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What in the Heck is a GMO?

IT STARTS WITH FOOD

As I started writing about the world of organic living, I didn’t intend to write about organic food and the world of GMOs.  Our focus is on the products we put on our skin, not what we are eating.  However, organic food is now the gateway into the greater world of organic living and most of us come to organics through the desire to clean up our diets and live a healthier life.  The food that we eat is the foundation of our health.  Instinctively we know this, although we have been taught that our only concern when it comes to food should be the calories that we eat at the fat content of those calories.  But we are waking up to understand that it is much more than this.  For example, what matters is not that a cup of yogurt has been engineered to have a certain number of calories.  What matters is how that yogurt is made. 

As I started exploring the ideas of what it means to be organic, I couldn’t help but turn to the science.  I’m not scientist.  But I am just like you; intelligent and inquisitive and capable of conducting research to understand an issue myself.  What I discovered along the way is that I’m going to have to explore some issues that feel political and polarizing.  Please know that it is not my intent.  This discussion has been framed in the media as political, but it really is not. 

This is a discussion about our connection to common sense.  We really don’t need the science to understand that food can be medicine or it can be poison.  I may site some scientific studies and sources for the topics I am going to address, but that doesn’t take away from my own sense of what’s right for our bodies and our Earth.  It doesn’t take away from your common sense either.  In so many ways because of how our health is discussed in the media, we give away our common sense to the so-called experts.  We play dodge ball with whatever is the latest medical study and resulting headline that tells us how to live our lives.  For Makes 3, living an organic life means being in touch with what our bodies, minds and spirits are telling us. 

 

Understanding GMOs

So, in order to understand why we now categorize and commercialize products as “organic” we have to start with food.  And if we are talking about food we naturally start talking about GMOs and the non-GMO movement.  This discussion is part and parcel to the discussion of organics because if a food is produced with the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other artificial agents it means about 80% of the time a GMO was used to create that food. 

In other words, if a food is produced with the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or other artificial agents, that food is not organic.  Instead it is called conventional.  A lot of people are up in arms about GMOs and there is a growing movement in this country to require food producers to label their consumer packaged goods with whether they contain GMOs.  So what’s the big deal?  Who cares whether my cereal is made with a GMO or not?  Is it just a bunch of wacky liberals clogging up the legislative process with these concerns? 

Interestingly there is a lot of confusion as to what the term GMO means in the first place.  So we’ll go back to our dictionary like we did last week, this time we went to Dictionary.com which says:

 

GMO

noun

  • genetically modified organism: an organism or microorganism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering

Hmmm, a GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering.  Sounds like one big circular reference, doesn’t it?  What does genetic engineering mean anyway?  Haven’t we been altering plants somehow or someway since human beings embarked upon agriculture?  To get out of this I think we have to take a look at what Genetic Engineering means.

 

Genetic Engineering

noun

  1. the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material. (Google)
  2. Genetic engineering is the process of manually adding new DNA to an organism. The goal is to add one or more new traits that are not already found in that organism. (Agbiosafety.unl.edu)
  3. Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism's genome using biotechnology. (Wikipedia)
  4. the development and application of scientific methods, procedures, and technologies that permit direct manipulation of genetic material in order to alter the hereditary traits of a cell, organism, or population. (Dictionary.com)

I think these definitions together mean that genetic engineering equals the direct manipulation of genetic material by manually adding new DNA to an organism.  Which, I think, means when we ask “haven’t humans been doing this for thousands of years?” the answer is, “No.” 

What humans have been doing is hybridizing plants.  Hybridization is a process that exists in nature and occurs only between organisms that can reproduce together in nature.  To think of it commonly, a brown-eyed person who has children with a blue-eyed person can produce brown-eyed or blue-eyed children.  A cross between a beefy tomato plant and a cherry tomato plant by means of pollination by a bee or a cotton swab can produce beefy tomato plants or cherry tomato plants and through further cross pollination one or the other traits can be bred out of that plant altogether, or naturally either of those traits can show up one generation after the next.  So, although hybridization can be controlled by humans there is no direct manipulation of specific genetic traits. 

Genetic engineering is an entirely man-made process that can only take place in a lab.  Genetic manipulation or modification in a lab takes DNA from two organisms that would not reproduce together in nature and combines them to create an entirely new organism.  In the process of genetic engineering scientists splice specific traits from one organism and insert them directly into the DNA strand of another totally unrelated organism.  So this is the down and dirty of the entire debate about organics when we are talking about food.  Should we do this?  Why?  Or, why not?  

Why is it such a big deal if a plant is genetically modified?  Tune in next week as we start to answer that question.

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