by Alexandra Brooke
In recent years, GMOs have been a largely controversial topic, with many anti-GMO movements attempting to rid our food of those “pesky” GMOs. The question many are asking is: “What are GMOs?’
First, it’s important to define what we are talking about. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, which includes genetically modified edible plants. GMO is often used to refer to organisms that have either had parts of their DNA removed or external DNA (often from other organisms) inserted. However, the term genetic modification can include anything from artificial selection (breeding certain plants selectively to produce larger and better tasting crops) to the modification of plant DNA (e.g. marking DNA that code for desired traits combined with selective breeding, removing and inserting certain genes into the DNA of plants). Due to this broad definition, it’s difficult to definitively say whether GMOs are beneficial or detrimental to society, but it is possible to look at the history of GMOs and where this controversy began.
The primitive origin of genetic modification began long before crops even existed – with the dog. In approximately 30,000 BCE, wild wolves were domesticated and bred for docility (and later loyalty), leading to the beginning of artificial selection by humans. Evidence found at archaeological sites show that later, as humans began to settle and plant crops, they artificially selected plants with the most nutritional value.
Although genetic modification has existed for over 32,000 years, it is not artificial selection that has caused controversy with the general public. What is being scrutinized is the direct changing or “editing” of genes in plants. Known as genetic engineering, this technique of gene splicing began in 1973 with the work of Boyer and Cohen in substituting a gene from one organism into another to produce the desired effect (in this case, antibiotic resistance in a protein). This experiment gave way to modern genetic modification of plants and animals, a field that holds a lot of mystery in the general public and many do not support. In 1992, the first modern genetically modified crop to be on the U.S. market, FLAVR SAVR Tomatoes, were introduced. These tomatoes were designed to rot more slowly so they could retain their firmness while shipping, and although the genetic engineering did not lead to the desired effect, FLAVR SAVR Tomatoes paved the way for other genetically engineered foods.
Genetic engineering with plants consists of many complex steps. First, a gene must be isolated, which includes finding the desired gene within one organism’s DNA and the target location of the gene within the DNA of a seed. Second, the DNA of the target seed must be extracted in one of many ways (though this sounds simple, it’s difficult to isolate the DNA of a seed without destroying the seed in the process). Next, the DNA is substituted in one of multiple ways (including CRISPR technology, bacterial modification, and “gene guns”, which literally DNA-coated metal into the seed). Finally, the seeds are planted. Despite the careful planning involved, not all plants will show the desired trait, in which case scientists will troubleshoot and modify the process.
The controversy surrounding genetic engineering seems to have begun in the 2000s, with the launch of the non-GMO project in 2007, which is responsible for things like the non-GMO labels seen in supermarkets. This project aims to promote non-GMO agriculture to support farmers’ authority in deciding what to grow and greater genetic diversity in agriculture, and to provide people a way to choose whether they wanted to consume GMOs.
In addition to the tests done with GMOs before they are approved for consumers, a number of studies examine the environmental and health effects of GMOs. Some of the main environmental concerns include the following: the increased use of herbicides to kill weeds when growing herbicide-resistant plants, the loss of diversity in agriculture, and the development of “superweeds” or “superviruses” in response to genetic engineering. In regards to human health, a 2013 report in Critical Review of Biotechnology reported that no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops” were found. However, many scientists maintain that continuous research needs to be done to investigate the long-term effects of GMOs.
In the midst of GMO controversy, it’s important to keep in mind why agricultural plants have been genetically engineered in the first place.The reasons are numerous, such as designing crops that produce their own pesticides, anti-allergen foods (including gluten-free wheat, and pesticide-free corn), and “golden rice” enriched with vitamin-A to address extreme vitamin-A deficiency.
Although it is helpful to know where our food comes from and how it is created, being critical of social media “buzzwords” and learning more about the scientific concepts behind food production can help us to get a better understanding of things like GMOs and reduce the fear of the unknown. In the end, it’s people’s own choices as to what they eat or don’t eat, but it’s important to make sure it’s an informed decision.