People tend to be afraid of things they perceive as new. GMOs — genetically modified organisms — are one of those things.
Let’s unpack what’s going on here some. (And explain why there’s a cute puppy).
What is a Genetically Modified Organism?
The term GMO is generally used to refer to an animal or plant who’s genetics have been altered using laboratory techniques. This year, the inventors of the CRISPR tool for editing genes won the Nobel prize.
The idea is to change an organism’s genetics quickly, in a single generation (or even the life of the organism), for the benefit of mankind.
Genetic modification has been used to:
- Create infertile mosquitos to reduce their population and thus disease.
- Breed crops that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides. (I’m personally unfond of this as it allows the free use of highly toxic chemicals).
- Mass produce certain medications by engineering bacteria to create them. This has, for example, dramatically dropped the cost of insulin.
- Breed crops that are resistant to pests and disease, reducing the need for pesticides.
- Alter the nutritional value of food crops, such as breeding rice that produces more beta-carotene (this one isn’t commercial yet, but its in the works).
- Create food that has a longer shelf life without losing flavor.
- Breed lab animals that have specific human genes, allowing more efficient testing of new medication.
- Breed goats that extrude medication in their milk.
- Create aquarium fish that fluoresce prettily.
Additionally, scientists are working in increasing drought resistance of crops, developing plants that can be used in phytoremediation and agromining, breeding crops that produce better biofuels. On the animal side, the FDA is not allowing GMO animals in the food supply yet, but they’re working on pigs that produce less pollution. Yes, seriously.
Why are GMOs Scary?
People have good reason to be a little worried about GMOS. For example, Bt corn, which resists insect pests, may also be toxic to monarch butterflies.
It’s very important to test GMO crops properly, especially as plants have the wonderful habit of transferring genes around. Some people have also found that as GMO crops sometimes express different proteins, they might be allergic to a GMO plant but not the unaltered version, which makes for a good argument in favor of labeling products containing GMOs. (The upside of this is that they’re working on breeding non-allergenic peanuts). And, of course, herbicide-resistant (as opposed to pest-resistant) plants do cause problems.
But this leads to some pretty scary stuff. People are afraid of “unspecified human harm” or poisoning wildlife.
Many people are convinced that GMO foods are going to destroy the world…but should they be?
Again, I’m not saying GMO plants shouldn’t be thoroughly tested, and for welfare reasons we should be very careful with animals too. Another issue is that for safety reasons, these plants are often bred to be sterile. This has a strong negative impact on small farmers, and there have also been incidents of large companies suing small farms for growing their patented plants without a license…when the seed blew onto their farm. All of that needs to be addressed.
But genetic modification itself is not the boogeyman we think it is.
We’ll get back to the cute pup, but for right now let’s talk about a plant everyone in the Americas takes for granted: Our humble corn.
Corn and Genetic Modification
Corn, also known as maize, is the second most important staple plant on the Earth (the most important is, of course, rice).
Corn was domesticated by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, then taken up by white colonists. It comes in numerous varieties, including the sweetcorn you might have on your plate at Thanksgiving, varieties generally used primarily to feed cattle, etc. It’s used in tacos and flatbreads. We use it to make a cheap but reasonably healthy cooking oil.
In the Americas, corn is everywhere.
And until 2010, we had no idea where it originally came from.
Whatever the wild ancestor was, corn had been bred so far away from it that it couldn’t be identified simply by going around and looking like plants. European wheat and barley are easy. Wild barley looks much like domesticated barley, just with smaller kernels and longer barbs.
It took genetic analysis to trace the ancestry of corn. We now know that it was domesticated about 9,000 years ago in southern Mexico, and that the wild ancestor is a grass named teosinte.
Humans have genetically modified corn such that it’s literally unrecognizable.
Selective breeding is genetic modification.
Hence the pup. Your dog is a genetically modified organism. Pugs and St. Bernards are the same species. The same goes for the horses running in the Derby, for the cow your steak came from. To a lesser extent, your cat too (cats have a small genome that’s harder to alter).
All of our crops and livestock are genetically modified. The difference is that lab techniques can do it a lot faster…and without the natural proofreading that comes from testing an organism’s survival capability.
So, should we be afraid of GMOs? No. But we should be concerned about the abuse of GMOs to control the food supply, and we should be concerned about the premature release of organisms without testing, especially pest-resistant and herbicide-resistant cops.
And if you happen to have a GMO in your house, go pet it for me.