With many complexities of modern life, it is easy for us to get so bogged down in discussions of the complex issues. By focusing on the many details surrounding them, we may forget to establish the basics and understand the fundamentals.
Few topics are more important to consumers and equally filled with unknowns and confusion than the subject of gmo food.
No matter how much we may think we know, science and technology keep adding to our understanding and it is helpful to try to keep the foundations of our beliefs on solid ground.
Hopefully this will do just that, beginning with the terminology used to describe a set of molecular techniques that can alter the genetic structure of organisms and transform food as we know it.
The terms usually heard are gmo and ge, short for genetically modified organism or genetically engineered. They are used interchangeably to describe the organisms that result from a process of inserting genes to create novel substances that have genes from dissimilar species and could never occur in nature.
Through this process of genetic alteration, scientists are able to take genes from any organism, a plant, a virus, a bacteria or even a human and engineer them into another organism to try to produce a desired characteristic.
The process occurs by extracting genes from one organism, adding a promoter, which is generally a virus or bacteria, coating it all with antibiotics and literally shooting the extracted gene in the form of microscopic pellets, into another gene.
With the gmo foods, which we will focus on, the genes are introduced into the plant tissue in a laboratory by either being coated on tiny pellets of gold or tungsten and fired with a special gun or sometimes are bought in via a microorganism in a way some have likened to a viral infection.
The genes are segments of DNA that specify the structure of proteins. The proteins are like the building blocks. Each one has unique characteristics. Now don’t get overwhelmed, we aren’t going to lose you in deep science.
It helps me to think of the different proteins being combined, somewhat like a imagining a toddler playing with an assortment of blocks. When the whole collection of different proteins is seen like different blocks, it is easy to imagine how they can be combined in very many different patterns to create very different results.
In much the same way the toddler will never make the exact structure twice, there is no way of predicting where the new protein, inserted to create the trait, will go when it’s shot into the gene. Because these alterations occur once, in totally unique ways that can not be repeated, the resulting new organism is termed a genetically engineered “event”.
All of the plants that are produced with that trait are bred from that original event. In nature we don’t see that type of identical replication because nature is based on diversity and traits evolve in response to environmental changes and crossing of traits between like organisms.
In the case of the genetically altered foods on the market, the traits conferred are either herbicide resistance or pesticide producing abilities. About 71% of the crops are engineered to resist herbicide, including Liberty (glufosinate ammonium) and Roundup (glyphosate). About 18% produce their own pesticide. And 11% do both. The ones that do both are called stacked.
The herbicide tolerant plants are also called Ht and the pesticide producing are known as Bt for the Bacillus thuringiensis;. Most of the herbicide resistant forms in the America’s food supply, are created to tolerate glyphosate, sold commercially by Monsanto as their trademark Roundup® weed killer.
You’ve probably seen the television commercials, boasting that it kills weeds for up to three months and not even the rain will stop its power. The same stuff, but about six times stronger, is soaked on the crops. Everything but the gmo resistant plants die; they’re created to resist that one herbicide.
The seeds are sold as Roundup Ready® or RR-soy, RR-corn, RR-cotton, RR-canola, etc. They are patented and registered by names like MON863 or NK603, but since they all resist the Roundup herbicide they are all called Roundup Ready® crops.