Genetically Modified Organism
I think it’s time to shed a little light on this whole GMO thing. As a techno geek, I find the topic fascinating. I mean, we are reaching in and manipulating a plants DNA so that it can serve us better. As a person who is eating the stuff, however, I find the topic a little terrifying.
It’s consistently in the news, there are activists groups fighting it, and lobbyists pushing for it, but it’s rarely understood. Man has been nudging the genetic makeup of flora and fauna for a millennia. Purposely breeding plants and animals with desired traits is, in effect, creating DNA the suits your needs. Corn, for example, would not exist without the careful breeding performed by Native Americans. It looked like prairie grass when they started. There is, however, a huge difference between this and genetic modification.
A genetically modified organism (GM or GMO) is a plant or animal whose DNA is directly manipulated to include genetic data from a non sexually compatible species. Basically, we breed things that can’t breed, and choose which traits they share.
The Enviropig (Yes, that’s a real, branded, name of a new man made animal.) was created by adding bits of E. coli DNA (and others) to the DNA of a Yorkshire Pig. It’s pretty clear that a pig and a bacteria wouldn’t make babies out in the wild. They used a Gene Gun (seriously, that’s what it is called). The outcome is a pig who’s saliva contains an enzyme that allows it to digest phosphate instead of pooping it out. This is the first pig in history that can do that. Millions of years of natural selection never gave it that trait.
Corn is, of course, the popular example. About 90% of the US corn crop is genetically modified. Corn isn’t genetically modified to grow bigger or taste better. It’s modified to resist the herbicide Roundup. The result is that farmers can really load their fields up with Roundup to kill more weeds. Put simply, we changed the genetic makeup of corn to allow us to dump more chemicals on our food. That’s a little like taking an unproven drug to make your lungs better at handling smoking.
The logic seem pretty flawed, but that’s just the start. The big rub with GMOs is that they don’t have to be labeled. The FDA has decided that consumers don’t need to know what something they are eating contains genetically modified ingredients. You will NEVER see “genetically modified corn” on an ingredient label.
This obfuscation reached the tipping point with the proposed introduction of genetically modified salmon called Aqubounty. The fish was on the fast track through the FDA when the public started to push back. Had there not been an outcry, you would never know if the salmon you had last week was frankinfish or not. This seems ridiculous, but that’s exactly the situation for corn, canola, cotton, soy, and others. I promise you ate genetically modified food today. I did. Without any labeling, it’s almost impossible to avoid.
So, here is our moderate stance on GMOs; at the very least, let people choose. Require the origin of a plant or animals genetic makeup to be clearly stated. Allow non-GMO foods to be labeled as such. (New FDA guidelines don’t allow food companies to print “non-GMO” on packaging. We will eventually have to remove it from our box. Friggin Crazy.)
Genetic modification is one of the most powerful tools mankind has ever created. It could prove to be tremendously beneficial to people and planet. It could just as easily prove to be devastating. Let’s take is slow. Let’s keep it transparent.