Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What are genetically modified foods?

I recently had a stimulating conversation with fellow Mad Mike's America writer Erin Nanasi in the comments section of her piece "Obama and Monsanto".  The conversation revolved around whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be allowed to be used in things such as agriculture.

There were a couple times during the conversation when I wanted to write an article based on the conversation.  The first being a more in depth explanation of what GMOs actually are (which this piece shall be).  The second being a realization that I, and many others, have come to.  That the future of our species may very well depend upon GMOs.  For breviaries sake, I shall leave the second part for a follow up article to be written soon.

I would first like to point out that this article is in no way supportive of Monsanto or any of its business practices.  I am rather critical of them myself for a few reasons, including their desire to patent certain lines of genetic code.  A concept that is both absurd and detrimental to scientific inquiry.

So what are genetically modified organisms?  GMOs are any organism that has had some of its genetic material artificially and purposely altered.  The words 'artificially' and 'purposely' are key in this definition as if they were not present, GMOs would define all life on this planet.

The process of evolution can be seen, essentially, as nature's way of creating GMOs.  The process of mutation creates novel genetic codes that affect the organism in question in varying ways.  Those mutations that are beneficial may allow the organism to propagate its genes just a bit better and out compete other, less successful genetic codes.  Life is, essentially, a never ending struggle between collections of genes trying to replicate themselves the most.

Humans have been harnasing these mutations for millenia through the process of domestication and selective breeding.  We have breed plants and animals in ways that allow for the dominant expression of key traits that we find desirable.  Until recently, we had no idea that what we were doing was fiddling around with their genetic codes.  Once we discovered this, we have started moving towards stream lining this process.  The latest incarnation of this is genetic engineering.

We look at the very genes that create the traits that we desire and place them in the organisms we are interested in affecting.  This has allowed us to quickly and effectively modify organisms in ways that would have taken decades at the very least, if we could do it at all.

Previously, if a trait was observed in one species of domestic plant or animal, it would be limited to that species.  If we wanted that trait to be in another species, tough luck.  We would just have to hope it would evolve all over again in the species in question.  But now, with genetic engineering, we can simply take the desired gene and move it to the species we would prefer it to be in.  All life is made from the same genetic code, we all evolved from the same stock billions of years ago, so we can copy and paste where we see fit.

This is actually a trick that nature stumbled upon first, not us.  A prime example can be found in bacteria.  Bacteria trade bits of genetic material back and forth all the time.  The individuals doing the trading don't even have to be of the same species.  Genetic material is genetic material, it is the universal currency.  If a novel gene allows for better survival, you can guarantee that it will spread.

It was after observing such bacterial genetic promiscuity that we humans got the idea.  It seems that without nature to guide us, we would, quite often, be more then a bit lost.  We adapted this and techniques borrowed from certain retroviruses -- viruses that can embed themselves into the genetic codes of their hosts -- and have used them to insert the desired genes into the place in the genetic code of organisms that we want them.

Most of the time, scientists take genes that have arisen in other organisms in the first place.  We might modify it a bit for simplicities sake or to improve upon things a bit, but it is rather difficult to do much more.  We are getting better at building genes from scratch, but why go through the trouble when there is the giant genetic laboratory that is the natural world?  Just like how we look to nature for new chemicles and medicines, we are now looking to it for new genetic information.

These new genes, if used right, can increase the fitness of the modified organism.  Such increases in fitness may include things such as natural resistances to diseases or parasites.  It may allow the organism to survive in climates and environments it otherwise would not thrive in.  It may increase the amount of nutrients found in a particular part of the organism.  It can affect how quickly an organism grows or reaches sexual maturity.  

These changes can have dramatic affects when they are done to plants and animals that we as a species depend upon.  Crops may suddenly need less fertilizer to grow or even be capable of growing in soil that was previously deemed unusuable.  The part of the crop that we use may grow larger while the 'extraneous' parts may be reduced.  They may no longer be as susceptible to the ravages of disease and insects or the various weeds that we would otherwise be dousing with pesticides and herbicides to eliminate.  They may produce food products of larger size or even with greater nutrient and mineral levels.

All of these factors allow for the GMO in question to be cheaper, more efficient and even healthier for consumption.  Unfortunately, this is an area that few truly understand and is seen as a frightening new technology to many.  Some see it as 'playing god' where as others see it as distorting natural processes.  But these are things that we have been doing since early humans first realized that by breeding different strains together, they could create even more useful organisms.  

Because of such fears, human consumption of GMOs in the states and other countries has been limited.  Despite there not being any reliable evidence to suggest that GMOs pose a health risk for humans, they are still limited to being used as animal feed only.  By doing so, opponents can further state that GMOs are just taking up space that could be used to grow crops to feed people.  Besides being an underhanded tactic, this ignores the fact that we need animal food crops if we hope to continue raising animals for various uses.

The time will soon be upon us when we will need GMOs for our own survival.  That without them, we could face mass starvation, or worse.  But that is a story for my next article.
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