Simply those three letters can make or break a healthy ad campaign for companies in the business of peddling organic whole foods.
GMO – genetically modified organisms – have long gotten a bad rap for drastically variant reasons. Some people think that editing the genes in certain foods will decrease their nutritional value, poison its potential eaters with pesticides, possible gene transfer, toxicity, or simply nervousness over eating something that didn’t grow the way the universe intended (better throw out your Brussel sprouts then).
Similar to American politics, the debate over GMOs in Europe reached its apex with a fever pitch from anti-GMO lobbyists maybe a decade ago. The mainstream media reported on the near-constant noise being made from the GMOs-gotta-go-camp, and the near-constant refrain from the biochemists and GMO-reps who insisted the fears were unfounded.
We all ended up a little bit muddier about what GMOs are, why they exist, whether they can hurt you, and how they can be used to help you.
Let’s start with the basics…
What are GMOs?
ABCs of GMOs
In a sense, genetically modifying plant life is a practice as old as agriculture itself. Humans have been cross-breeding plants to achieve specific measures since they learned they could.
Today’s strawberries, for example, are cross-bred between North and South American varieties.
But cross-breeding in nature takes time and generations, and it’s difficult to control for the exact change you’re interested in making.
After much groundwork was laid over centuries (think: Gregor Mendel tracing the breeding of peas and founding modern genetics), two biochemists in 1973 figured out how to insert DNA from one bacteria to another.
For the next several decades, GMO made quick moves.
Human insulin was actually the first GMO product available for sale, and its presence on the market was quickly followed with a governing body whose purpose was to regulate the safety of future GMO products.
The FDA’s 1992 policy insisted that any GMO produce or food sold to the public must meet the same safety standards and traditionally bred counterparts.
By the early 2000s, Europe had its own regulatory body within the WHO and the European FDA – FAO.
But the public felt uncomfortable about the very process through which gene editing transforms our food. You see, DNA strands get cultured inside a bacterium and then connected to the nucleus of plant cells via a virus.
No one wants to think about viruses and bacteria cultivating their food, and so the anti-GMO movement was born the same way the anti-vaccine movement was… Largely misinformation based on thinking certain words are bad.
Although, there’s another angle to the anti-GMO stance that makes a bit more sense. One of GMOs’ greatest accomplishments has been modifying plant seeds to create herbicide-resistant strains of crops.
That means that the chemical industry can continue to profit from making Roundup and selling them in huge quantities to the farmers of America’s midlands without the corn crop suffering. Except…
Those chemicals wash off into our water and what remains, we eat.
This argument isn’t really about GMOs themselves – it’s about the reckless and harmful control that corporations have over our government. If the government can’t get out from under the thumb of companies like Monsanto, Roundup’s maker, that’s a huge problem.
What it isn’t is a judgment on the actual practice of genetically modifying organisms.
And in fact, editing genes of plants might be the climate crisis solution we’ve been looking for…
How to Use the Principle of GMOs Responsibly
We’ve already stripped the soil of its nutrients from centuries of stifling biodiversity and replacing it with a monoculture system. We’ve already affected the way the seasons present, annual rain events, the availability of pollinators, and migratory patterns of wildlife.
Man’s hubris has altered nature. Unless we completely halt contact with nature, it won’t revert.
That seems unlikely, somehow.
So it would behoove us to use the tools at our disposal that aren’t inherently harmful to reduce harm.
Recently, a new method has been discussed in the scientific community. Plants and crops can be genetically altered to enhance photosynthesis, which would help them absorb more carbon than they naturally do to curb existing emissions.
Scientists also claim that they can use gene editing to make trees and roots grow faster, speeding up the absorption of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Gene editing is different from genetically modifying in one key way: Scientists alter the existing DNA of a plant rather than infuse its DNA with material from another source.
But the principle is the same – we are using our capabilities to change the natural design of the universe.
And we should use that power wisely, to help sustain ourselves and the Earth at the same time.