By SeanPublished On: July 23, 2019Last Updated: January 30, 2023
GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. You might have encountered this term at your local supermarket, where certain products exhibit a ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ label with a butterfly graphic stamped onto their packaging. But what exactly are GMOs, and how are plants and animals classified as such? We explore the science behind genetic modification and the pseudoscience that has fueled the Non-GMO movement.
Table of Contents
How are Genes Modified?
Genetic modification carries with it some negative connotations, for which we have Hollywood and Marvel to thank (to a certain extent). But those misguided superhero backstories are the perfect backdrop for organizations to mislead the general public. Organizations like the Non-GMO Project use genetic modification as a fearmongering tool, reaping the financial benefits in the process.
Within the genetic code lies the instructions for life, giving the organism a set of rules to follow that help them survive in this world. We know that the genetic code is hereditary, it is passed down from parents to their offspring in the form of DNA (also RNA for some organisms, but that’s out of the scope of this article). So how are modifications introduced into this process?
Natural Genetic Modification
The genetic code isn’t foolproof, it wasn’t designed to be so. Once in a while, mistakes are made by our cell machinery and the building blocks for life are assembled incorrectly, known as a mutation. If the error affects a crucial part of the organism’s function, it usually results in its death before it is born. Other times, the offspring are born with disabilities that might lower their quality of life. This applies to plants too, in the form of unviable seeds that do not germinate.
On extremely rare occasions though, genetic mutations can bring about beneficial changes to the organism that improve its likelihood of survival. However, mutations don’t carry over to the next generation unless they occur within the genes of an organism’s reproductive cells. In humans, our reproductive cells (i.e. sperm and egg cells, collectively known as gametes) are the only channels for the transfer of genetic material. Through them, changes in the DNA can be conferred throughout the species. An example of this is how humans gradually lost the baculum (penis bone) that most mammals possess.
This drawn-out process of continuous improvement often takes millions of years to bear fruit. Due to the improbability of a beneficial mutation in the gametes, evolution is extremely slow. If we want to influence the genome of an organism, we might not want to wait around for a few million years. What if there was a way to shorten this process?
Artificial Genetic Modification
We know that DNA changes lead to new features arising in an organism, or old ones being lost. Without intervention, evolution within a species takes millions of years. But remember that genes are simply instructions passed on by parents to their offspring. Hence, if we are able to choose parents with desirable traits and get rid of undesirable ones, we can influence the genetic material in their offspring by breeding.
In fact, this type of artificial selection has been in practice for thousands of years. By using the simple technique of observation to pinpoint desirable traits in plants or animals and selecting them for breeding, our ancestors were performing the very first feats of genetic engineering!
The History of Artificial Selection
Selective Breeding—How Wolves Became Dogs
Dogs are a perfect example of artificial genetic modification. The huge variety of dog breeds that exist today all arose from the same ancestor: the wolf.
Around twelve thousand years ago, our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settle down, farming crops and rearing cattle to survive1. This domestication of animals eventually led to the integration of wild wolves into society. Wolves received food and shelter and, in return, humans received a loyal and intelligent companion.
Over time, humans carefully chose traits in these domesticated wolves to suit their needs. Those who needed protection chose to breed for traits such as alertness and aggressiveness, these wolves eventually became the German Shepherds and Great Danes. Others who just wanted a playmate chose the smallest of each litter, and these became the Shih-Tzus and Toy Poodles of today.
Through the careful selection of traits across multiple generations, we now have enormous genetic variation between different breeds of dogs.
Today, we have access to technology that can accelerate this process. Techniques such as CRISPR exist that can introduce mutations into DNA, directly making alterations at the genetic level. Although they require specialized equipment and laboratories, these techniques remove the trial and error aspect of artificial selection.
Gene engineering allows us to make very specific changes in an organism, like changing the color of a mouse’s fur. Scientists quickly realized its potential to solve the world’s problems, such as eradicating diseases and increasing the yields of crops.
Genetically Modified Foods
The versatility of gene engineering extends to agriculture and farming. Since living organisms follow the rules set by their genetic code, scientists can modify seeds to confer useful traits in plants and crops. For example, many apples have been engineered so that they produce a specific enzyme, preventing browning after being cut. The chemical makeup of crops can also be altered to our benefit, such as increasing their nutritional content or reducing the number of toxins in certain vegetables.
Farmers and people in developing countries have benefited the most from genetically modified foods. A study conducted in 2014 showed that GMO adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%2.
The Non-GMO Project—A Marketing Ploy
As you might have realized by now, the real truth is that there is no such thing as a non-GMO organism! All life on the Earth is the product of genetic modification over billions of years of evolution. As seen in the case of dogs, selective breeding is just a means to speed up this process. In fact, all of the vegetables we find on supermarket shelves today are the products of genetic modification by our ancestors over several millennia.
Yet, entities out there, the largest of which is The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program, continue to feed on public fear and the necessity for manufacturers to earn consumer trust. Their main argument is that modern genetic engineering is somehow different from traditional crossbreeding techniques, even though we know that it simply isn’t true. Altering the genome involves changes to DNA base pairs, regardless of the technique.
The Non-GMO Project website states that ‘GMOs are only created through the use of genetic engineering or biotechnology, not through processes that could occur in nature’. As if there was anything ‘natural’ about farmers choosing the sweetest apples or the juiciest roots for breeding.
‘GMO’s are Unnatural!’
Indeed, the idea that GMOs are somehow ‘unnatural’ is the focus of their fearmongering. And they have been quite successful, too. A survey conducted in 2001 showed that many believed that direct gene engineering was different from previously used techniques3. A common stance taken was that we are now also creating novel life-forms that would not have existed in the past.
Sentiments include the belief that we are ‘pushing Nature beyond its limits’ or ‘upsetting the equilibrium of Nature’, even to the extent of ‘playing God’. But isn’t that the case with all technology? Is medicine not ‘unnaturally’ keeping us healthy and prolonging our lives?
When it comes to the modification of an organism, the genome is the only thing that governs the change; DNA doesn’t lie. The Non-GMO Project argues that GMOs are distinct from crops that have been bred using traditional crossbreeding methods, yet they have no means to empirically test if an organism has been modified in the lab. Instead, they obtain evidence from the supply chain of the manufacturer to assess their products.
Big Winners of the Non-GMO Project
The public is led to believe that GMOs are unnatural and somehow harmful, hence they spend more money on non-GMO verified products. Food manufacturers pay huge sums to get accredited by a non-GMO ‘authority’ while procuring raw ingredients that may be more expensive and less nutritious. It seems like a lose-lose situation for both sellers and consumers.
In the end, the only ones who profit from this entire project are the ones who keep it running. By continually instilling fear of GMOs in public perception, they are able to maintain the illusion of being a legitimate authority as well as ensure a steady stream of paychecks.
A 2018 article on the Non-GMO Project’s website states that more than 3000 brands have jumped aboard their bandwagon, verifying over 50000 products that represent more than $26 billion in annual sales. With the cost of accreditation going from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars per product, you can see why the Non-GMO Project is keen on keeping up this gigantic marketing ploy.
The Power of Genetic Modification
Everything alive in this world today is the result of genetic modification. That’s what evolution is, an adaptation for survival. We live in an age where genetic editing at the smallest scale–the precise swapping of a single base pair out of 3 billion–is possible. Instead of living in fear of GMOs, we should embrace this technology and harness its potential for good.
Imagine plants that efficiently convert the energy from sunlight into tremendous yields of food or renewable biofuel. Or genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia being eradicated through gene therapy. The problems of today could well be solved tomorrow. The prospect of millions of years of beneficial evolution condensed into a single generation.
Of course, there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding gene-editing technology. ‘Designer’ babies are a hot area of debate, with professor He Jiankui creating the world’s first genetically modified babies in 2018. Medical researchers are interested in using this technology to prevent and treat diseases, with gene engineering key in the creation of potential biologic drugs and therapeutics.
But for now, we should be encouraging the scientists who are part of the GMO revolution instead of supporting the fearmongering, money-grabbing tactics of the Non-GMO Project.
Morey, D. F. (1994). The early evolution of the domestic dog. American Scientist, 82(4), 336-347.
Klümper, W., & Qaim, M. (2014). A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PloS one, 9(11), e111629.
Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths: Stakeholders in the GMO debate often describe public opinion as irrational. But do they really understand the public?. EMBO reports, 2(7), 545-548.
About the Author
Sean is a consultant for clients in the pharmaceutical industry and is an associate lecturer at La Trobe University, where unfortunate undergrads are subject to his ramblings on chemistry and pharmacology.