The 10 Minor Realizations That Flipped My Thinking About GMOs

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A recent story about GMO testing kicked off a conversation with a friend. The researchers tested the biochemicals from crops to suss out variations in food quality and composition due to genetic engineering. The new process allowed researchers to extract 1,000 or so biochemicals from the fruit of tomatoes. *

When the scientists compared the biochemicals of the GM tomato and a wide assortment other non-GM tomatoes, including modern and heirloom varieties, they found no significant differences overall. Thus, although the GM tomato was distinct from its parent, its metabolic profile still fell within the “normal” range of biochemical diversity exhibited by the larger group of varieties.

My friend was unimpressed. He said:

Can you explain how this is any different from the problematic way the USDA and certain diet plans defines nutrition. As long as foods have a similar nutrient and vitamin profiles they are interchangeable. Food isn’t just a collection of interchangeable pieces there is something that this type of researches misses about the value of whole foods taken whole and not taken apart and reconstituted into food like substances. By this logic it has been claimed that Rice Crispies are heart healthy and margarine is healthier than butter. I understand your desire to find equivalences between GM and heirloom varieties but I have my doubts that anyone who is interested in whole food nutrition would say that this is the proof you are searching for.

I understood where he was coming from. It’s very similar to the way I thought about the issue a few years ago when I first became aware of GMOs. I was learning about nutrition at the time and coming to similar conclusions as Michael Pollan did in his book In Defense of Food: nutrition is a science very much in its infancy and we don’t understand how its constituent parts interact very well. While waiting for credible and durable advice on sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, etc; successful traditional diets based on whole and minimally processed foods currently provide more credible and durable guidance for making choices about what to eat.

When I first started learning about GMOs, my model was trans fats and vitamin supplements. We thought that we could engineer a food that was healthier than saturated animal fats and it blew up in our face. We thought that if eating vitamin rich foods conferred health benefits, then supplementation would be even better. Except in cases of malnutrition, that hasn’t proven to be the case. I wasn’t ideologically opposed to genetic engineering, I just figured that given our current understanding of nutrition and ecology, the technology wasn’t really ready for prime time. I figured if we couldn’t figure out margarine, then we weren’t ready to start tinkering with plants at a genetic level. Common sense, right?

It took a while to realize that was an incorrect model for thinking about GE breeding. There are a number of realizations that I went through before leaving that behind. Here are ten of them:

1. It’s a single gene (sometimes two or three) that is being transferred out of 10’s of thousands.

The cartoon of a tomato crossed with a fish is wildly misleading. It’s one gene from a fish into the DNA of a tomato that contains 31,760 genes. *
A geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where the gene comes from it matters what it does.”

2. I share half my DNA with a banana. Half the genes in me are also in a banana.

That doesn’t mean that taking the same gene from me or a banana would produce the same results if you inserted it into a plantain, for example. But it’s worth keeping in mind in regards to our squeamishness about boundaries that nature doesn’t recognize. (See also: 1. “a tomato crossed with a fish”)

Once again, a geneticist would say, “It doesn’t matter where the gene comes from, it matters what it does.” Or, “We’re all wearing the same genes.”

3. The genes/proteins/traits for GE crops are very well thought out and chosen carefully.

None of them seem particularly risky if you understand them.

  • Round Up works on deactivating a plant enzyme called EPSPS. In RR crops they express a different version of EPSPS that is not deactivated by glyphosate. It has allowed farmers to use a relatively non-toxic herbicide and practice no-till farming.
  • The Arctic Apple simply silences the gene that produce an enzyme that causes browning.
  • Rainbow Papaya has a bit of the ringspot virus encoded into the DNA as a built in vaccine. Humans are not susceptible to ringspot virus. In fact if you have eaten organic papaya with a some green spots, you’ve eaten ringspot virus.
  • Bt crops express the protein from the organic pesticide Bt that is toxic to corn borers and other pests but harmless to humans. Lots of edible plants produce their own pesticides.

4. Lots of plants produce their own pesticides.

You can read more about this here and here

5. Introducing a food from another part of the world introduces more risk of unintended consequences than introducing a single gene into a soybean.

Cultivating kiwis for human consumption began just 100 years ago and only recently imported to the US market. There was no testing for allergenicity. Some people turned out to be allergic. Yet, no one thinks things like this should require new regulations or complicated testing.

My Irish and French (Canadian) ancestors did not co-evolve in any meaningful way with kiwis or mangos or chocolate or any of a number for foods I eat to great benefit and pleasure.

6. Radiation and chemical mutagenesis breeding have been safely practiced for half a century.

Does anyone look at a bag of Calrose rice or a Rio Star grapefruit and think those are unwholesome foods? Those forms of breeding are more likely to cause unintended consequences than GE breeding. You blast seeds with radiation or chemicals, get random mutations, choose the best ones and selectively breed to finish. That’s also roughly how nature works. This is not to suggest that radiation and chemical mutagenesis breeding is dangerous, just that it’s all a question of relative risks.

7. Traditional selective breeding has had negative unintended consequences.

In the real world. Not just theoretically.

The Lenape potato is the most well known, but in trying to make a breed of celery that was more pest resistant, the breeders dialed up the amount of psoralens a variety of celery expressed. (see also: 4. Lots of plants produce their own pesticides.) That resulted in farm and grocery workers getting serious rashes and the product had to be pulled. That celery was released without allergen testing or compositional analysis. If you want to talk about being a human guinea pig, talk to those farm and grocery workers. Since those cases, breeders are more careful about voluntarily testing for potential unintended effects.

This is not to suggest that traditional selective breeding is dangerous, just that it’s all a question of relative risks.

8. Contemporary selective breeding is incredibly … selective.Today’s breeders know exactly what traits they want to achieve and they will achieve them. Whether it’s drought tolerance or herbicide resistance or yield or heat tolerance or flavor or pest resistance, why does it matter to me what breeding technique is used to get there?

9. Why isn’t the novelty of breeding with wild relatives an issue?

…if a plant breeder chose to cross breed a wild relative with a plant in order to confer a desired trait of hardiness; drought, heat, flood, pest resistance – take your pick; nobody raises an eyeball. Keep in mind that we have no experience eating the wild relative, no mandated testing of toxins (which of course would be the desired trait in breeding pest resistance) or allergens. We have no experience with large scale cultivation of the wild relative, so it’s hard to extrapolate the environmental impact.

10. Or a novel new mutation from nature? And what if that novel plant is then selectively breed using genetic analysis to isolate which genes the breeder wants to move and whether they have indeed been moved?

Scientific American recently told the story of a breeder who had been sent seeds of a habanero pepper that didn’t produce capsaicin, the compound that provides the heat. They then went on to detail the way the breeder had identified the genes associated with the traits he desired and ran the genome of each new cross instead of waiting for the plant to express the traits, saving massive amounts of time and guesswork.

It took awhile to sink in, but I’ve come to understand that a GMO tomato is a tomato. The reason why testing shows that it is biochemically substantially equivalent to its parent tomato is because it is a tomato.

Instead, my question has become, “Why aren’t concerns about tinkering with our food any less applicable to the Dutch in the 17th century, breeding nearly all carrots to be orange, in homage to William of Orange?

Or a contemporary potato breeder like Walter DeJong?

De Jong has been working with farmers long enough to know that our food supply is never more than a step ahead of devastating insect infestations and disease. Selective breeders like De Jong work hard to develop resistant crops, but farmers still have to turn to chemical pesticides, some of which are toxic to human health and the environment. De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.

Like I said, today’s breeders know what they want to achieve and they will achieve it, regardless of breeding technique. I’ve learned that I can live with that. In fact, it’s quite exciting.

[This piece originally appeared on]

GMOs: An Introduction
What the Haters Got Wrong About Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Comments on GMOs

A new approach to detecting changes in GM foods American Society of Agronomy | | 3 April 2014

When Edible Plants Turn Their Defenses On Us Rae Ellen Bichell |The Salt | NPR | 23 October 2013

Natural Toxins in Fruits and Vegetables Food Safety Network | University of Guelph

Genetically engineered food: Allergic to regulations? Nathanael Johnson | Grist | 30 July 2013

The case of the poison potato Maggie Koerth-Baker | Boing Boing | 25 March 2013

Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects National Academies Press | 2004

Contemporary Selective Breeding. Plant Edition. Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 28 January 2014

What About Wild Relatives? Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 13 February 2014

Creating Tastier and Healthier Fruits and Veggies with a Modern Alternative to GMOs Ferris Jabr | Scientific American | 23 January 2014

Are carrots orange for political reasons? Suzy Khimm | Wonkblog | Washington Post | 10 September 2011

GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides Amy Maxmen | NovaNext | PBS | 24 July 2013

* There is currently no GMO tomato on the market. The tomato in that was tested in the article was a tomato in development. The Flavr Savr tomato developed by Calgene in the 90’s to ripen without softening, was withdrawn from the market, due to poor sales. The so-called ‘Fish Tomato’ developed in the early nineties with a gene from a flounder to tolerate frosts was never commercialized.

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