GMOs: The Good
For centuries, we have been manipulating the organisms around us. By inter-breeding animals and plants with desirable traits to one another (plant to plant and animal to animal; no need to confuse things here with hybrid plant/animals), we have created new breeds of animals and new crops of plants.
Selective breeding has led to increases in milk production, meatier animals, higher yielding crops and new ornamental flowers. Make no mistake – all of our food has been genetically manipulated at some point in time. You consume GMO food all the time. In some cases, the original ancestors are hardly recognizable:
It took scientists years to find corn’s ancestor as the plant has changed so much. The ancestor of modern-day corn (or maize) is a grass called Teosinte. Native American farmers began domesticating this grass about 10,000 years ago. By planting only seeds from the grass that was desirable to them, they helped transform an inedible grass into thousands of corn varieties. This makes them the fathers of genetic engineering – the specific manipulation of an organism’s genetic material.
Selective Breeding is Not Pure
When you selectively breed an organism, you are mixing hundreds of genes together.
Let’s say you have light brown goats and you want to create a dark brown goat. You pick your darkest male and female goats and breed them together. You do this for several generations until you have goats that are dark brown. You are successful!
But you have also been crossing hundreds of other genes together. For all you know, you might also be breeding goats that crow – a very un-goatlike behavior. And if you have a whole farm, you probably already have enough crowers.
Today’s genetic engineering involves selectively choosing one gene or a group of genes to alter. Due to modern techniques, we can take out, add or mutate a single gene without having an effect on the rest of the genome. This allows us to program only for those traits we want without messing with a bunch of other genes. And if you end up with something undesirable, you know that it is due to the specific change you made.
Today’s genetic engineering is precise, clean, calculated and rapid.
The Potential for GMOs
GMOs have a variety of benefits:
- Decreased need for herbicides and pesticides by making plants naturally resistant
- Resistance to plant viruses
- Production of pharmaceuticals like ZMapp, a potential Ebola treatment
- Development of easy to grow crops
- Increasing nutrients in food
- Increased production
- Production of many pharmaceuticals like insulin for treating diabetes and human growth human for treating dwarfism
- Production of biofuels
- Production of proteins for research
- Development of models of human disease
- Production of consumer products (better wool)
- Development of pharmaceuticals
- For our enjoyment – hypoallergenic pets
- Enhancement of food production and quality
- Improvement of animal health
With these benefits, why is GMO a dirty word? Why is there near hysteria on social media sites and across the internet over GMO food?
Photo courtesy of Rational Parliament.