When walking down a typical grocery story isle, it is now becoming obvious that there is a big difference between GMO and non-GMO products. Its easy to notice that non-GMO products cost more and are often placed with organic products. The product placement and price hike provide a façade of superior health/nutrition quality, but is that the truth? One could accept these marketing strategies as truth, but may not be able to describe what the true differences are between GMO and non-GMO products. Here, I define and discuss GMOs and the advantages and risks of implementing them into modern day agriculture.
The concept of genetic modification is not always the easiest to communicate. Its simple enough to tell someone that a GMO is genetically modified organism, but what does that mean to someone without a foundation in biological sciences? When I hear “genetic modification” my mind flies to Jurassic Park, Gattaca, Spider-Man, or even the X-men Mutants. It is difficult to then imagine genetic modification in the contexts of agriculture without understanding the background mechanisms. To understand what genetic modification is, one must first understand what a gene is.
Living things contain DNA, which acts as the physical source of genetic material and thus the instructions for a living cell. The human genome, or the total collection of all genetic material in one human cell, contains over 5 billion nucleotides, which are the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. If one were to stretch this genome out into a line it would stretch to over 5 feet! This is a giant source of information that needs a system of organization to maintain efficiency.
Think of the genome as a book. There are chapters, which in the context of the genome would be chromosomes. Book chapters, like chromosomes, could be reordered and the contents of each chapter/chromosome would not change. The rearranged book/set of chromosomes still contains all the same information that the original has, but in a different order. Each chapter contains many paragraphs. These paragraphs represent genes. Sometimes a set of paragraphs need to be in a certain order to make sense while in other circumstances they can stand alone and make sense by themselves. Some paragraphs are just “fluff” and aren’t important to the overall story, while others are crucial for the plot. Similarly, genes can sometimes stand alone and make sense, or in other cases must be clustered or are dependent on other genes to function correctly. Some genes are non-coding, and are sometimes considered to be less important while others are crucial and required for survival. Paragraphs are made up of sentences, which are then composed of words. Similarly, genes are made of long stretches of DNA sequences, which can be broken down into smaller sections of specific nucleotide sequences that make each gene unique.
Let’s act as if the following sentence is a stretch of genetic code: “I love cooking, my dogs, and my family.” This is a gene. If read normally it would describe things that a person likes. Now let’s introduce a deletion mutation that removes “comma nucleotides:” “I love cooking my dogs and my family.” This is the same stretch of genetic code, but missing 2 nucleotides dramatically changes the meaning. This deletion mutation causes a big misunderstanding about what this person enjoys in their life. Alternatively, we can take the original stretch of code and add some sequences: “I really love cooking, my dog, and especially my family.” These addition mutations change the code, but did not change the overall meaning in any way. This is similar to how genetic mutations works. Small mutations in the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs can make big changes in the code, or slip by without making a change in the overall code at all! But now, why does this matter?
The genetic code is used as template to make the proteins that the body needs to work. A mutation sometimes may be silent and not affect protein production, or in other cases can cause changes in the protein that make it not function which can cause disease. Plants use this exact same system for protein production!
Some genes in plants code for proteins that aid in defense against pathogens and stress. For centuries, humans have been specially breeding plants to select for plants that appear to have genes that make them grow larger, more nutritious, and that provide better defense against stress and disease. With growing human population and increased climate stress however, this process of selective breeding has not been efficient enough. With modern molecular biology techniques, scientists have been able to speed up this process by identifying specific genes that aid in plant defense and increase nutrient quality. They can then increase the expression of these genes or insert genes from other species that enhance these defense/nutrient properties. A great example of this is Golden Rice.
There was an issue of Vitamin A deficiency on the African continent that was causing high rates of childhood blindness and increased childhood mortality. Plant scientists engineered a strain of rice to produce Beta-Carotenoids, which when consumed by a human is converted into Vitamin A. The safety of this crop has been studied and shown to be safe for consumption. This is an example of genetic modification in plants being used to improve human health. There is no risk of eating foreign DNA/protein, however risk lies in the use of herbicides/pesticides. The confusion between GMO and herbicide/pesticide causes them to be clustered together when they should not be. GMOs are becoming increasingly necessary to accommodate the growing population, but social backlash are harming their efficiency.
There are countless sites listing different health risks associated with GMOs. For example, the “GMO Education site” https://responsibletechnology.org/gmo-education/section1/lists 65 different risks associated with GMOs, including autism, death, cancer, stomach bleeding, and allergies. All of these are sourceless "facts" from a non-peer reviewed book authored by someone lacking a scientific background. This fear mongering damages the reputation of GMOs and slows down their potential capability to improve agriculture. On the other hand, the statement “all GMOs are safe” is a bit of a stretch. The scientific process is needed to study each individual GMO one by one. As long as each GMO is studied independently and shown to not display adverse effects on human health, it should be accepted as a practical solution to an agricultural problem.