Addressing GMO concerns: Are foods “made in labs” the same as those “made by nature”

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series exploring some common concerns heard about GMOs. Part two examines herbicide use.

An article might make some nod to the fact that genetic engineering and traditional breeding both modify the genetics of plants and they lie on a continuum – and that humans have been modifying the genetics of crops for 12,000 years. The common response is something along the lines of: “I don’t want to eat a tomato that has fish DNA. Breeding in a laboratory is not the same as breeding that happens in nature over hundreds of years.”

There are a number of problems with this. The first of which is that no one is saying that using recombinant DNA breeding methods are the same as traditional breeding methods. It’s just a simple observation to put things in context – we have been manipulating the genetics of our food for 12,000 years and there really isn’t any reason for getting worked up about the fact that we are doing it in laboratories now.

Understand that tomatoes and fish share around 60 percent of their DNA already, so it’s too late to avoid that mashup. Nature already put the chocolate in the peanut butter and the peanut butter in the chocolate. The question is, why would one more gene out of thousands be the deal breaker? Would you eat grapes with human DNA? Too late. Humans share around 25 percent of our DNA with grapes. We share 50 percent of our DNA with a banana. It doesn’t matter where the DNA comes from, it’s just the basic building blocks. What matters is what the DNA does.

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While sentiment also stems from a lack of understanding of genetics, there are also some naive assumptions about plant and animal breeding in general. People making the “I don’t want to eat something made in a lab” or “Genetic engineering isn’t the same as the slow process of changing plants over thousands of years” are almost always unaware of just how specific and technically sophisticated contemporary plant breeding has become. Traditional breeders are going after traits which are just as specific as the traits sought by breeders using genetic engineering. This is something that few people are aware of. Nor do they realize just how sophisticated current methods are.

Consider marker assisted breeding:

[F]ruit and vegetable breeders at both universities and private companies have been turning to an alternative way of modifying the food we eat: a sophisticated approach known as marker-assisted breeding that marries traditional plant breeding with rapidly improving tools for isolating and examining alleles and other sequences of DNA that serve as “markers” for specific traits. Although these tools are not brand-new, they are becoming faster, cheaper and more useful all the time. “The impact of genomics on plant breeding is almost beyond my comprehension,” says Shelley Jansky, a potato breeder who works for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “To give an example: I had a grad student here five years ago who spent three years trying to identify DNA sequences associated with disease resistance. After hundreds of hours in the lab he ended up with 18 genetic markers. Now I have grad students who can get 8,000 markers for each of 200 individual plants within a matter of weeks. Progress has been exponential in last five years.”

[see also: Backcrossing]

Meanwhile, to avoid the regulations that bog down development of genetically engineered crops, a company like BASF is using the Atomic Age method of radiation mutagenesis breeding to develop crops.

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Mutation breeding, after booming in the 1950s with the dawn of the Nuclear Age, is still used by seed developers from BASF SE to Dupont Co. to create crops for markets that reject genetic engineering. Regulators don’t demand proof that new varieties are harmless. The U.S. National Academies of Science warned in 1989 and again in 2004 that regulating genetically modified crops while giving a pass to products of mutation breeding isn’t scientifically justified.

“The NAS hits the nail on the head and I don’t think that any plant- or crop-scientist will disagree,” said Kevin M. Folta, a molecular geneticist and interim chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. “Mutation breeding is absolutely the least predictable.”

That isn’t to say that mutation breeding is particularly dangerous. If you’ve ever had a Rio Star Grapefruit or Calrose rice, you’ve eaten the fruits of mutagenic breeding. It’s just to point out that, today almost no breeding happens that doesn’t involve a laboratory and it’s been a long time since it resembled anything that happens in nature. But that’s the point. Even the breeding that we did 12,000 years ago wouldn’t have happened in nature. The crops we’ve bred would not have happened in ‘nature’ and they wouldn’t survive in ‘nature’ if we turned them loose. So the statement “We’ve been genetically modifying crops for 12,000 years” makes a lot more sense if you understand genetics a little better and if you understand breeding a little better.

There is also a really basic error of conflation going on here. People are often conflating the selective breeding of the modern Mendelian era with neolithic trial and error. In setting up a contrast between biotech and neolithic trial and error, they can be forgiven for thinking they are onto something. The problem is the current methods of selective breeding are nothing like the slow process of neolithic trial and error. The slow process of neolithic breeding did happen on a time frame of millennia that a non-scientist could be forgiven for seeing as akin to co-evolution.  It took trial and error over generations for crops to evolve as they were slowly domesticated by humans.  And humans, through a long process of trial and error, adapted to crops as crops adapted to them.

This obviously is a slower more natural process than biotech, but modern selective breeding doesn’t work through a generations-long process of trial and error either – crop improvements are brought from concept to market in a decade or so. Sometimes it takes as little a few years, sometimes few decades, but not slowly over hundreds or thousands of years. Contemporary selective breeding has much more in common in terms of time frames and novel outcomes with biotech than it does with neolithic trial and error breeding.

People should stop making this argument as a gotcha.

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There are two versions of the “We’ve been genetically modifying crops for 12,000 years”. The first version is meant to engage in a dialogue that walks someone through the case I’ve made here: all breeding “modifies” the genetics of a crop – even the act of our ancestors just saving the seed from the plants that were most useful, that biotech lies on a continuum of increasing specific breeding techniques, that it doesn’t matter where a gene comes from – it matters what it does. The first version is patient and aims to educate.

The second version is far more common. In fact it is 99 percent more common. It’s not patient and it doesn’t aim to educate. It’s a semantic gambit aimed at ending a conversation and making the other person look foolish. It takes the unfortunate fact that the term for plants or animals bred with biotech techniques that the world settled on happens to be “Genetically Modified Organisms” which couldn’t be any vaguer from a semantic point of view. Here’s the problem. “Genetically Modified Organisms” clearly is meant to refer to organisms created through genetic engineering. What the term means, when you take the word literally, is any organism with modified genetics, i.e.  ANY domesticated plant or animal.

So you end up with people playing a game where one person is using the term “Genetically Modified Organisms” in the colloquial (and in many regulatory frameworks, legal) sense and along comes someone else picking a fight by insisting on taking the term “Genetically Modified Organisms” in the most literal sense WITHOUT acknowledging what you are doing.

Here’s the problem. By ‘genetically modification’, the GMO critic that you are debating clearly means the use of recombinant DNA in plant breeding. This has become the accepted popular use of the term. You, on the other hand, are using ‘genetic modification’ in the non-colloquial, but the technically correct meaning of the term.

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So now you are trying to play gotcha by taking the word the other person is using but ignore the meaning to try and make them look foolish. This doesn’t change many minds or make many friends. In fact, the person who ends up looking foolish is you.

Consider:

JANE: We haven’t been genetically modifying food long enough to understand the long-term effects.

DICK: Well considering that we’ve been genetically modifying foods for 12,000 years, how long is long enough?

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Here’s what really happened.

JANE: We haven’t been breeding plants with recombinant DNA long enough to understand the long-term effects.

DICK: Well considering that we’ve been changing the genetics of plants through the use of selective breeding for 12,000 years, how long is long enough?

Nice going, Dick.

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Don’t be a Dick. If you don’t have the time and patience (or the science communication chops) to engage in the first, patient, educational version; then don’t bother with the second dickish version. It doesn’t change minds, in fact it pisses people off, convinces them that you aren’t operating in good faith. If you don’t have good faith arguments to offer and are resorting to semantic gambits, then the case you are trying to make must be weak and you seem manipulative and therefore suspicious. What you’ve done is confirmed their worst fears about the kinds of people advocating for biotech, pushed them harder into their confirmation bias, and closed their minds further. That science communication malpractice.

Read part two here.

A section of this article previously appeared on Food and Farm Discussion Lab under the title “3 Most Common Internet Objections to GMOs” and has been republished with permission from the author.

Marc Brazeau is a writer on food and agriculture. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg.

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