The old fashioned method of modifying plants and animals by mating one member of a species with another to produce offspring with more desirable traits is no longer the standard paradigm. Genetic manipulation is the dominant method of acquiring such traits and, for many plants now, the rule rather than the exception.
Although traditional cross-breeding has given us an enormous variety of foods, many of which our ancestors would barely recognize, the genie was let out of the bottle when we learned where that variety came from. Genetics revealed to us the units that determined traits and how to read the alphabet the units spelled out … and eventually how to swap those genes around to make them perform for us.
That alphabet known as the genome (the set of instructions for building the proteins that determine the characteristic traits of all plants and animals) consists of four “letters” strung together in endless combinations. Traditional cross-breeding allowed us to change the combinations of letters within the limits defined by the rules of mating. Very simply put, the organisms in question must be able to interbreed.
With the successful laboratory-based manipulation of genes independent of their hosts, those limits have been shattered -- for better or worse.
Creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) circumvents the slow and imprecise method of breeding. By transferring sections of DNA — genes — directly from one organism to another, geneticists select as narrowly as possible only the desired traits. Species restrictions don’t matter because the genetic subunits that determine physical traits are the same throughout nature. This frees scientists to select and import genetic traits from virtually any species using highly sophisticated techniques.
One result is the Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. Mix in genes from a faster-growing Pacific Chinook salmon and some from an eel and, voila, you get a premium fish that grows to market size in 16-18 months rather than three years.
This results in problems both physical and political. Physically, adverse reactions, from allergies to full-blown anaphylactic shock, occur when a type of foreign molecule — usually a protein — triggers an adverse physical reaction. By creating new organisms, the risk is that one also is creating new antigens that can trigger previously unknown physical reactions.
Politically, along with the introduction of GMOs comes the inevitable baggage of proprietary processes and patented life forms.
Yes or no, GMO?
Scientific advance always brings growing pains, but GMOs have opened a Pandora’s Box of complex and controversial topics that includes economic, political, biological and even moral issues, none of which shows any sign of abating.
The potential benefits and challenges surrounding GMOs were summed up in November of last year in a review in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, “Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns.” Authors Amarinder Bawa and Kandangath Anilakumar wrote, “Technologies for genetically modifying foods offer dramatic promise for meeting areas of challenge for the 21st century. Like all new technologies they pose some risk, both known and unknown. Controversies in public concern surrounding GM foods and crops commonly focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights, ethics, food security, poverty reduction and environmental conservation.”
GMOs already have produced notable benefits. Insulin for diabetics was once derived and purified from cows and pigs killed for food. This process was expensive and carried with it the dangers of allergic reactions. Today, the human gene for insulin can be grown in GM bacteria that become factories for human insulin.
Of course the bacteria are held in a controlled environment. Plants growing in a field present a different story, one of potential contamination of non-GMO and organic (presumed to be non-GMO) crops.