The Fruits of Civilization (81) Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically Modified Organisms

Gene editing is super-powerful, but so far a lot of trial and error. The way it works has been a black box with a lot of assumptions. ~ American molecular biologist Jacob Corn in 2018

Genetics as a science dealing with the principle of heredity and variation emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Its application to practical problems came decades later; but ignorance of genetics had not been a detriment to breeding advances. American horticulturist Luther Burbank had impressive success with varieties of vegetables and fruits without any knowledge of genetic principles.

New biotech crops will not solve industrial agriculture’s problems, but will compound them, and consolidate control of the world’s food supply in the hands of a few large corporations. ~ Andrew Kimbrell

Genetics has not been a godsend to agriculture: to the contrary. The application of genetics to food production has had negative environmental and health impacts. The ability to play God with Nature does not bode well when profit is the sole motivation.

A lot of naïve science has been involved in pushing this technology. 30 years ago we didn’t know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later. ~ American cytologist David Williams in 2013

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A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism, whether microbe, plant, or animal, whose genetic material has been directly manipulated via human engineering. The term transgenic is also used to refer organisms subjected to such artificial mutations. GMOs became controversial because of artificial genetic insertions into food crops.

By selecting various strains of plants and breeds of animals as livestock, humans have been making indirect genetic selections since the dawn of agriculture. Almost all crops harvested today descended from ancestors that were much different.

Carrots were originally pale or purple, not the orange as we know them. Sweet potatoes were bred 8,000 years ago out of the swollen tubers of regular potato roots. They did not exist before human tinkering.

GMOs represent more than simply the next step in agricultural advance. The momentous distinction is in directly inserting an artificial gene which otherwise would not be there. It is the unnaturalness that has been unsettling to some.

The first genetic tinkering was on E. coli bacteria in 1973. That was just the GMO jumping-off point to a focus on agriculture and food production.

Antibiotic-resistant GM tobacco was developed in 1982. Tobacco plants were then engineered for herbicide resistance in 1986.

In 1987, tobacco plants were stuffed with genetic material that the soil-dwelling bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) uses to produce insecticidal proteins. Other Bt crops followed, including potatoes, cotton, and corn: food with biocides built in.

E. coli bacteria engineered to make the enzyme chymosin were the first GMO food product approved by the FDA. Chymosin is widely used as a ripening agent in the production of cheese.

Prior to employing GMO bacteria as a source, chymosin was harvested from the stomachs of butchered nursing calves as a by-product of the veal industry. Now 80% of the hard cheeses sold in the US are made via GM chymosin.

The first commercial foray in genetic produce was the Flavr Savr tomato. The result was a tomato with a long shelf life but unappealing taste. The Flavr Savr was in supermarket bins for only 3 years in the mid-1990s before its disappearance, at a net loss of tens of millions of dollars to its developer.