Fake, Fact or What? Evaluating What We Know About GMOs
Updated: Feb 5
By Amanda Agosto
As I walked by one of the offices at work, I saw a sticker that said “I only eat GMOs” accompanied by a picture of a corn cob. I found this amusing because the genetic modification is more often than not portrayed like the most dreadful thing that could happen to an organism. However, those of us in the plant biology community don’t always share this perception. My first encounter with GMOs was in Puerto Rico through a group called “Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto,” which roughly translates to “Nothing saint about Monsanto.” I was still in high school, and I believed everything they told me; for example, that eating GMO products cause cancer.
I carried their opinions with me into my freshman year of college, and during my first-year general biology course, the topic of GMO’s was eventually brought up. I recited to my professor and the class everything I had learned from the anti-Monsanto group; my professor just rolled her eyes. Soon as I started learning about their physiology and the history of plant domestication, I began questioning what I so strongly believed. This article will explain concepts about GMOs that helped me understand the science behind these organisms and ultimately led me to believe these are not entirely detrimental to our health nor the environment.
1. What is a GMO?
“GMO” is an acronym for “genetically modified organism.” To understand what a GMO is, we need to discuss what is genetic material and how it's made. All living organisms contain genetic material in the form of DNA or RNA. For instance, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid and is made up of a variety of chemical building blocks. Most importantly, DNA contains adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). Combinations of these letters make what are known as genes, which are an essential part of a genome - the organism’s entire DNA content. Living organisms have machinery that “reads” these genes to convey a “message,” that can result in flower color, for example. Genomes can contain millions of these four letters which can combine in to produce a copious number of messages. For example, CAT, TAC, ATC, CTA have the same three letters but different meanings.
One would think that modifying an organism’s DNA in any way would result in a GMO. However, this is not always the case. For example, crops that were mutated by exposure to chemicals in the 1930s are not technically considered GMOs (ACHS, 2015). It is also not considered a GMO if conventional breeding methods are used to select for crops with desirable traits (Breseghello, 2013). The USDA states GMOs are simply organisms that are a result of genetic modification while genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) are those modified through the use of molecular biology tools specifically when recombinant DNA techniques are used. You might be seeing a pattern. Semantics play a huge role in what is or isn’t considered a GMO.
The GMOs, as described by Giovanni Tagliabue in "The necessary “GMO” denialism and scientific consensus," are a category that lacks consistency and has no common denominator. The term GMO reduces a variety of vastly different methods that result in modified DNA into a single group, making them appear homogeneous. The generalization makes it difficult to unpack the complex diversity of organisms and modification methods that have been used regardless of their possible benefits or disadvantages. Semantics has limited real discussion and prolonged the misconceptions surrounding genetically modified organisms.
2. Black or white?... More like grey
We like when things have an assigned category. Is it bad, or is it good? However, The GMO debate should not be addressed with such absolutism. For consistency, I would continue to use the acronym GMO, but what I am describing aligns more closely with the USDA definition of GEO. It would not be correct to claim all GMOs are unsafe nor to say they are all unsafe. As described by Giovanni Tagliabue, the generation of a “GMO” is not always successful and are, therefore, discarded.
Often, few people outside of the research group and regulation agencies would even find out. In Fact, this is also true for organisms modified through more traditional methods that don’t fall under GMO’s. Tagliabue argues that we should evaluate “GMOs” on a one by one basis; therefore, “GMO” as a term used to generalize should be replaced. Tagliabue proposes three mantras to keep in mind when talking about genetically modified organisms: “1) product, not process, 2) singular, not plural, 3) a posteriori, not a priori.”
By “product, not process,” it suggests focusing on the product of one recombinant event at a time to evaluate whether it is safe or not. This states that we should not claim that one particular genome-altering technique always results in safe or unsafe products, but what should matter is whether the product is ultimately safe for use. One should, of course, ensure the methods used in the production of genetically modified organisms are ethical and safe.
The “singular, not plural” refers to talking about modified organisms on a one to one basis, which results is another way of saying that generalizing and tagging with the three GMO letters should not be the case.
Lastly, “a posteriori, not a priori” references philosophical terms. A posteriori refers to knowledge based on empirical evidence, whereas a priori refers to knowledge that does not derive from experience or tautologies (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). These are two very complex philosophical concepts, but the idea is that we should not focus on what we believe is right or wrong but on the evidence available.
Tagliabue’s conclusion is that good, bad, pro-GMO, or anti-GMO are labels that have no value because the idea of GMOs as a single encompassing group is flawed.
3. Currently, there are only 10 commercially available “GMO” crops.
The availability of GMO crops varies by country, and not all are produced for consumption. They can also be used to feed livestock and making clothes and other fabrics. The ten commercially available crops are soybean, papaya, squash, potatoes, apples, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, cotton, and corn (GMO answers).
Maize and soybean are the two most prevalent products, with 405 million and 213 million tons (respectively) of crops grown in the past 21 years (ISAAA, 2018). The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) has a compilation of the list of approved GMO plants. More information can be found by crop type, specific traits that make it commercially valuable, the country where it is available, and the purpose it is approved for in the website. The list can be found here. This means that crops labeled GMO-free that are not on this list are redundant, and perhaps the company is green-washing, which is making their company and/or products look more environmentally friendly (Delmas, Cuerel 2011).
4. Contradictory information overwhelming you?
If you are reading this article, you might be trying to have a better understanding of what all the GMO fuss is about; kudos to you for trying to inform yourself. This topic can be overwhelming. A quick internet search on GMOs often dredges up non-science based pages presenting skewed ideas that come from unsupported arguments. There are many options for finding information based on science and research, such as peer-reviewed journals. The articles presented in these journals have been revised by scientists with the background necessary to evaluate whether the content is sound or not. Unfortunately, these journals are sometimes behind paywalls, but you can contact the author to see if they are willing to share it with you. The other problem with peer-reviewed articles is the pervasive jargon.
An alternative to reading journals is to read science magazines that explain the results presented in journals without the jargon. The Scientist, Science, and The Scientific American magazines are a few. Not-for-profits like ISAAA have an abundance of information including a list of currently available genetically engineered crops. Following scientists on Twitter is a great idea for finding bite-size information. The article "GMOs: The Modern-Day Frankenstein ?" written by Will Hinckley and posted on Plantae is incredibly informative as well.
Another good article posted in the magazine Science in the News, published by the Harvard University Graduate School, contains an informative summary of the research on the effects of consuming GMOs in mammals. They conclude that as of now, GMO products are not detrimental to our health and well being.
5. Be aware: GMO-free does not mean organic, and whether it means healthier is up for debate.
Companies like to use the term GMO-free as a way to make their products more appealing to customers when in reality sometimes the product could not have been “GMO” (remember what I mean is aligns more closely to the definition of GEO) in the first place. For example, genetically modified kiwis are not commercially available, so a “GMO-free” label on the product has no meaning.
While GMOs cannot be present in organic products according to USDA guidelines, GMO-free products can be sourced from non-organic farms. It is important to note that the USDA as of Dec. 20, 2018 has established the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard to create a standard to disclose foods that are bioengineered. The implementation date will be January 1, 2020, and January 1, 2021, for small food manufacturers.
Genetically modified crops are incredibly controversial. There are many aspects to the controversy that range from how they affect the environment, our health, and the communities that grow them. However, I hope that this little list can help you make more informed decisions about whether or not to buy GMO products.
American Council on Science and Health https://www.acsh.org/news/2015/05/29/whats-in-a-name-for-gmos-and-organics-a-whole-lot-of-nonsense
Traditional and Modern Plant Breeding Methods with Examples in Rice (Oryza sativa L.) by Flavio Breseghello and Alexandre Siqueira Guedes Coelho https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/jf305531j
The necessary “GMO” denialism and scientific consensus by Giovanni Tagliabue https://jcom.sissa.it/sites/default/files/documents/JCOM_1504_2016_Y01.pdf
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/apriori/
Current GMO crops: http://gmoanswers.com/current-gmo-crops
The Drivers of Greenwashing by Magali A. Delmas, Vanessa Cuerel Burbano https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1525/cmr.2011.54.1.64
GMOs: The Modern-Day Frankenstein? By Will Hinckley https://community.plantae.org/article/5293822771019646489/will-hinckley-gmos-the-modern-day-frankenstein
About the Author
Amanda Agosto started her undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico - Rio Piedras and transferred to Humboldt State University in California. She completed her B.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology and is joining the Plant Biology Graduate Program at UC Davis this Fall 2019 semester. Amanda’s research interests include synthetic biology and how plant systems can be engineered, specifically carbon metabolism flux, for specialized metabolite synthesis. Apart from research, Amanda is interested in science communication for both English and Spanish speakers as well as intersectionality and equity. She has worked with organizations devoted to increasing diversity in the sciences, such as the Hispanic Serving Institution and the Louis Stock Alliance for Minority Participation. Amanda enjoys different hobbies, like hula hooping and bullet journaling.
This article was written by Amanda Agosto in collaboration with the Women In Ag Science (WAGS) team.
You can find the Spanish version of the article.