GMO

Writing a post is a great way to learn more about something and today I really wanted to know everything about GMO, genetically modified organisms.
We keep hearing angry people bashing GMO like it’s a weapon of mass destruction and then we see the President of the (military-wise) most powerful country in the world backing something like Monsanto, the “evil” king of GMO. Being from the wonderfully neutral and usually rational Sweden I thought I’d find out what’s real and what’s not when it comes to GMO.

Field of soybeans
Field of soybeans

First of all- what exactly is GMO?
That depends on your outlook. Cross breeding a white petunia and a red petunia the old fashioned way, by pollinating one with the other and using the seeds to grow a pink petunia is also genetic modification. Humanity has done this for almost as long as it has been dependent on agriculture to get better yielding, more resistant plants. Another way to get new plants is to find naturally occurring mutations and use them in the cross breeding to spread their qualities.
These types of genetic modification can happen naturally and therefore it doesn’t bother us. It’s the new techniques we have now of going into the DNA and inserting genes from other breeds directly that we are uncomfortable with.

Genetic modification of plants is often done by exploiting the natural behavior of a bacterium that naturally occurs in soil. Rhizobium radiobacter is usually damaging to plants as many strains of it carries something called a tumor-inducing plasmid which transfers part of its DNA (called T-DNA) into the chromosomal DNA of the plant. This causes the plant to produce way too much of certain growth hormones that in time leads to the plant developing a type of tumor.
In human genetic modification the normal T-DNA of the tumor-inducing plasmids are removed and replaced by the optimal genes in the plant and its cells.

What are some of the benefits of genetically modified organisms?

Well, first of all, I’m only talking about plants here today and for plants some benefits are:
– Improved weather tolerance. Like to heat, cold, drought, wet and saline.
– Improved resistance to pesticides
– Improved resistance to pests
– Improved ability to compete with weeds
– Better yields
– Better taste/ texture/ nutrients
– Improved shelf life, for easier shipping

With improved tolerance to harsh weather and better yields GMO plants can be grown in places previously unsuitable for agriculture and may therefore be very beneficial to for example people in very hot, dry parts of Africa where constant food shortages occur. Resistance to pests and weeds could lead to less pesticides being used in agriculture which is a very good thing. With improved shelf life more environmentally friendly means of transportation can be used, such as ships and trains instead of planes.

What are the most common concerns about genetically modified organisms?

– Risk of decreased genetic variation, decreased populations or loss of species, damage and destruction of eco systems
– Improved resistance to pesticides may lead to the use of even more harmful pesticides
– Risk of gene transference to weeds and other plants which would make them more resistant to pesticides as well
– The ability to copyright GMO plants and making them sterile, forcing poor farmers to buy new seeds each year instead of saving a portion of the harvest.
– Potential long-term health risks
– Certain countries have policies that prevent full scientific disclosure on GMO and methods (Yes America, I’m looking at you…)

The long-term risk of decreased biodiversity is one that is very difficult to calculate. Potentially genes from GMO plants can spread to other species causing just about any sort of mayhem in nature. The eco system is super sensitive and if the balance is lost it could all collapse. But that’s the worst case scenario.
The ability to copyright GMO products and thereby control the world’s food seems unsettling to most. If GMO is marketed as something that might solve the world’s hunger crisis then why make the plants sterile to make sure everyone needs to buy new seeds each year? Doesn’t that seem somewhat counter-productive? Or might it be a safety thing? Maybe if GMO plants can reproduce by themselves dangerous mutations might appear further down the line? Or is it all about having complete control?
Possible risks to human health in the long run include potential new allergens, new toxins and new diseases. As always, long-term effects are highly difficult to calculate.

Monsanto

Like I’ve written so far GMO has both positive and negative qualities. Monsanto represents a lot of the negative. They are the leading GMO Company in the world and they are the ones that introduced seed patenting. It’s very difficult to read about Monsanto without getting that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is a company that produces seeds for plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, like Roundup, which is a Monsanto brand. In other words, if you buy their seeds you can use their herbicide and they have control of the complete process.
It’s also very frightening that the company that “wants to solve world hunger” is the same company that invented and manufactured DDT, PCB’s and Agent Orange…
There are many controversies surrounding Monsanto, one of which is that because of the patenting secrecy is incredibly high. Not just anyone is able to look at their test data which in itself should raise a red flag.
The drastic decrease of honey bees in North America in later years have partially been blamed on GMO products. Monsanto’s MON 810 modified corn has the ability to create a protein which kills insects who try to eat it. The toxin is poisonous to insects in the Lepidoptera order, but there are concerns it might prove harmful to non-targeted species as well.
We need bees. They pollinate our crops, granted- not GMO ones…
Like Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

ogm_cultures_dans_le_monde_2013b
Click on the image to make it bigger

Labeling

In North America where 80% of processed food contains GMO products, NO labeling is required by law. Even though polls show that the majority of Americans want to know if GMO are in their food, the powerful biotech lobby has succeeded in keeping this information from the public.
Monsanto: “We oppose mandatory labeling of food and ingredients developed from GM seeds in the absence of any demonstrated risks, as it could be interpreted as a warning or imply that food products containing these ingredients are somehow inferior to their conventional or organic counterparts.”

In the European Union there are strict laws on labeling GMO. Anything that consists of, contains or has been made from GMO products must be labeled. The only exceptions are products that contain less than 0.9% GMO material.
Meat, milk and eggs from animal that have been fed GMO products do not have to be labeled. Neither does fabric made from GMO cotton.
gmo-labeling-required

In Sweden there are NO commercial GMO crops grown, which I like. I can see the potential benefits of GMO but I feel like it’s being pushed onto us way too quickly. In my opinion, boycott Monsanto but keep doing research. There might be an answer in GMO in the future but how are we going to get it when we’re not even aware of all the questions yet? Secrecy can NOT exist when it comes to this! Personal gain and the end of world hunger do not mix.

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