Weeding out some misconceptions of GMOs

Tommy Dennen, Staff Writer

Let’s talk about GMOs for a second. The phrase is becoming ever more of a hot switch in pop culture, because it’s an issue that affects everyone. Everyone has to eat, and with the shocking variety of food options available to us today, we are faced with more and more choices about what we put in our bodies. With the advent of technological agriculture in the past two decades, these choices appear increasingly difficult.

In simplest language, a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism that has had its DNA changed in a way that might not have occurred in nature. On the surface, it is understandable why this concept would strike a cord of “not OK” with even the least informed on the topic, because diseases like cancer are increasingly prevalent and people want to do as much as they can to avoid ingesting something that is created artificially by science and not by nature. A common proclivity to endeavor to stay “natural” because natural = healthy.

I personally feel that GMOs are misunderstood. There are aspects of their application in agriculture that I disagree with, but the emphasis in the discussion appears to be in the wrong direction. In order to explain why I feel this way, it’s necessary to define a couple of terms.

When it comes to foods that can legally be labeled Genetically Modified Organisms, there are three ways to actually do the modification. The first, and least-shunned method of modification is simply artificial selection. The next is a technological process called cisgenesis [say siss-jen-ississ], which according to recent studies on public perception of GMOs, receives slightly more umbrage than the former due to the chemical nature of the reproductive intervention. Lastly, and most controversially, is a process called transgenesis [say: tranz-jen-ississ]; which requires the highest degree of inter-species DNA manipulations that our current methods and technologies can achieve. So lets define each of these these.

If you recall from high school biology, natural selection is the process of an organism changing into a technically “new” organism over generations due to beneficial microevolutions that favor interactions with its environment. In other words, the Spark Notes of this concept is that if you observe two wheat plants reproducing in the wild, one donates the pollen (or sperm) that is carried by the wind to the germ (or egg) of the other. These two structures carry the DNA of their respective adult plants; when they meet, they combine half of each of their DNA to make a baby. When this combination occurs, the offspring has a chance to derive a novel characteristic that its parents do not possess, since the process of syngamy (combination of sperm and egg DNA) is not a perfect one. Biologists call this chance alteration of the offspring’s DNA a mutation. Essentially, sometimes cells make errors when they are trying to combine the parents’ DNA, and if this “error” or mutation manifests itself as a beneficial characteristic with respect to the organism’s environment, the organism has conferred a competitive advantage over its peers. For example, if this mutation somehow affected the wheat plant’s drought tolerance in a beneficial way, and then coincidentally a drought occurred during its adult cycle, all the plant’s neighbors would die, because they didn’t experience that mutation—they could have experienced a myriad of other mutations though that might have been beneficial for another time or place, but these mutations are rendered irrelevant for the given conditions. Thus, evolution has occurred: only the plant that experienced a relevant change with respect to its environment gets to live and pass on its DNA, and you are left with a feasibly new and different organism. Therefore, Natural Selection leads to Evolution—something new, and in some way more fit to survive.

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for how the process of Natural Selection leads to the New and Better, explaining Artificial Selection is somewhat easier, and quite intuitive, as well, because every one of our ancestors would have been familiar with the process. Say your farm has a bunch of wheat plants, and you notice one plant on your plot grew particularly strong and tall amid a drought. You would logically use that plant to pollinate the rest of your plants in the hopes that the next generation would receive some of this drought tolerance. This is Artificial Selection: human intervention in the reproductive process through limiting which adults contribute to the gene pool in order to have better plants to feed your family. No one seems to frown on this process— in fact, on the topic of whether or not GMO’s are bad for us, certain individuals completely omit the controversial genetic science behind cisgenesis and transgenesis and cite the ancient agricultural practice of artificial selection as a reason why GMO’s are not bad, because several millennia of this application have reared no observable negative side affects to our population.

Now for the controversy, enter stage left: Cisgenesis. In the mid 1950’s, three scientists, Francis Crick, James D. Watson, and Rosalind Franklin, combine their life’s works to reveal the physical structure of DNA, the chief suspect in the vehicle behind how cells pass on their traits when they reproduce. The race was on for scientists the world over to assign which parts of the this chemical soup known as DNA were responsible for which emergent traits in their organism of interest— now that they had the framework to study said chemical soup. Fast-forward a few decades. This knowledge opened the door for agricultural scientists to circumvent the archaic, hit-and-miss technique of artificial selection, where you cross organisms with desirable traits and hope that the trait of interest is passed to the offspring, since—as aforementioned—sexual reproduction is a chance, and imperfect combination of parental DNA. Now scientists have a massive catalogue of segments of DNA and their corresponding physical traits. So they can take a wheat seed, apply a number of chemical manipulations, and look at the genome (the DNA) of the seed on a computer which appears as a unique code of letters. Back to our ancestors real quick: they’ve done a lot of legwork for us, so we take their drought-resistant wheat plant from our farm earlier, and then we take another wheat plant that is not drought resistant, but produces above-average sized grains, and we look at each of their unique DNA codes. The idea is: make a wheat plant that is both drought resistant and large in grain. So, scientists are able to chemically extract the segments that code for these traits, put them on one genome, “wrap it back up” and force one seed to express both characteristics, with none of the guesswork, and none of the gestation time it takes to wait for the plant to grow up and see if you achieved your desired characteristics. This is cisgenesis, modifying a plant with only genes that have come from other plants of the same species. A technologically advanced method to getting exactly what you want out of a plant, with DNA that is found naturally in the organism’s gene pool, but would take too many resources (water, soil, space, light) to manifest via the artificial selection method.

Enter the alleged villain stage right: Transgenesis. This process received negative attention right away when the public caught wind of salmon that had “tomato DNA injected” to make them redder for example, and vegetables that have various animal DNA expressed so that each would simply appear more attractive to the consumer and increase sales for the given produce. “It doesn’t sound natural!” cried the conservative psyche of our collective population.

That’s because it’s not. Neither is cisgenesis, and neither is the storied practice of artificial selection (it’s in the name: artificial). But understandably, the phrase “playing God” enters the conversation. “Creating Frankenfoods by combining plant and animal DNA could have unknown effects on our own gene pool if we continue eating these new and misunderstood foods!” Fine, you’re not alone. The European Union in fact has imposed strict bans on transgenetically-modified foods in their domain on the premise that results concerning their effects on human health are inconclusive, despite the World Health Organization compiling a number of large-sample studies involving administration of GMOs to mice, monkeys, and even mankind to assert that they pose no immediate threat to their general health. According to the WHO, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.” Additionally, Harvard professor Robert Paarlberg, a respected food safety and GMO expert, posits that farming with GMOs “has been a big success in areas it has been introduced to, including Hawaii where the papaya made a great comeback. A common thread among significant studies from the British Medical Association, the German Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Science and Medicine and other academics is agreement that there is no scientific evidence that GMOs are dangerous.”

One thing is clear though, GMOs have two major variables that are not on their side: time, and public perception. Time almost goes without saying, because everyone can agree that more exposure and testing can lead us to a surer conclusion on the matter. But what aspects of the human psyche contribute to the negative public perception? Recent studies point to a concept called “psychological essentialism” which refers to peoples’ inclination to classify a species based on a particular underlying “essence” that makes the organism what it is, and that adhering to these qualities keeps the organism true to their core properties like look, taste, and healthfulness. Essentialists appear to reject that which does not fit into preexisting, contemporary organismal characteristics, so anything deviating beyond the practice of artificial selection receives a boo from the Peanut Gallery.


All tolled, GMOs pose no immediate threat, but I will concede that time will truly tell. As a biologist, I try to understand and reason with the techniques used to create GMOs and pick my battles out of a respect for career scientists that dedicate their lives to engineering more productive foods to meet the ever-increasing demand of food in our growing global population. I don’t see GM foods as particularly offensive in general, but I do see how some are “worse” than others. My opinion is that we should shift the landscape of conversation to a greater scope: what are we doing to our food besides genetically modifying it, and what are the agricultural, financial, and environmental implications of these practices? Farmers use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in excess in order to maximize production and profit. Pesticides are irrefutably toxic to humans, and do cause innumerable health risks, and have even been strongly correlated to cancers like leukemia. Herbicides, too, are immensely toxic; brands like RoundUp have been implicated in massive hormonal devastation to frogs, who are particularly susceptible to external absorption of the toxins (google: RoundUp Frogs). Excessive fertilizer application has led to degradation of our ponds and waterways, because fertilizer not used by the plants for which they were intended runs of into streams, where algae use these extra nutrients to “bloom” and form thick, viscous membranes that deprive animals like fish and crabs beneath them of the oxygen and nutrients they need.

Last, but perhaps the most immediately concerning, is the legal and financial element to the GMO industry. Companies like Monsanto pay scientists to either cisgenetically or transgenetically engineer impressive corn, banana, and wheat varieties, to name a few. Because of their financial stake in producing said foods, there is legal precedent for them to own and patent the genetic code behind the resultant produce. This may not sound initially concerning, but Monsanto has already been involved in lawsuits where they are suing innocent farmers for growing and selling their patented foods. I say innocent, because despite the initial scientific complexity behind making GMOs possible, nature itself cruises on; which means pollen from any of these licensed GM foods can wander by way of wind into an organic farm, pollinate an organic species, and share some of its chemically engineered DNA, wherein Monsanto can enter and test the DNA of the food and confirm it contains their patented formula, and cost a farmer their entire crop, farm, and livelihood. This aspect absolutely disgusts me, and I strongly believe it deserves attention on the national stage. I believe that it is beneficial to push for appropriate GMO labeling on our foods, but I would take it a step farther. We need to hold our corporate agriculturalist accountable for poor stewardship of our land, and label their foods as such so that consumers can decide if they want to support non- sustainable farming when shopping for their families.

The GMO industry is moving quickly. Unfortunately as of now, greedy conglomerates are ahead of the general population. They’re more informed, they’re financially prepared, and they have an agenda: make money at all costs, and silence the opposition. As a voting population, the future of our children and grandchildren relies on our ability to get informed, and to act.