What’s the Deal With GMOs Really: A Biologist’s View

Some of ya’ll are going to hate this and maybe even unsubscribe and that’s okay. You’re going to want to say that this is just my opinion and some of this sort of kind of is but not all of it really its based entirely on science. What we will cover is legitimate concerns not so much my opinion. Plus I’m going to be really clear facts and then other issues. There are a few ‘scientific’ things out there where even if you try to inform your self responsibly there is so much misinformation from invested parties out there you might have a hard to impossible time. Some of those are early embryonic development which are co-opted by the pro life movement, the world of vaccines and to a lesser extent the human role in climate change. GMOs are like these other concepts they are not really up for discussion the information is well-studied, well understood, replicated and not controversial at this point. They are all just a set of facts, facts that some people don’t like but facts none the less. I don’t love doing ‘controversial’ topics on here and I’m not getting into the other stuff anytime soon but here is the real deal with GMOs in case you’ve been wondering what that’s all about.


Genetic modifications in the lab

Genetic modification in the lab has been going on since 1973 and it usually means one thing. Usually a researcher is modifying a bacteria to have a gene it didn’t before. I’ve done this dozens of times myself. The thing about bacteria is that they have an extra bit of DNA outside their gnome called a plasmid and bacteria love to share their plasmids with other bacteria friends. What researchers do is grab this plasmid (or buy one from a company already isolated) cut it open and slip in a gene that they want to study. Then they put it back into the bacteria which sounds hard but is actually done by freezing the bacteria and the plasmid together and thawing them three times, that’s it. 

The reason we do this is not to create some super bacteria but to get the bacteria to either produce a ton of that gene for us which we can collect later, like a biological DNA photocopier (although there are cheaper ways) or to get it to make basically a shit ton of that protein that the gene encodes for so we can collect it and study it later. That’s it nothing fancy or untoward. If we plan to use it again we freeze that bacteria if not we sterilize it and kill it. Now you might hear the word bacteria and freak out the thing is we use bacteria that don’t infect humans because we don’t want to accidentally infect ourselves and it’s cheaper and safer to make that choice. By the way we now use this technique to produce a lot of the protein inulin which made it cheaper and more ethical to produce and potentially changed lives. Because we used lab techniques to change the DNA we call it a genetically modified organism. Shout out to my plant biology friends who do basically the same thing but they use the bacteria to get a plant to produce that DNA or protein.

The history and science of GMOs

GMOs are almost all plants, recently there has been some research and patents awarded to genetically modified fish (more on that later) but if you’re talking about GMOs chances are it’s a plant. It stands for genetically modified organism and as scary as that sounds it’s not a franken plant scientists are creating. In fact we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for centuries by selective breeding probably since ancient times. Farmers have always selected their best seeds to replant, breed the healthiest animals and grafted plants together. This could be replanting the biggest potatoes for seed as next year, allowing the fattest male and female cow for next year’s calf’s and creating new apple varieties. This is how Kobe Beef and the Granny Smith apple were created after all. This let’s us select the genes for certain desirable traits but it takes a long time and it’s a bit of a shot in the dark approach. By the way all of this still goes on and those foods aren’t considered to be genetically modified.

In the early 80’s a few genetically modified plants (tobacco) were made basically to prove it could be done. In 1995 the first GMO foods were introduced, patented and commercially approved. These included the Flavr Star tomato and a potato that was herbicide resistant. The tomato received a gene form that exact tomato but it knocked out an enzyme that basically lead to rotting. So in this case there wasn’t even a gene from a different species of tomato used but it was considered to be genetically modified. The potato received a naturally occurring gene that made plants resistant to a particular herbicide (more on that later too) which meant when a farmer spayed his field all the weeds would die but not the potato plants making the whole thing more profitable. Most of the GMO foods that we eat are modified in this way to resist certain herbicides.

But besides profit plants have been modified to meet specific needs. For example golden rice was engineered in the year 2000 to have more vitamin A for populations that were deficient in this case two genes from daffodils and one from a photosynthetic bacteria were inserted. Crops have also been engineered to resist drought, pest species and for certain diseases that plants get. This can actually mean that fewer pesticides and herbicides need to be used on the crops in the first place which is great but it’s also nicer to agricultural workers. It can in theory also make the crops more profitable for farmers and help keep food costs down for us all. As of right now there is only one genetically modified animal on the market for human consumption and that is the AquAdvantage salmon which has a gene for a growth hormone regulator gene added from a different species of salmon which allows them to grow year round instead of only in the spring and summer.

There is a lot of poor information out there bordering on miss information but here are a few things to keep in mind about the science of at least some genetically modified foods. If a trait like food spoiling or coloration is to be knocked out most often an ‘extra’ copy of that same gene is to be inserted from the same organism. In these cases the idea that you don’t know what that gene does is just silly, it’s been there all along. If the gene that has been added is from another edible plant well we know that’s not an issue either. Also no reputable scientific study has ever been done that showed any real risk to human health and many have been done!

Where is gets dicey: Morals for lack of a better word

Loss of biodiversity

Let’s start by saying this is happening with or without GMO crops. The argument goes like this as we increase the yield, profit and ease of growing certain crops along with consumer demands for a certain product farmers then overwhelmingly grow the crop and other species re no longer easily available. This can actually be more of a problem than it originally sounds. Just say a new virus evolves to attack the most popular cultivar of wheat and knocks out that crop for a few years. That’s a much bigger deal id 85%+ of farmers are growing it than say 20%. The idea of ‘loosing’ a crop entirely though isn’t that realistic in nature and because of the existence of seed banks which exists all over the world to keep the genetics of all species alive.

Less delicious food

Again with or with out GMOs there is a trend toward our produce getting less yummy as time goes on. The argument is that we are prioritizing stability, color, shape and profitability in the crops we grow over taste. You hear “There’s nothing like a tomato fresh from the garden” and that’s true for almost anything you pull out of the ground at peak freshness and eat. Often foods are harvested unripe and ripened on the way to you where they stay fresh looking for longer. Aiming for those qualities are contributing to a loss of taste but that’s going on whether we have GMOs or not.

Shady business practices due to patents

So this is the deal here if you develop a GMO you can apply for and hold a patent on that organism, should that be allowed? Ehhhh??? I don’t really know but that’s above my pay grade. Off topic you can also patent a gene like BRAC1 and 2 and then control the tests for it which is definitely worse. Obviously if this is your line of work you want the patent because then for a long time people can only buy the seeds for that product from you. Another thing about patent law means that if you fail to defend your patent from infringement you’ll loose it. Which means certain agricultural companies *cough* Monsanto (but others too) do some heavy handed shit in defending their patents and to poor sad farmers just trying to get by. This means suing little farmers for saving seed for next year which is against the contract you enter into by planting their seeds. They charge a lot more for their seeds and the herbicide they sell than competing products and get very rich in the process. 

But they do kick it up a notch too into what sounds like nasty territory. Say you live next to me and grow an ancient variety of heirloom canola and I on the farm next to you and grow the GMO stuff. I don’t save seeds but you do, cool right? Not so fast canola pollen aren’t choosy about the plant they pollinate (horny little buggers) and my plants pollinate your field too. After a few years you’re growing mostly GMO canola even if you don’t want to be. That’s when the biotech lawyers roll up and crush you with lawsuits and threats. I do think this is a crappy, crappy situation but in my opinion this is an issue with current patent laws not GMO foods specifically.

Outcompeting native species

The crops we grow are one thing, not a huge deal in this regard really. If a farmer stops planting a certain field for a while it will go back to wild with time and the crop will be gone in most cases. Case in point we don’t have forests overrun with corn so… Is releasing GMO crops into the wild a huge deal? No probably not. In one case GMO technology has even brought native species back from extinction. This is largely since plants can’t move and escape. This does get a bit dicey with animals though. The worry is that escapees get out into the world, complete with and breed with natives and then take over driving the natives to extinction. The companies will argue that they can’t escape, they won’t last out there and that the best adapted species to the environment is always the native one. My response? Not so fast! Those genetically modified salmon have been shown to become dominant in the gene pool when allowed to interact with native salmon and monopolize the resources in controlled environments where I used to work.

This is not a fish farming post and at least on small scales they haven’t shown to be majorly damaging to the wider environment. I’m still not sure we can keep scaling first farming up forever in a sustainable way. But those nets, do fail in weather, due to boat traffic and probably the odd fishing village idiot. “Its like shooting fish in a barrel” Right? It’s just stupid to pretend at least one or two don’t get out. Can we work around this sure doing it on land would help with a  whole host of concerns but probably create another set.

So that’s the real deal on GMO foods, there are some issues that might keep you away from them if you’re really ‘crunchy’. Am I against labeling? No not at all but I don’t see any reason for it either. They are quite simply not franken foods and don’t really deserve their reputation. How do you feel about them? Has any of this cleared up misconceptions? 

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