God & GMOs: What is a GMO?

(Welcome to Part 2 of my new series God & GMOs, which I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the Introduction or Part 1: The Gospel and maybe say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!) Untitled Design (3)

After reviewing the foundation of the gospel and arming ourselves with some important Biblical truths, it’s time to start asking questions about science. What is a GMO? How is it made? Are GMOs safe for eating? Why do we need GMOs when we have other ways to breed crops? These are great questions, and I’m glad people ask them. 

There are lots of different people talking about GMOs, but there are also lots of ideas about what makes something a GMO (or not). Different countries and different international research groups use slightly different definitions, and this is one of the many reasons this conversation is so hard.

The shorthand “GMO” means “Genetically Modified Organism.” It sounds weird, but the most important thing you need to know is that a GMO is a fruit, vegetable, or grain. It’s planted in the ground and grown like any other crop. The “genetic modification” for a GMO crop happens before planting, when a seed or crop line is developed in a laboratory using biotechnology for a cisgenic or transgenic DNA transfer to improve the genetic code. It makes perfect sense, right? …maybe not. Basically, scientists have figured out how to precisely combine one or two portions of DNA into a plant genome in order to produce a plant that has a specific desired trait. (Here’s a video explanation of the process to make GMO papaya, if you want a visual aid!) Sometimes this happens with genes from two plants that could be conventionally bred (which is called a “cisgenic modification”), and sometimes it happens between genes that wouldn’t combine in nature (or “transgenic modification”). Sometimes scientists can “silence” or “delete” a gene within a single plant, and though this uses some of the same biotechnology tools, those aren’t always considered GMO.

Why make GMO crops?
Scientists like genetic engineering because it’s more precise than traditional crop breeding, since it takes just the exact DNA that it needs for the resulting plant without having to account for other DNA crosses that would happen in typical breeding. Even though it’s still a lot of work, these tools can produce the desired plant traits in about half the time of older methods, so it’s quicker, too.

What is the purpose of GMO crops?

GMO crops are developed for many different reasons, including drought tolerance (so a farmer can still provide food even if it doesn’t rain much), resistance to pesticide or herbicide so a farmer can more effectively manage the field, expressing genes that will make the plant naturally undesirable to pests to avoid using chemical applications, increased yield, or improved nutrition. In the field, they tend to produce more food per acre and do so with less chemical applications than their non-GMO siblings. (In recent years it still looks like GMO crop fields’ overall toxicity screens remained similar or lower than non-GMO fields.) 

Are GMO crops safe?
Despite the claims of naysayers, GMO crops have been rigorously tested for safety in animal and human consumption for as long as I’ve been alive, and the full counsel of multiple studies is that GMO crops are as safe or safer than non-GMO crops for human consumption.

What is the difference between GMO crops and non-GMO crops?
While it’s developed differently from a “conventional” plant, the final GMO product is usually indistinguishable from it’s non-GMO sibling. The FDA considers them “substantially equivalent,” but the precision and purpose of genetic modification means that if there’s a difference in nutrition or quality, the GMO has the upper hand.

What GMO crops are available for sale in the US?
The GMO products available in the US today are limited to corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa (for animal feed, not those sprouts for the top of your salad), sugar beets, canola, papaya, potato, and squash. Pretty soon we’ll be able to buy GMO apples that won’t brown quite so quickly after you cut them open. (Source: FDA Consumer Info about Food from Genetically Engineered Plants) 

Can GMO technology benefit threatened plants and croplines? 
Because it is so precise and so much faster than traditional breeding, GMO technology can preserve plant lines that would otherwise be destroyed, even to the point of extinction, by natural factors (stemming from that curse on the ground in Genesis 3), like disease, drought, and destructive predators. If you watched the earlier video, you’ll note that papaya was genetically modified to resist ringspot virus, which essentially saved papaya from extinction in Hawaii. There are significant concerns today about various problems facing the American Chestnut tree, bananas, cassava, and citrus (Florida citrus production is at a 50-year low due to citrus greening), among others, and scientists are frantically trying to get ahead in enough time to preserve these foods for the benefit of farmers and consumers alike.

Can GMO technology work on anything besides crops?
The technology that makes GMO crops is also used to develop medicine with virtually no controversy (insulin, extremely promising cancer treatments to replace and supplement traditional chemotherapy, etc.). Research is also happening using genetic modification in human embryos with shockingly less controversy, in my observation, among Christians than the general uproar over GMO crops.

Aren’t GMOs “unnatural”? Why not use traditional breeding methods? 
GMOs are not the only big (and “unnatural”) improvement in crop development
. Farmers and scientists (and sometimes even just nature, in ways we don’t always understand) have been improving the crops that we eat since the beginning of time. (Doesn’t this sound like that “Cultural Mandate” to tend the earth and establish ways of life?) Some of the other crop development techniques used today include cross-breeding, mutagenesis, polyploidy, and protoplast fusion. Do you know what those are, off the top of your head? Probably not. (I wouldn’t, either.) There isn’t a lot of uproar about those things, even though they are also fairly “unnatural.” To an untrained scientist like me, their definitions seem just as unnerving: Induced chromosomal manipulation? That’s polyploidy breeding. Blasting a group of parent plants with radiation and then breeding whichever plants mutate into the desirable traits for the next generation, which ends up on our plates? That’s mutagenesis. These crops are subject to the same rigorous safety testing, which demonstrates we can eat these foods with just as much confidence. No one’s stirring up anti-mutagenesis sentiment in modern consumers, as far as I can tell, even though that one (which is allowed within the framework of the USDA Organic program) seems the freakiest to me. Still, “cisgenic or transgenic DNA transfer” sounds a little bit less concerning if you set it up next to those things. (Source: The Genetic Literacy Project “How does Genetic Engineering differ from Conventional Breeding?)

Should we identify GMO foods?
We’ll discuss the facets of GMO labeling requirements in a post later. But it’s important to note that we don’t define any other produce by their breeding or development process. If you eat delicious grapefruit every February and March like I do, you’re very likely eating a “mutagenesized organism.” Have you ever seen a grapefruit with a “mutagenesis” (or “non-mutagenesis”) label? When you compare this to the other ways we develop crops, it seems that calling genetically modified food “GMO” is very much a cultural construct and not a scientific one. 

I’ve purposefully left many points for later discussion and I’m sure more will come up as the series continues, but I’ll end here for now. We’ll be talking about the scientific method, what constitutes a “scientific study” for publication, and discerning reliable sources next. If you’re interested in doing some more reading before the next entry, we suggest the following items to tide you over. Thanks for reading, friends!

“Unhealthy Fixation” by William Saleten for Slate. 
“Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture” TedX talk by Rob Saik (20-minute video) 
GMO FAQ from the Genetic Literacy Project
(We have been impressed with the reliability of this site and they have LOTS of pictures and infographics if that is more your style!)
GMO series by Greg Peterson at the Peterson Farm Brothers (You’ll want to click on the little “next” button at the top to see the rest of the entries.)

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6 thoughts on “God & GMOs: What is a GMO?

  1. Thank you Abby and Aaron, Very clear and interesting too.

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S7, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  2. This was excellent Abby. I am especially intrigued that no other form of breeding and trait manipulation (especially mutagenesis, as you said) has garnered suspicion or animosity comparable to that of genetic modification. That point makes me especially keen to learn the politics and origins of the anti GMO sentiment (why was it GM methods the opposition latched on to?). Will continue reading!

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