All GMOs are Not Created Equal

Photo: David Koloechter/Shutterstock

Everyone seems to have an opinion on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They’re either the savior technology we’ve been waiting for to feed the planet, or they’re the worst thing in our food system since trans fats. But what are GMOs?

Simply put, GMOs are organisms (usually plants like soy and corn) that have had their DNA intentionally changed, presumably for some beneficial purpose like higher yield, higher nutrient density, or resistance to pesticides.

I think the most important aspect of making a decision on GMOs is to understand the difference between natural selection, artificial selection, genetic modification (or genetic engineering), and the different types of genetically engineered products.

It’s important to note the difference between genetic modification and artificial selection in particular. But to understand artificial selection, we must first understand natural selection.

Evolution is driven by the process of natural selection, whereby the plants and animals that are most fit for their environment have the highest chance of surviving, mating, and passing on their genes. Natural selection happens over millions of years and is the driver behind fruits developing sweetness (to attract and be eaten by hungry animals, who then excrete the seeds in some other location), lions developing claws (to more effectively take down their prey, eat, and survive), and potato plants developing thick bulbous roots (to better store their energy underground in the form of starch and glucose).

Artificial selection, on the other hand, is natural selection accelerated. Artificial selection refers to the process of humans intervening to, for example, continually mate the sweetest and least seedy watermelon plants together in the hopes that each generation will have sweeter and sweeter offspring fruits with fewer and fewer seeds. We don’t rely on nature to select the most “fit” plants; rather, based on criteria that drive our own agenda (like maximum sweetness), we determine which plants pass on their genes and which don’t.

On the left is a watermelon from a painting in 1645; on the right is a modern watermelon, the result of artificial selection, also known as selective breeding.

Artificial selection is not genetic modification. Many supporters of GMO, even those who know better, group the two into the same category. Artificially selected (or “selectively bred”) plants and animals are ubiquitous, from sunflowers to chihuahuas. We’ve been artificially selecting organisms for thousands of years. Supporters of genetic modification claim that just as artificial selection is an accelerated version of natural selection, genetic modification is an accelerated version of artificial selection. Instead of waiting thousands of years for natural selection, or decades to centuries for artificial selection, genetic modification allows us to make changes to DNA and release those incorporated changes to commercial farmers in only a few years.

Genetic modification refers to the process of genetically engineering the DNA of organisms by inserting or deleting genes. We can, for example, create mice that glow in the dark by inserting a jellyfish gene for green fluorescence.

Photo: Ingrid Moenet et al, 2012

Instead of continually breeding (artificially selecting) the smallest dogs, we can genetically modify the dog genome to produce any sized dog we want. Instead of breeding the most nutrient dense varieties of rice together in the hopes that they’ll produce nutrient dense offspring rice, we can in one fell swoop modify the rice genome to produce more nutrients immediately, without having to wait for generations of slow progress.

For some types of GMOs, there’s not necessarily a right answer to whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” do it. It’s a trade off. We may create super soy that has pesticides built into its DNA, is resistant to herbicide spray like glyphosate, and as a result has higher yields per acre and dollar, but that same soy could cause problems down the line with herbicide runoff into rivers and eventually oceans, threatening biodiversity.

Is it “worth it” to kill our oceans in order to feed more people for less money? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s certainly more profitable for the companies making the decisions to have genetically modified soy, and maybe the results they produce justify the negative externalities (societal costs) of polluted oceans and glyphosate-coated food products.

In some cases, the price of genetic modification is almost certainly worth it. In the Philippines, millions of people are deficient in Vitamin A. Researchers developed a type of rice, called “golden rice,” that is rich in beta-carotene, the plant version of Vitamin A that gives sweet potatoes and carrots their golden orange color. The rice was meant to provide a key missing nutrient to a malnourished population. While golden rice was embraced by many as a scientific and agricultural breakthrough, others felt it was a step too far in scientific intervention in our food system.

In 2013, anti-GMO protesters uprooted experimental golden rice fields before the genetically modified crop had a chance to nourish the Philippines’ people. Golden rice has not been re-introduced to the malnourished country, which continues to struggle with Vitamin A deficiency.

Many GMO crops are patented by companies like Bayer and Dupont, which restrict farmers from replanting seeds the following year without paying royalties. However, golden rice has been offered free of patent fees, allowing farmers to plant and replant seeds without paying royalties. While there are certainly concerns around a multinational company “owning” a seed, golden rice may be one of the scenarios where the pros outweigh the cons, assuming that the Vitamin A levels in the rice don’t deteriorate and are in fact enough to nourish Vitamin A deficient populations.

Photo: Erik de Castro/Reuters

Would it be a healthier solution to provide malnourished populations with sweet potato, leafy vegetables and fresh fruit as sources of Vitamin A? Yes, absolutely, but that’s a much harder problem to solve. Unlike fruits and vegetables, grains like rice don’t spoil quickly, so they’re easier to distribute to rural and poor areas where solutions are needed most desperately. Genetically modified rice is certainly a band-aid to fix a vitamin deficiency problem–it doesn’t fix the root causes–but we should still put that band-aid on and stop the bleeding, while we simultaneously develop a longer term solution.

Sometimes, unnatural problems call for unnatural solutions. It’s not natural (from an evolutionary perspective) for humans to rely so heavily on grains like rice for nourishment. As a result of this unnatural problem, large populations are deficient in key nutrients like Vitamin A. Without human intervention, the “natural” solution is that those who are deficient will eventually die of malnourishment and maybe future generations of Filipinos will develop the ability to synthesize Vitamin A from other more plentiful substances. That is an outcome that very few people would see as a victory. Golden rice, albeit not entirely “natural,” may be the best unnatural solution for such an unnatural problem.

Fluorescent mice and golden rice are indisputably genetically modified organisms, but with recent advances in biotechnology, the line is beginning to blur between natural and unnatural, GMO and non GMO. Some food items are derived from genetically modified organisms, but aren’t GMO themselves. If you eat GMO rice, there’s no way around ingesting the genetically modified material; it’s in the DNA of the food you’re eating. However, if you consume natural compounds that are secreted from engineered organisms, there’s technically little-to-no genetically modified material in the compound.

This is murky territory and consumer awareness is limited in these new applications of biotechnology. For example, Impossible Foods genetically modifies yeast cells by inserting soy genes that allow the yeast to produce heme, the iron-rich compound that makes the Impossible burger “bleed.” While the yeast is genetically engineered, the heme that is extracted from the yeast is not. It is, for all intents and purposes, identical to the heme found in animal tissue.

Another example of this gray area between GMO and non GMO is Purecane, Amyris’s new zero calorie sugar substitute. The secret ingredient in Purecane is Reb M, one of the compounds that gives stevia its sweet flavor. The same way that Impossible Foods engineers yeast to produce heme by inserting soy genes, Amyris engineers yeast to produce Reb M by inserting stevia genes. Is the Reb M a GMO product? Some would say yes, others would say no.

Photo: purecane.com

In fact, even third party GMO certifiers disagree. Purecane is certified non GMO by NSF International–the world’s second largest certification group–but does not have the coveted butterfly from The Non-GMO Project. As long as genetic material in the final product is below a certain concentration (0.9%), NSF specifically allows extracted compounds from genetically modified organisms to be non GMO, whereas The Non-GMO Project’s requirements are more fluid and dependent on the entirety of the production process; its definitions of GMO are not as clearly defined.

Perfect Day, which just raised $300 million in a Series C, uses genetically modified cells to produce dairy proteins. If the protein from Perfect Day is identical to the protein from cow’s milk, is it GMO? The jury is still out. If there’s enough demand for an animal-free milk alternative (as the rise of plant-based milk suggests), maybe it doesn’t matter.

The tides of consumer preference are constantly changing, and I would guess that the momentum of eating “more sustainably” will outweigh any GMO backlash, for better or for worse. A product’s GMO status is not the only variable in determining whether it should or shouldn’t exist. There are products that are non GMO, but terrible for our health and planet; and there are others that are GMO, but save millions of lives per year. Insulin, for example, was arguably the world’s first true GMO product and millions of diabetics rely on it every day.

Since the advent of agriculture, humans have continually introduced new tools and technologies to solve problems. Often those problems are caused by a previous generation’s technologies. It is a never-ending cycle of introducing technology to fix problems caused by technology. One solution is to give up technology all together and embrace a lifestyle that more closely resembles how we lived 10,000 years ago–which, for the record, I’m all for–but the path we’re on seems to be one where we continually invent new technology to fix problems caused by old technology.

Golden rice, insulin, and Reb M are band-aid efforts to fix the problems introduced by sugar and grain agriculture; Impossible’s heme and Perfect Day’s milk proteins are technologies that attempt to address the problems introduced by modern animal agriculture. If history is any indication, these technologies address one set of problems, but create another.

To make a blanket statement about whether GMOs are “good or bad” is akin to making a blanket statement about fire; it’s great when it cooks our food, it’s not so great when it burns down our houses. All technology is a double edged sword. GMOs are no different.

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