FAQ on genetically modified food
What is a GMO?
Simply put, a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism that has its genetic makeup intentionally altered via modern biotech methods, such as the introduction of genes originating from different species.
Background on Speciation
Biology contains… quite a few difficult concepts to understand, in spite of it being mocked by other academics as for the people that failed math. One of these concepts is that of species. A species is a group of all organisms that can breed with each other to reproduce (ignoring asexual reproduction and sterility for now). Nature itself doesn't really have "species"; these are categories that we create to classify organisms. This is where it gets complicated. Biologists study populations, not species. One of the issues with populations is that of genetic isolation. If populations split and have no genetic transfer, eventually evolution will cause the populations to diverge and become different species. Populations of organisms that are physically separated (e.g., by a river) and physiologically different (e.g., grey fur versus brown fur) but could otherwise breed with each other are sub-species. If the two populations can only breed with each other under extreme circumstances like artificial insemination, they are separate species. If a species contains populations A, B and C where population A can breed with B and B with C, but not C with A, this is a ring species. This gets confusing enough when dealing with animals, but when it comes to plants like those in the Citrus genus, some groups of plants will be classified as separate species in spite of the ease of which they will mate in the wild.
The Four F's
Biology students may be familiar with a concept known as the "Four F's". These are:
- Fu... Finding a mate
Any energy expended in one category is energy unavailable for the other categories. If evolution has any "goal", it's for all populations to become more efficient at what they do. An apple tree in the wild only needs to produce apples just large enough and barely tasty enough for wild animals to grab the apples and spread the seeds around elsewhere. If an apple tree produces a few giant, delicious apples with only a few seeds, it will be outcompeted by the apple tree producing many tiny, disgusting crabapples (assuming crabapples are not so disgusting that nothing eats them).
Wait, what does that have to do with GMOs?
When a human takes a population of, say, wild goats and selectively breeds them to be fatter, tastier, friendlier, less likely to run away, etc., the result of the domestication process is a subspecies of goat that does not exist in the wild. In other words, every single domesticated animal has had their genome altered by humanity. There is no such thing as a "natural chicken"; all chickens are "unnatural".
The classic example of this is our best friends, the dogs. Dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals, dingos, and a few other canids all have recent common ancestors, and can mate with each other to some extent. Humans took a number of wolves and selectively bred them to not be naturally aggressive to humans, and bred out the killer instinct that wolves otherwise have towards herd animals; dogs herding goats, for example, are using the same herding instincts as wolves, but lack the genetic impulse to attack the goats (that's not to say they won't, of course). The result is an animal that is a subspecies of wolf, and due to genetic isolation, is arguably a different species as well.
What's the history of GMOs?
We've been altering the genetic makeup of animal populations since the very first human thought a goat looked tasty enough to hunt. The result of human predation was selection pressure that caused the goats that feared or could escape humans to outbreed the ones dumb enough to approach the funny looking creatures. It works in the opposite direction as well; many people have intense fear of snakes and spiders because the ones that weren't afraid of the cobras didn't live as long.
6000 30,000 years ago, humans did something different. We captured a few goats, and rather than kill them immediately, someone said "hey, you know what'd be awesome? If we didn't have to chase down the goats. If there were, like, goats that traveled with us, and we could eat them whenever we wanted to, rather than only when we could catch them". Or would have if English had existed back then. These people began the process of domesticating goats, and the goats that were not inherently fearful of humans got free protection from (other) predators, and thrived and their populations exploded. Humans also evolved as a result of domestication; the ability for many adult Europeans and some East Africans to digest raw milk is one example. One explanation for why humans like cats and dogs is because the humans that did not would not live as long.
Every domesticated animal, whether it's a dog, a chicken, a cat, or a cow, is something that only exists because of human nature, and differs from their wild cousins. In the case of cows, the wild cousin — the auroch — is extinct (though cows can breed with bison… it's complicated).
We humans have been doing the same to plants as well, ever since the first gatherer said "fuck gathering, I wish all these plants were growing in one spot, I'm going to grow so many fruit trees and grains and vegetables that my kids will be big and fat! You know, some of these crops are tastier than others; I'll only plant the tastier — and less toxic — ones so I get more of them next year". We ended up creating varieties of plants that are so vastly different from one another you wouldn't know that they were the same species unless we told you; kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and a number of others are all the same species.
So our ancestors domesticated the camel. Big whoop. How about we take different cultivars that have been created over the years, and crossbreed them and hope for the best? This is how we get things like oranges; oranges don't exist in the wild, but are the hybrid of pomelos and mandarins. Aside from breeding and
hybreeding hybridizing, the process often included waiting for mutations to appear and determine if these made for a 'better' plant or animal. But rather than wait for new traits to appear and hope for the best, we decided to speed up the process. Via radiation, because how mëtäl is that?! Radiation breeding involved exposing plant gametes to ionizing radiation, resulting in mutation of the next generation of plants (and usually death). Some survived however, and more importantly, some of those had traits we found useful. The result has been about 2500 new cultivars of foods. Ruby red grapefruit? Doesn't exist in the wild.
This was great and all, but rather than just radiate and hope for the best, what if we could actually decide what the changes were? What if we could insert the specific genetic code we want into the plant cells and create exactly the traits we want? Thus, for lack of a better term, "transgenic" crops were created.
Is GMO Unnatural?
Perhaps unironically, transgenic plants actually are natural. Horizontal gene transfer is a fairly recent discovery in biology, and one that is confusing to anyone other than a biologist. Normally, in "vertical" gene flow, when a mommy plant and a daddy plant love each other very much, a baby plant is formed with a mix of genes from both parents. The genes flow "vertically" from older generations to younger generations. Sometimes there are mutations and errors and such, resulting in 'new' genetic information. But it's possible to acquire DNA from organisms other than your parents, possibly from other species. How? For simpler organisms such as bacteria, some can absorb DNA from the surrounding environment and incorporate it into their own, allowing them to gain some of the advantages of the rest of us fuckers. This is the main way that bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance. Also, the bacteria in your gut contain your DNA as a result, so, yeah, the ethical questions of "what makes a human, human" may have gotten a tad more complicated.
In other organisms, it's usually through viruses. A virus injects its RNA or DNA into your cells, so technically, every single cell that has ever been infected by a virus is a transgenic organism. Usually, the cell is 'reprogrammed' to mass-produce more viruses, and then the cell bursts open to start the cycle anew. But just because a cell is infected doesn't mean it will immediately shut down to become a virus factory. With many viruses, HIV being a notorious example, the cell could function as normal for years before devoting itself to virus manufacture. But sometimes, the cell will never become the factory, and will function relatively normally forever, until it dies of course. It can divide and grow, but with DNA that had not originated in its own species. Thus, horizontally.
As for humans inducing the gene transfers, yes it's unnatural (as is anything other than hunting and gathering), but that is the wrong question to ask. The question should be "is it safe" not "is it natural".
What things are GMO
The following commercially available crops have cultivars originating in some fashion from transgenic methods:
Transgenic bacteria/fungi/yeasts are also used to produce various quasi-synthetic compounds, such as insulin and the rennet used in cheese making.
The following crops have transgenic varieties that are still in the experimental stage; they have not been commercialized yet, and some transgenic lines have been abandoned:
And many more
What sort of traits do GMO crops have?
- Glyphosate Resistance, a.k.a., "Roundup® Ready", which enables crops to survive exposure to the herbicide glyphosate. These actually have slightly reduced yields, due to the aforementioned 4F's. However it's popular because these crops require much less energy as the soil doesn't need to be tilled and the fields won't need nearly as much weeding, greatly reducing cost (and reduced environmental damage).
- Insecticide-producing crops. These are crops such as Bt corn and soybeans whose leaves contain a pesticide that kills certain species of butterfly larvae but, contrarily to the propaganda, has no detectable effect on other insects (such as bees) or mammals (such as humans). This reduces the loss due to insects and eliminates the need for spraying crops. Aside from the lower cost, reduced workload, and increased revenue, this has a number of environmental advantages as well. Only the insects feeding on the crops are directly affected, rather than the previous carpet-bombing methods which killed pretty much all the insects whether or not they were actually harmful which results in quite a huge bit of ecological damage. The reduced need for spraying means that fewer aircraft need to be launched over the fields, reducing energy consumption and probably very slightly increasing the safety of the food (unless you think covering crops in airplane exhaust somehow improves nutrition).
- Slower rotting. Many foods rot naturally, and these processes can be altered so the food does not spoil or turn ugly as quickly.
Wait, the crops produce poisons?
Yes; insecticides, which are poisonous to some insects but not necessarily humans. For example, consider a cup of green tea. Your cuppa contains dozens of milligrams of a deadly insecticide: caffeine. Also, fluoride. In humans, caffeine acts as a stimulant and diuretic, among other things, which is why we drink it. Well, not for the diuretic properties. Anyway, what's a poison to one animal is not necessarily a poison to another; most humans can eat chocolate while dogs can not.
This is not unique to GMO plants; as mentioned, tea contains pesticides, and virtually every crop contains some poisons (they need them to repel predators), but either in small enough quantities not to worry about or poisons that don't significantly affect humans.
Some GMO crops are created to have less poison than their "natural" cousins. Canola, a variety of rapeseed, being one such example. Rapeseed oil was used as industrial lubricant, but during famines it would be used for cooking in poorer parts of Europe. Canola is a cultivar of rapeseed specially bred to contain less erucic acid, a marginally toxic but bitter substance. While this occurred through more traditional breeding methods, this is an example of genetic modification making a plant safer and tastier. For a more drastic example, try wild almonds. Not too many though; a couple dozen has enough cyanide to kill you. At some point, some early human discovered a wild almond tree with seeds that weren't loaded with poisons, and decided to grow more of these trees.
Are GMO crops sterile?
This is referring to Gene Use Restriction Technology (GURT). This refers to two types of plants; plants who don't produce viable seed, and those who need application of chemicals in order to 'activate' some traits. This would prevent any GMO crop from spreading to a neighbor's field or to the wild, two mild but legitimate concerns about GMO food. However, neither are in use due to public backlash; the fear is that the "real" reason for this addition was to prevent farmers from saving seed, forcing farmers to buy from the seed company every year. Generally, farmers don't save seed every year, and those that use GMO seeds are usually required by contract not to anyway, because much like pharmaceuticals, the biotech industry may be among the few industries where patents truly are needed.
The issue of saving seed is nothing new; farmers have been forced to buy from seed producers every year since the 1920s in order to make use of a number of hybrid crops.
Does GMO farming increase chemical use?
Yes and no. GMO crops such as Bt corn allow for crops to naturally (sort of) apply their own pesticide, which means several things. One, the pesticide doesn't need to be applied via crop dusters (and thus, plane exhaust isn't also applied). Two, it only affects the bugs that feed on the crop and spares all the neutral or beneficial insects, thus it reduces the environmental damage that would've been done with traditional methods. Crops such as the glyphosate tolerant crops allow for the use of glyphosate, so by definition it enables a chemical to be used.
However, this is the wrong question to be asked. It's not a matter of whether chemicals are used, but whether they are safer than the alternative. Glyphosate is safe for humans unless you are playing "let's drink the stuff under mommy's sink", in which case, congratulations on figuring out how to use the internet; there were worse websites to stumble upon. Glyphosate reduces the need for tilling farmland, which reduces the use of fuel and erosion of the soil, which reduces water pollution and other things that probably cause more illness and harm than glyphosate ever could.
Are transgenic crops dangerous?
Better safe than sorry
Ah, the precautionary principle, the ultimate in anti-scientific nonsense. You could make the argument that we didn't "know" that there wasn't a swarm of vicious alien spaceships waiting around Earth, ready to annihilate any species that could potentially travel to space, therefore we should never have attempted to go to the moon. But we do know how safe GMOs are, and more importantly, we actually have testing to ensure safety. There are a number of hurdles that a transgenic plant must pass before it could ever see the outside of a lab, unlike in any other method of producing new crops. It's entirely possible for a new heirloom tomato to mutate and produce deadly amounts of nicotine, but we don't require testing for traditional breeders. At this point, "we don't know if it's unsafe" is now a PRATT.
Consider this; how can we possibly learn anything if we do not 'interfere' with forces we do not comprehend?
"Superweeds" are a media term for weeds that acquire herbicide tolerance. The fear is that by using herbicide tolerant GMO crops, the genes will spread to the wild and then weeds will develop tolerance to herbicides in a similar vein as antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The number of reported new cases of herbicide-resistant weeds has actually slightly decreased after the introduction of GMFs. Out of the 24 known glyphosate-resistant species, 13 were actually first documented in non-GMFs. As such, "superweeds" are a problem related to herbicide use and not directly to GMF use.
It's important to keep in mind what a "superweed" is. A "superweed" is a plant that's resistant to the herbicide in use, allowing it to grow in the fields we'd rather use for crops, rather than a green monster that will overwhelm the whole world. Much like "superbugs" in hospitals, acquiring resistance to an herbicide is generally harmful to the plant if the herbicide is not present, as it requires the plant to spend additional energy and materials producing the proteins or other chemicals it uses to endure the herbicide, meaning "superweeds" are actually slightly weaker and less invasive than the, umm, garden variety. Indeed, glyphosate-resistant crops themselves produce somewhat less than non-resistant varieties in ideal conditions, but "a field full of weeds" is kind of the opposite of ideal.
Who are the major players
Unfortunately, in no small part due to the excessive regulation and fearmongering caused by the anti-GMO movement, makes it difficult for any but the big boys can break into the GMO market. This leaves the following companies:
Is Golden Rice a bio-company Trojan horse to get us to accept GMOs?
This is a mix of "no", "yes", and a whole heaping pile of "so fucking what"?
Golden Rice is rice with beta-carotene (which the body turns into Vitamin A) that was originally developed as a project between two universities, headed by scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, in order to try and reduce the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency. For those that weren't aware, Vitamin A deficiency affects Four Hundred Million people a year, resulting in 500,000 permanent cases of blindness and 2 million deaths. Every. Single. Year. Arguably a more serious concern than HIV; if you were wondering why the Third World seems to be in perpetual poverty, this is one of the biggest reasons. In spite of what people may tell you, scientists go into science to dedicate their lives to science and the betterment of humanity (and science groupies). So no, they probably didn't create this for profit, as there are much easier ways for an intelligent person to make large fortunes than science. They might have done this for increased grants for their university, so they can get back to focusing on the really cool toys and such, or a really powerful aphrodisiac, but not profit.
From there, this project was taken up by biotech companies, enhancing the original golden rice and providing distribution for it. There are a number of reasons to do so.
- First, it's done to attract more talent to their companies. While for the lower rungs of society the Great Recession means it's nigh-impossible to find a decent job, this isn't true for someone graduating with honors from a top university- assuming the degree doesn't have the words "Studies" or "Art" in it. Every company wants to get the best of the very best, and will resort to all sorts of initiatives to attract them. The people going into science tend to not be sociopaths, and like to see that their work will actually make the world a better place, so initiatives such the golden rice project are good ways for a company to promote itself among potential applicants.
- Second, proof of concept. Yes, the result of this would indeed be more widespread acceptance of GMO foods, and the companies probably have an ulterior motive of "proving GMO is safe" rather than "saving millions of lives", but so what? If the GMO food was actually harmful or dangerous, showing off the product to the public would be counterproductive. This is what scares the anti-GMO movement; the idea that people would be able to see just how helpful GMO food can be.
The Anti-GMO Movement
Bad objections to GMOs
- People that want their food to be as natural as possible, but seem to think their bread grows on supermarket shelves.
- Woomeisters that rely on people's fears of the unknown to hawk their own wares or make a name for themselves.
- Organic farmers and others that benefit from food being more expensive.
Reasonable objections to GMOs
There are some reasonable objections to GMOs. These are not unique to GMOs, but may be exacerbated by them:
- The problematic aspects of genes being subject to intellectual property laws
- Concerns over genetic bottlenecks, genetic drift, loss of diversity and fragile monocultures
- Lack of independent testing
- Monopolisation of genetic engineering techniques and equipment (not enough GMOs!)
- The ownership of a significant fraction of the world's seed supply between 3-10 multinationals
Note that none of these are "the food is bad in any way".
- Hartnagle Renna, Christine (2008). Herding Dogs: Selection and Training the Working Farm Dog. Kennel Club Books (KCB)Country Dog Series. ISBN 978-1-59378-737-0.
- Bt in humans
- Slugging It Out with Caffeine by Janet Raloff (3:44pm, June 26, 2002) Science News.
- Named for the Latin word for turnip, rapa, not for rape.
- Where are the super weeds?
- https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/aj/abstracts/93/2/408 Soybean cultivar yields
- New GM banana could help tackle Uganda’s nutrition challenges
- Companies go green to attract talent