Organic GMOs Could Be The Future of Food — If We Let Them
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Genetic modification is the essence of life, not a perversion destroying our food systems.
by Ferris Jabr
Two years ago, I traveled to Woodland, California, to meet scientists who were developing tastier and more nutritious fruits and vegetables. On the way to the research center, my taxi driver asked what had brought me to town. “Well,” I started, “I’m a journalist and I’m here to visit Monsanto.” “Monsanto? They do all that unnatural GMO stuff, right?” “They do make a lot of GMOs,” I replied, “but the scientists I’m visiting do not use genetic engineering.” Instead, they perform marker-assisted breeding. They chip off tiny bits of seeds and young plants and analyze their genes in search of desirable traits. Then they use that information to decide which seeds to plant and, later, cross-pollinate and which ones to reject, speeding up the traditional plant breeding process. “And that’s not GMO?” my driver asked. “Since they are just reading the DNA, not changing it, it’s technically not a form of genetic engineering,” I answered.
I was about to go on, but I caught myself. In part because I worried that I was on the verge of subjecting another human to an unexpected seminar on plant genetics. But, more fundamentally, because I realized that what I had just said was wrong. Of course the breeders at Monsanto were changing the plants’ DNA. That is what breeders everywhere have done for centuries, regardless of their tools. That is what the pioneers of agriculture started doing at least 10,000 years ago. That is what sex itself does: it shakes up DNA. In that moment, I realized just how meaningless the term GMO is, and how obfuscating it is, too.
Traditional breeding changes the DNA of plants through generations of matchmaking and artificial selection in the field. Genetic engineering directly alters plant genomes in the lab, deleting or rearranging native genes, or adding genes from different species. The staunchest and most common objection to GMOs is that the kind of genetic mixing-n-matching scientists perform in labs is unnatural and therefore wrong. Biologists now know, however, that DNA is inherently promiscuous and has traveled between species and across kingdoms since the beginning of life itself: from bacteria to plants, fungi to animals, reptiles to mammals. Given this context, genetic engineering is an extension of a process that DNA invented billion of years before humans evolved. What’s more, it is a powerful tool that can help us farm responsibly and sustainably by minimizing damage to the environment and prioritizing the health of both people and animals — the precise goals of organic farming. Type the terms ‘GMO’ and ‘organic’ into Google and you’ll get a barrage of links framing the two as diametrically opposed. The truth is that, when well-designed and used responsibly, the products of genetic engineering are often perfectly aligned with the goals of organic farming.