I have a different perspective on GMO than you’re going to find in any other sustainability-oriented blog- I support GMO research.
“What the hell?” You may ask. “How dare she! She must be very ignorant to support such a thing.”
Actually, I would be quite hypocritical if I DID NOT support it. You see, I have actually done GMO research myself. I work in a plant molecular biology lab at a state college. There, we study the movement of fluid and tiny organelles through phloem.
Inserting antibiotic resistance into plants along with a fluorescent gene allows us to select for the plants that contain the gene by exposing them to the antibiotic and seeing if they can grow. If they do, then they contain the antibiotic resistance gene with the fluorescent gene; this is how we know the gene insertion was successful. This allows us to figure out what certain proteins and organelles in the plant do because we can watch them while the plant is alive, using the green fluorescent gene!
This type of gene insertion is responsible for an overwhelming amount of recent discoveries about how genes and proteins function. It’s performed on model organisms, which are not allowed to leave the lab (all research materials are put through an autoclave to prevent outside contamination). *however, even if outside contamination happened, it is highly unlikely that it would negatively affect wild species. To begin with, fluorescent proteins only show up when you apply a certain wavelength of light to them. Secondly, they are proteins which occur elsewhere in nature and are easily degraded. Third, other fluorescent proteins are naturally produced by all plants when they grow! This is why we have to insert one that shows up at a different wavelength- when you look at a plant under a laser microscope, you will see a bunch of blue florescence that was naturally produced by the plant at it’s root tips and in all growing regions. This is a slightly different color than the GPF gene produced. Both are naturally occurring and don’t harm the organism or anything that eats it. We have been eating auto-fluorescent proteins in many different species, including plants, for many millennial. The plants we grow in the lab produce virile seeds, which we collect and use for future plantings. You cannot tell from any measure other than shining a laser on the plant that any change has happened in the organism’s genome. *
Now I know that GMO CROPS are what the majority of you are concerned about and I’d like to take a moment to clear up some misconceptions.
COMMON GMO MYTHS SET STRAIGHT
- You cannot “catch a gene” by eating a GMO plant. If this was the case, you would already be inundated with plant and animal genes. In fact, your body produces nucleases which break down all DNA and RNA that’s floating around freely in your body. You even have these chemicals on your skin and they are so powerful that brushing your finger on the rim of a test tube will result in complete annihilation of the DNA you were trying to study. This is why we wear gloves and order certain “nuclease free” products to do our experiments in.
- GMO genes do not cause an organism to make a completely new protein that is unnatural and therefore poisonous to your body. As stated above, all genes transferred throughout different organisms with GMO technology are made with DNA, which you break down quickly thanks to nucleases. The same thing goes for the products of these genes; genes produce proteins and these break down in your body due to the action of protein cleaving enzymes.
- GMO genes by themselves have never been found to make something that consumed them ill. This may surprise you, given all the information about the Round-Up GMO organisms, but let’s be clear- it’s NOT the Round-Up resistance GENE that’s dangerous, it’s the Round-Up chemical itself! If you ate plants containing the Round- Up resistance gene all day long, nothing would happen to you. On the other hand, if you ate the plants after the Round-Up was sprayed on them, things might go poorly in the future.
- The term “GMO” does not automatically mean that a fish gene was put into a plant. It actually applies to any breeding strategy that was accomplished in the lab.
- It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that the type of genetic modification that causes “steroid” strawberries and seedless watermelons is going to hurt you. The large size is actually caused by increasing the number of chromosome copies in the strawberry to 8n instead of the normal 2n, where n=one complete set of chromosomes. This happens regularly in plant species and the resulting condition of polyploidy is a common phenomena in plants. If the result of this mutation is an even number of chromosome sets (such as 8n), the plant will be able to breed and produce fertile offspring. If not, it will not be able to undergo meiosis properly and will produce faulty gametes. In the wild, these mutated “plant experiments” (nature is the original scientist) would die off naturally. In the lab, triploid watermelons are produced specifically because they WILL have those faulty gametes (aka tiny, non-existent seeds). You eat other plants that are polyploid all the time. It is impossible for these changes to harm you.
- Extra large, genetically modified species are good for the environment. This relates to the most ridiculous misconception of them all- that increasing the size of a plant structure through genetic modification is dangerous for you and the environment. Do you have any idea how modified the organisms we already use for food are compared to their wild counterparts? Here’s a picture of the completely unmodified, wild cousins of what we eat today.
Wild corn on the Left. What is commonly planted and called completely natural on the right.
Small and natural is not better. It's a joke and a waste of growing space. Anyone who disagrees can prove to me that they are serious by growing the wild mustard instead of broccoli.
Genetic modification by itself is not bad for the environment. In fact, GMOs a are being used to clean up the environment . Although crude-oil eating bacteria exist in the wild, they have been genetically modified to be many times more efficient at it and are now being used to clean up oil spills.
Lastly, modifying a plant to make it grow more of the part you use or to be more hardy decreases the amount of space you need to use to grow it in order to get the same result. Now, if this modification ALSO requires that you use harmful chemicals in order to really accomplish what you’re trying to do (like Round-Up Resistance in order to not have to deal with weeds), then you run a public health risk. But if you are just changing the gene patterns, it will not result in harm to anyone who eats it. At worse, it may breed with wild species. However, this doesn’t mean that the wild species is necessarily harmed. In fact, the only people who are worried about this are the ones who are using GMO technology to make plants resistant to harmful chemicals. Do you really care if all of the weeds also became resistant to Round-Up? Maybe the Round-Up advocates would stop this nonsense if that happened and start looking more closely at less harmful chemicals or perhaps none at all.
9. We do know for sure how some genes will affect the organism and those who eat it in the long run. Many believe that scientists have no idea how any genetic modifications will play out in the long run. Actually, we do, thanks to excessive experimentation. However, this is only true for modifications that have been studied over the course of many years or who are of a nature which cannot possibly harm (see the steroid strawberry example). Many of these modifications exist: for example, golden rice (the real problem with this specific modification is that the giant corporation which did it also rendered the plants containing it infertile so farmers would have to continue buying from them. This infertility modification is the real danger, as it reduces genetic diversity and increases farmer dependence on the giant corporation. The beta-carotene producing rice was a good idea.)
10. Not all GMOs are all frivolous modifications that we could live without. In fact, some humans would not have lived past their tenth birthday if it wasn’t for GMOs. This is because some bacteria have been modified to grow human insulin. Before this, we used pig insulin, which differs from human insulin by two amino acids. Therefore, pig insulin was not effective in certain individuals because they produced anti-bodies to it.
Cancer and hormone research would stall altogether if it wasn’t for the production of genetically modified mice, but that’s another topic altogether.
11. GMO plants can be grown using completely organic practices. As I already mentioned, I breed plants that have been genetically modified and all of their reproductive functions are normal (everything about them is normal, other than the color certain parts of them turn when I apply a certain wavelength of laser). It’s the corporations that invent specialty, genetically modified plant lines who purposefully render their plants infertile. This is done to “protect the rights to their invention”. I’m not convinced it’s ethical.
12. It takes careful thought in every individual situation to determine whether or not the genetic modification is harmful. I’m putting together a checklist to help consumers understand what different genetic modifications mean. This will include how to ask the right questions that will help you determine whether or not the genetic modification is a genius, perfect solution to a long-term problem or hastily performed experiment that implies real danger.
In conclusion: there are good things happening as a result of GMO technology and there are bad things happening as a result of greedy corporations using GMO technology in combination with dangerous chemicals. Please do not characterize an entire science because of this.
Instead of automatically assuming that every genetic modification is bad, please research specifically what has been done and make buying decisions based on real knowledge.
DO NOT LET OTHERS DO YOUR THINKING FOR YOU. Assuming that every genetic modification is harmful is as ignorant as assuming they are all good.