Genetic Modification, is a phrase we see rather often in scientific postings and papers, but also far more frequently in some of the fear mongering media. Why are we as a general population afraid of genetic editing in our food? And why is it viewed as such a contentious issue? In this blog we delve into the depths to discover the science and address the fears plaguing our modern world and airing in our media. First we need to ask a few questions.
Generally the scientific community refer to genetically modified crops as GMO’s, which simply means “genetically modified organisms”, this can range from fruit and vegetables to grains and stock-feeds, as well as any other living organism that has undergone genetic modification in laboratory conditions. To put that simply, organisms that have had part of their genetic makeup changed or edited in hopes to improve aspects of their growth, tolerance to conditions, pest control as well as a plethora of other traits in the food we all know and love.
Whilst GMO’s in the media have come under scrutiny and sparked heated debate among many members of the scientific community and debate around the kitchen table, most people are unaware that genetic modification in foods long predates the technology we have today, so we ask;
According to the food standards department of Australia and New Zealand “People have been manipulating the genetic make-up of plants and animals for countless generations.” (Foodstandards.gov.au, 2016) but we see prime examples in some of the vegetables we are all familiar with, such as carrots and corn.
Surprisingly the corn you can buy today from the local supermarket or green grocer, is not the original variant of corn that our ancestors cultivated. Originally i looked more like this.
It’s not only different colors that we see, modern corn has more rows, more individual kernels per row, larger overall size as well as a huge differences in the rates in which corn grows according to the Learn Genetics page by the University of Utah. (Doebley, Stec and Hubbard, 1997) these changes occurred 10,000 years ago, in the area that is now Mexico. Clearly these modifications did not occur in a lab, but they were implemented by the process of “selective breeding”, also known as “artificial selection,” in which individual kernels were taken from plants that were unusually large, or found to be sweeter and saved before being planted the next season, thus growing a plant with the same genetic traits that were found to be so desirable.
While the process of selective breeding is a genetic modification, these days it is done in more controlled conditions within laboratories. These controlled conditions produce faster growth with repeated trials and near clones of each newly modified strain, that way they can be examined more thoroughly and tested to determine their safety in a number of environments before moving to the government agencies for approval and eventually our shelves.
Now we’ve had some insight on genetic modification, the next step is to explain how its done, which we’ll discuss in the next posting of GM foods: facts and fears
Foodstandards.gov.au. (2016). Genetically modified foods. [online] Available at: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/gmfood/gmoverview/Pages/default.aspx [Accessed 10 Apr. 2016].
Doebley, J., Stec, A. and Hubbard, L. (1997). The evolution of apical dominance in maize. Nature, 386(6624), pp.485-488.
Callaway, E. (2010). Taking molecular snaps of ancient crops. Nature.