The GMO Debate
Every now and again I receive valuable feedback from my website readers and channel viewers. This has often shed light on issues that people are concerned about. And at times I've been able to discern areas of debate, confusion and even misinformation.
Recently this has come to my attention within the realm of GMO research and implementation. Genetic engineering has changed the world. For the better? For the worse? Wherever you stand on this topic, you have to admit one thing. Change has come.
"GMO is not new" ...?
This is the first layer of misinformation which seems to have taken root. GMO proponents try to push the idea that genetic engineering is not really much of a change. In fact, 'farmers have been genetically engineering crops for thousands of years.' Really? They've been Genetically Modifying organisms? This simply is not true. Let me explain why.
Genetically modified organisms are the result of human or artificial manipulation. 'Wait! So are hybrids!' Hold up, this is not the same process. Genetic engineering isn't the same as selective breeding. GMOs result from a completely different mechanism: Gene Technology.
Note the definition provided by the World Health Organization1: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology" or "gene technology", sometimes also "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering".
HYBRIDS: are derived from a cross of 2 different (although compatible) lifeforms. There are two parent organisms which, through sexual reproduction, create offspring. The offspring inherits traits from each parent and may be quite unique.
But a farmer or breeder who creates a cross, must work within the framework of the genes that are available in the parents. And the hybrid can only result from sexual reproduction. Even with human intervention, this is still a very natural process. In fact, many hybrids could occur in nature without any artificial interference.
Years ago, Wired2 published an article describing research that shed light on how corn was cultivated by the ancient Aztecs. Biotechnology giants tried to use the research as a means for confusing people -blurring the lines between agricultural breeding and genetic manipulation.
So what are the mechanisms used in modern genetic engineering?
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS: are a product of gene technology. This is a relatively new science which has made amazing discoveries over the last several decades. Gene technology has taught us about gene expression providing remarkable insights into DNA, RNA and the way they work. Scientists can now use genetic markers to better facilitate conventional breeding programs.
In addition gene technology can modify a gene or even introduce a new gene that had never been in a host organism. These techniques are what researchers have used to develop modern GMO crops such as HT or Bt corn. They've taken genetic material that was not inherently found in corn and introduced it. On a cellular level, the original organism is genetically altered.
Gene technology has provided a new set of tools, allowing people to bypass conventional reproductive methods. The natural barriers separating one kind of organism from a completely different kind are ignored. And thus we hear about genes from a fish being introduced to a tomato. These transgenic organisms are new creations. This practice is something very different from what breeders have done in centuries past.
Why does it matter?
That's a good question, isn't it? GMO advocates have tried to create a perception that genetic engineering is just an extension of ancient agricultural processes. Why would they want to do this? Even the smallest amount of research will show that these methods are very, very different. So why muddy the waters? Consumers love NEW and exciting things. Shouldn't they love this new, revolutionary way of shaping life?
It's a propaganda technique which strives to rationalize a radically new way of approaching breeding and agriculture. If a method is sound, safe and effective then it should speak for itself. Don't shroud a technology in mystery. Don't try to associate it with natural techniques that people have been comfortable using for centuries.
Genetic manipulation through gene technology should be able to stand on it's on merits.