What are GMOs?

 

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are forms of life (e.g., plants, animals, bacterium, and fungi) with genetic material that has been altered by genetic engineering.

 

Gene Gun

Gene transfer using the gene gun for particle bombardment
Image Source: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/blurb/fg8.t.gif

What is Genetic Engineering?

Genetic engineering involves introducing genetic material to an organism to alter it’s genome.  The genetic material that is introduced could be DNA from another organism or synthetic genes.  The DNA is prepared outside the organism and then inserted into the organism using methods such as particle bombardment, micro-injection, or through a vector system.

For example, Monsanto’s triple stacked corn, “Genuity VT Triple PRO®” GENVT3P sold under the DEKALB brand, was genetically engineered using particle bombardment and bacterial vectors.  The genes containing traits that protect against insects and provide herbicide tolerance are introduced to the parental corn line using a gene gun and/or by using bacteria to invade the cell with the engineered genes.

Steps to Genetically Engineer Plants:

  • Isolate the genes containing the desirable traits from another organism or synthesize the genes
  • Combine the genes with the necessary promoters (for gene transcription required to form the specific protein that has the desirable trait, e.g., resistance to insects or tolerance of a particular herbicide) and markers (for tracking the genes in the host plant) and incorporate into a plasmid (circular strand of DNA that can replicate independently)
  • Introduce the new genetic material into the host plant cells
  • Regenerate/grow the plant cells containing the new genetic material
  • Test the plant’s resistance and tolerance

The final GMO, in the case of Monsanto’s “Genuity VT Triple PRO®” corn, is triple stacked with Roundup Ready herbicide tolerance, corn borer insect protection and rootworm insect protection.

Genetic engineering is NOT the same as creating hybrid animals through breeding and mutations or plants through grafting.  A Labradoodle is not a GMO, nor is a mule, nor is a pluot.  Those are hybrids.

 

Advantages of GMOs

Agriculture

Cows injected with the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) produce more milk than cows who aren’t treated with the growth hormone.

Genetically engineered crops can be resistant to pests and herbicides, increasing yield and maximizing profitably to the food industry.

Nutrients can be added to GMOs to increase the nutritional value of food.  See “Golden Rice” which has added Vitamin A to combat Vitamin A deficiencies.

Proponents claim that genetic engineering helps lower the usage of herbicides and pesticides.  (Note: Critics claim the opposite, see below.)

Bill Gates believes that genetically modified crops are necessary to prevent starvation in poor nations.  (Note:  Again, critics believe just the opposite.)

Scientific research

Genetic engineering is used for discovery and treatment of many serious diseases including the production of pharmacutical products like insulin, ATryn, and vaccines.

Gene therapy

Genetically modified viruses are used to insert genes into a patient’s cells to replace a mutated gene with a healthy copy or introduce a new gene that can help fight disease.

 

Disadvantages of GMOs

Health Concerns

A study by Joël Spiroux de Vendômois et al. published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences in 2009 analyzed blood and organ data from rats fed three different genetically modified corn varieties for 90 days.  The authors concluded that there was a clear negative impact on the function of the kidneys and liver.  Effects on heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were also noted.  The data collected strongly suggests that the GM corn induced a state of hepatorenal toxicity.

Experts also believe that GMOs have resulted in an increase in food allergies.  Robyn O’Brien, former food industry analyst and author of The Unhealthy Truth, starting digging into food allergy data after her youngest child had a food allergy reaction.  She learned that from 1997 until 2002, there had been a doubling of the peanut allergy.  And today, one out of 17 kids under age 3 has a food allergy.  So what changed in our food?

“Is there something foreign in our food that wasn’t there when we were kids?” O’Brien asked.

She discovered that new proteins were engineered into our food supply beginning in the 1990s.  And furthermore, no human studies were conducted to determine that these GMOs were safe.

Cross pollination

Gene exchange between genetically engineering crops and non-GMO crops are resulting in the decline of certain plants and crops.  Those declining crops may ultimately face extinction.

Pest and weed resistance

The widespread use of pesticides and herbicides made possible by genetically engineered crops has resulted in species of insects and weeds that are resistant to these products.  Similar to the drug-resistant superbacteria created by the heavy use of antibiotics, we now have superpests and superweeds that require farmers to use increasingly toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Threat to beneficial organisms

A University of Michigan/Iowa State University study published in Insect Conservation and Diversity in 2012 has tied the decline of the monarch butterfly to the loss of milkweed.  Milkweed, the monarch butterfly’s host plant, has suffered a large decline over the last decade thanks to the increased use of the Roundup® herbicide used on genetically modified corn and soybeans.

The increased use of pesticides in GMO crops has been linked to the honeybee decline according to a study published in Science in April 2012.

Economic concerns

The introduction of GMO crops has resulted in a higher cost of doing business for ALL farmers.  Conventional farmers have to pay royalty, licensing, and trade fees to plant GMO crops.  Organic farmers are charged fees to prove that their crops are organic and to label their products as organic.  These rising costs are often passed down to the consumer.

In addition, the new superpests and superweeds are costing farmers big bucks.

“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

 

GMOs – Good or Bad?

GMOs’ proponents tout benefits, while critics argue that the disadvantages and negative effects from GMOs far outweigh any of the cited benefits and, in fact, cause more harm than good.  In future articles we will dive a bit deeper into the health risks, economic and other disadvantages.

 

 

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