Do you GMO?

Happy New Year everyone!

During the holidays someone asked me about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and I thought it important to further expound on this. Because my thinking is definitely gray on parts of this, but very strong on two aspects – medicines and labelling of GMO foods!

First, what is a GMO? Well, it is creature or plant or virus, that’s been genetically engineered, i.e. had its DNA modified via direct human intervention affecting both itself and its progeny. But let’s be clear, humans have been modifying other species for as long as agriculture and husbandry has existed – by selecting which variants of a species to save, care for, protect, feed and water, prevent or encourage reproduction; AKA, artificial selection verses ‘natural selection’. Domestic dogs in all their variation are a sub-species of the gray wolf created by humans!

Since 1973, humans have had much greater ability to modify DNA, via direct biotechnology manipulation, including the transplant of genes from totally unrelated species. For example, using a bio-luminance gene from a fish in a bacteria, along with other changes, such that the new bacteria species will glow in the presence of certain toxins; or implanting other genes to allow the bacteria to produce human insulin, etc. The medical research, pharmaceuticals and even industrial resources (e.g. making bio-fuels to replace fossil fuels) enabled by genetic engineering methods have been hugely beneficial to the humans species and show great potential for our environment too. So I am highly supportive of this!

But I’m less supportive of genetic modified crops in food production. No, I do not believe there is any ‘built-in’ risk or safety concern about human consumption of a GMO (if you’re a US resident, then surely you’ve already eaten some, I’m certain; it’s been prevalent since the late 1990s thanks to our highly industrialized food supply). Rather my concerns are about the legalities and commercial aspects, the potential for ecological impacts, and the future risks of specific/multiple modifications.

By US patent law GMOs are patentable; meaning the company awarded the patent will have a minimum of 17 years of exclusive use of it, a.k.a. a legal monopoly. An example might be a company that modifies rice to increase its nutritional value as well as improve yields. There are plenty of examples, including the tomato with a thicker skin that makes it easier to transport, and a squash with enhanced mold resistance. But at least one seed company has taken their monopoly to the extreme, with an internal staff of >75 whose sole purpose is to investigate, threaten or prosecute farmers (or others) who use their herbicide-tolerant GMO seeds or the resulting crop in any fashion other than what the company dictates. The person may not have even signed a licensing agreement with them (the farmer does, and is supposed to require that anyone further down the chain also agrees to the licensing terms). Anyone who handles, processes, purchases, saves seeds to replant, or even has their own nearby non-GMO crop contaminated by GMO pollen is at risk being sued or threated with a lawsuit. Maybe in the future just cooking it ‘wrong’ or eating it will become a violation! This, IMHO, is commercial agriculture gone wrong.

Given the behaviors of the second company, I surely want to know when their GMO is in a product, so that I can boycott it. Correspondingly, if the first company distributed its rice without restrictions in poverty stricken areas or countries, I might decide to purchase more of that company’s products when spending my well-earned dollars. But to know this, I need more information than just is a product (or component) GMO or non-GMO.

And let’s look deeper at that herbicide-tolerant seed. The company is making out really well, selling the seed year after year as well as lots of the specific herbicide to the farmer. The farmer plants the seeds and sprays just that one herbicide to combat weeds (maybe even spraying overall less that they might have in the past). But after a few years, interesting problems could start to arise. Other herbicides might be taken off the market when their owners no longer find them economical. Certain insect pollinators that are necessary for the crop to produce well could be struggling because they no longer have a food source during the remaining 11 months of the year. Then without certain weeds in the fields (nor in the neighboring areas that are impacted too by the herbicide applications), the migrating birds and butterflies no longer have a food supply either and stop coming. Or, perhaps certain weeds start to develop their own resistance to the herbicide (like the corn has)… What now is the farmer to do? Spray more, with what?!  These are possible unintended commercial and ecological effects. We know monocultures are bad for resilience and sustainability. GMO crops seem perfected intended to create even larger use of monocultures in our food supply. Small farmers (and consumers who like variety) beware.

But as the field of synthetic biology and especially the iGEM contests illustrate, this won’t be always as simple as just a couple of genetic modifications at a time. The technology holds huge potential; both in what GMOs can do positively, but as well as for massive abuse. What happens if a peanut gene is used in wheat (just to make up an example) and some people with deadly peanut allergies consume that wheat… even if only a very small percentage is affected!?  How can these people know that this particular GMO is bad for them, but others are fine?

It’s a good thing that in the US GMOs are tested against known allergens prior to be authorized for consumption or any “open” planting/testing. But what I want to see is a label that indicates the specific modification(s) made. It can just be a simple number, much like the existing PLU 5-digit numbers used for fresh produce. In the ingredient listing, it would say something like “corn syrup GMO#1033” and maybe there’s a competitor corn seed provider that has GMO#2045. I could then decide which (or neither) I prefer to buy. Plus, we’d need an on-line database with more information, with those numbers as an index. Yes, this is more complicated and potentially confusing to the ‘standard’ consumer compared to just a GMO or non-GMO label. But it’s more meaningful and aligned better (and traceable) to the possibles risks and (at least to my) concerns.

To learn more about GMOs, I strongly recommend reading this 26-part series from what is normally a very “green”, likely anti-GMO-biased source. It seems to me to be well researched and written (if somewhat long-winded and sometimes drifting off focus). If you don’t GMO, then the good news is that since 2000 USDA rules prevent GMOs from being labelled “Organic”, so go for it! (but then again the bad news is there’s that GMO pollen in the mix,… ouch!) – Jack

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