineered food, modifying crops through selective breeding has been occurring for years.

According the FDA, the process of “genetic engineering isolates the gene for the desired trait, adds it to single plant cell in a laboratory, and generates a new plant from that cell.”

Through this process, scientists are able to remove the unwanted characteristic through looking at a single, isolated gene.

Genetic engineering is commonly used alongside traditional breeding to produce the GE plants seen in your grocery store.

What foods are typically genetically engineered?

The Food and Drug Administration has found that soybeans, cotton and corn are the most common genetically engineered crops. Adding to this list are potatoes, squash, papayas and apples.

Genetically engineered plants are commonly used in ingredients found in various food products. Some examples are corn starch, corn syrup, soybean oil, salad dressings, bread, snack foods and sugar from sugar beets.

What does ‘organic’ really mean?

For a crop or product to be considered organic, GMOs are barred from being used during production or handling of “certified organic” or “organic certification” products, as stated by the Organic Trade Association.

Essentially, the terms above make the assertion that a certified organic food is non-GMO and was not produced using excluded methods. The Organic Trade Association considers “traditional plant breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in vitro fertilization, and tissue culture” to be excluded methods.

What does ‘non-GMO’ mean?

According to the Organic Trade Association, a non-GMO product must be produced without the use of genetic engineering. To be clear, the term “GMO-free” does not guarantee such products are 100 percent free of GMOs.

Are GMO and Organic products labeled?

Currently, genetically engineered products are not labeled but soon will be. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a few guidelines in mind.

In 2016, Congress created a bill that was passed which required genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such, according to a recent NPR article. Since then, the USDA has asked for advice on the specifics of GMO labeling. The organization received 112,000 public comments in response.

Currently, consumers can find one non-GMO label in their grocery store, the Non-GMO Project. According to their mission statement, the Non-GMO Project aims to protect and build sources of non-GMO products while educating consumers.

Among their many beliefs, the Non-GMO Project encourages “non-GMO seed supply, supporting the restoration of traditional seed breeding and the right of farmers to save and plant their own seeds and grow varieties of their choice.”

What’s next for GMO labeling?

You could see the new labels as early as February.

Most food manufacturers are required to label GMO products by Jan. 1, 2020, with mandatory labeling required by Jan. 1, 2022.

Small food manufacturers (those with less than $10 million in annual receipts) have until Jan. 1, 2021.

Until then, it's voluntary.

Restaurants, cafeterias, airplanes, food trucks and the like as well as very small food manufacturers (those with less than $2.5 million in annual receipts) are not required to disclose genetically engineered or GMO products.

What will the labels look like?

The USDA released the new required labels in December - which do not include the term "GMO". According to a Popular Science article, the term “GMO” was excluded from prototypes because it has been known to carry negative undertones. Initially, the prototype labels included the letters “BE” for “bioengineered.”

The final labels include only "bioengineered."

The labels have drawn criticism.

"The USDA has betrayed the public trust by denying Americans the right to know how their food is produce," stated Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety in a Dec. 20 press release. "Instead of providing clarity and transparency, they have created large scale confusion and uncertainty for consumers, food producers, and retailers."