Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

GM foods: fears and facts.

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.DNA-Plate1

What do they mean by Genetically Modified?

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;

When did genetic modification even begin?

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.

Who messed with our 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.

news.2010.sweetcorn.jpg

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.

How things have changed…

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

sources

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.

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2 comments on “GM foods: fears and facts.

  1. rbburgess
    May 1, 2016

    Hi matb1,
    So given what you have said, what some of the alterations to crops can be, how do you feel towards these advancements in agriculture? Pesticide producing crops and harvests that are larger in size are critical for a growing population in order to make our resource use more efficient, eg. Less water used to produce a larger mass of corn. But at the same time we are altering the ecosystem of the areas where the pesticide producing crops are planted as insects that are dying from eating the crop will be a part of the general food web/food chain of that area. This website further explains many of the issues of these crops http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/gmos-and-pesticides/.

    Like

    • matb1
      May 2, 2016

      Hello rbburgess, thanks for the insightful comment on my blog post, i appreciate the thought, in this instance food web alterations will be addressed in the third installment of my blog posting along with some of the social aspects and implications of GMO crops in agriculture, however, I agree with the dangers of altering the natural ecosystem. Whilst strict controls are enforced during trial phases and testing in differing environments, there is always a chance of errors or mutation leading to biological disaster. To lower this chance, the controls are tested in multiple environments and conditions.In regards to pesticides, the number of potential pests eliminated or blocked can be difficult to estimate. Be that as it may, in general pesticides in crops are considered beneficial by the agricultural and scientific community, on the grounds of a higher yield of crop with less resource needed to accomplish a full harvest and much less loss of crop to pests, resulting in more profit as long as the ecosystem is not totally ruined in the process, in which case, a specific pesticide would need more alteration to better suit the environmental conditions.

      Like

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2016 by in Geelong - Wednesday 11am.

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