GMO 101

By Marlena Norwood

Most likely you’ve heard the term “GMO” being thrown around with negative connotations. Let’s explore what a GMO is, why it’s used, and why it is such a hot button topic of conversation in food politics.

orange-fruit-1417718-mGMO is short for genetically modified organism. In the case of food, it is any animal, produce, ingredient, food additive, etc. that has been genetically engineered in a laboratory. Anything that has DNA can be genetically modified through the insertion, deletion, or substitution of one of more nucleotides in a DNA sequence. These simple changes of even just one nucleotide have the potential to greatly alter the phenotype of an organism.

So, why genetically modify?

Genetic modification can be very attractive to food producers and foodies alike. Produce is genetically engineered to increase crop yield, protect against pests (eliminating the need for pesticides), and to grow in different seasons and climates. Genetic modification also can boost the nutritious content of food by altering its DNA to producing more vitamins.

Seems all good, right?

Not quite – there are many downsides to GMO’s as well. The main controversy over genetically modified organisms is their affect on human health. Opponents of GMO’s argue that since genetic modification is an unnatural process, it has detrimental effects on health. These adverse health effects are not necessarily (although some are) ones that are seen in the short term, but rather over long periods of time. GMO’s have been around for a while now – the first GMO created was a tomato that had a longer shelf life – but long term effects of GMO’s are still greatly unknown.

Another unknown is that changing one nucleotide in DNA doesn’t always produce just the clear-cut effect scientists are looking for. Often, genes function in groups where one modification may do something intended, and further modification interacts with the first in unexpected ways.

Genetic mutations occur all the time in all living organisms – that’s why we don’t all look the same. Many farmers practice selective breeding – selecting produce with favorable traits rather than unfavorable ones to produce offspring so that those traits are carried onto the next generation. Farmers are controlling the gene pool. Proponents of genetic modification argue that genetic engineering is not much different than selective breeding because they’re modifying organisms to have those favorable genes that may or may not occur during natural mutations.

harvest-field-1400040-mOf course there are other downsides to GMO’s as well, such as the domination of the entire genetically engineered seed industry by Monsanto. I will get into more political issues about GMO’s later.

Because a thorough analysis of GMO’s is so lengthy, this topic is broken down into a three part blog series. Next week we will tackle GMO policy and practices from the federal and state levels. In the final post, I will discuss GMO’s that have been very beneficial, and others that have had detrimental effects – and finally how we can apply those lessons moving forward with GMO’s.

Before I get into the specific politics of certain GMO’s in the next couple weeks, here’s what you should keep in mind about GMO’s in general:

  • The topic of GMO’s is complicated and heated, and it is important to listen to both sides of the argument.
  • There are real pros and cons with genetic modification, and those pros and cons depend greatly on the organism being modified.
  • Just because genetic modification is deemed “unnatural,” it is not necessarily “bad.”

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