• Samantha Schofield

Why you shouldn’t hate on GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) are organisms in which have had their genetic code altered in order to express a desirable trait. Unfortunately, the word GMO is treated the same as UFO in many cases, some scary alien word that might be evil. So, why do people accept insulin (a GM medicine) but get hangry when talking about GM crops? And why do people keep reaching for organic and non-GM foods without knowing the difference? Well friends, I’m here to lay down the law.

Why do GMOs exist?

Gene technology has been used since forever ago, except used to just be called conventional breeding. All plants have genetic variability, just like humans. Some plants have more fruit, some are better at withstanding drought etc. Farmers would cross two plants that had good qualities and see which of the progeny (plant babies) had both those qualities to use for further crosses. This was great and the reason why modern corn has heaps of kernels, instead of its original ancestor which had like literally 3. But there were some problems with this traditional method of gene tech: it took agessss and it was unpredictable and hard to control. Finally, some scientists had enough of eating weird, unpredictable corn and said “hey! What if we just changed the stuff we wanted to change?” and a lot of the world said “are you trying to kill me Mr Science Devil Man???”

So, why do we even need GM crops? Well, here’s a scary quote for you: “in the next two generations, we will consume twice as much food as has been consumed in the entire previous history of humankind”. And if you think about how many kernels of corn we had originally versus now in modern times, I think it is time to put some trust in biotechnology and genetic engineering. More kernels!!!!!!

Which organisms are GM organisms?

Mostly, it’s just plants at the moment. The majority of corn, cotton, canola, sugar beets and soybeans are GM. The GM part is usually a lot more boring than you think. A lot of the time GM crops have been genetically engineered to be an insecticide and resistant to pests (meaning farmers don’t need to use herbicides). The other times the GM crop is made to be resistant to herbicides, so if farmers need to use herbicides, it only kills the nasty weeds and not the crop. Bt crops are the most common type of insecticide resistant crop, with the Bt standing for the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, in which naturally produces an insecticide. This Bt crop is created by inserting a Bt gene, in which makes the Bt protein, into the crop in which when ingested by particular insects, causes them to get upset tummies and die. And no this isn’t poison to humans. Think of it like chocolate to dogs and humans, animals have different digestive systems and can’t handle the Cadbury just like bugs can’t handle the insecticide. The most common herbicide resistant crops are engineered to be effective against glyphosate (the primary ingredient in the herbicide Roundup) allows farmers to effectively deal with weeds that invade their crops, without causing devastating loss to their yield.

So, that is for plants! Buuuut, recently the FDA has successfully made a safe genetically modified Atlantic Salmon, called the AquAdvantage Salmon. The GM Salmon has been genetically altered to be able to grow all year round, instead of specific seasons in which is the case for non-GM salmon. This allows the salmon to reach maximum size quickly. This is the first case of an approved GM animal for consumption in the USA and Canada.

How do they make GMOs?

Ahh, I love genetics. So many weird and whacky ways of smooshing genes together. Both methods of begin with finding the trait you are interested in. Then, scientists isolate the gene of interest from the donor organism and construct a gene product to insert into the plant of interest. This can be done by microparticle bombardment (or gene gun) which unsurprisingly was created by an American and basically shoots the genes into the plant cells. The other method is called Agrobacterium mediated transformation. Usually the Agrobacterium infects plant cells to cause disease by infecting the plant’s DNA. Scientists found a way to manipulate this process, removing the disease-causing aspect and putting in the gene of interest.

Genome editing (including CRISPR) is the new technology and allows scientist to make extremely specific changes to the plant genome. In genetic engineering, the gene of interest is changed by being added by a foreign organism with foreign material. CRISPR-systems change only the genes within the genome of the plant of interest. Due to this, CRISPR and genome editing is actually not considered GM in Australia. But, studies have found people view them in the same exact way.

GMOs versus organic?

Clever marketing and general lack of education directed consumers away from GMOs and into the open arms of “organic” produce. Organic farming is usually labelled “organic” as the farms don’t use herbicides and organic food has a higher nutritional value. But, as we’ve discussed, many GM crops are created to be an insecticide so don’t need herbicides at all. Studies have also shown there is no difference in nutritional value of organic vs non-organic. The techniques used for organic farming are also not economically viable in today’s world. Unfortunately, it seems organic is just for the label and to be certified as organic you need to pay some hefty fees. So, some “organic” farms aren’t saying it on the label anyways! Tsk tsk.

So, are GMOs harmful to us?

Health wise, no. The only study against GMOs for health reasons came from a study of rats producing massive tumours after being fed GM corn. This gained a lot of traction in the media and got anti-GM people in a tizzy. Turns out, this scientist used some problematic practises including a small sample size and using rats that have an 80% chance of spontaneously growing a tumour in their lifetime. Bad scientist bad!! The study ended up being discredited. But what about for humans? Fortunately, there is a heap of data for us humans as people in the US consume GM all the time whereas people in Europe don’t. Using this comparative study found no health differences and therefore there has been zero evidence GMOs are a health problem.

So, is there another problem? Many of the criticisms for GMs are not to do with the science at all, it’s to do with the corporations. Patenting of the research of certain genes and the GM crops lead to the monopolisation of GMOs. This leads people to be wary of our source of food being controlled by few massive corporations.

The threat of climate change

One potentially lifesaving use of GM technologies is helping plants become more resistant to the rapidly changing climate. Plants which are able to grow with increased temperatures, resistant to flooding and droughts, increased salinity tolerance, as well as disease resistance would help farmers continue to produce crops to feed the growing population. GM plants also have the ability to help combat climate change. Plants which don’t need nitrogen fertilizers and trees that can increase their uptake of carbon dioxide could be a key to the future of GM. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on GMOs to help save the world when people don’t even understand GMOs are the bee’s knees!

Sources and further reading