GMO foods have certainly caused a stir in recent years, prompting enormous amounts of lobbying, no small amount of legislation (some more successful than the rest), and quite a few organizations vehemently opposed to (or in some cases, in favor of) the technology that has facilitated the development of what some have dubbed “Frankenfoods.”
It’s not hard to see the issues that many have with GMOs. Crops bred using GMO seeds have led – directly or indirectly – to a stunning lack of biodiversity, with more than 90 percent of the soy and corn planted in the U.S. coming from a relatively small selection of GMO seeds. GMO technology has also led to the development of herbicide-resistant crops, which can be sprayed with reckless abandon with chemicals like glyphosate, now pervasive in our food and water systems, not to mention in the environment.
But while the criticisms of GMOs are certainly founded, not all who use GMO technology approach these tools in the same way – or with the same goals.
A Brief History of Plant Breeding
Long before we were talking about GMOs, a different way of controlling a given plant’s gene expressions was already commonplace. Thanks to the 19th century discovery of trait inheritance by Gregor Mendel, techniques were developed to breed plants with desirable traits in order to produce more plants with those same sought-after characteristics: sweeter corn; orange carrots; peaches that, Business Insider reports, are now 64 times larger, 27% juicier, and 4% sweeter than their wild counterparts.
While traditional plant breeding gave rise to some of our favorite foods today, it was a trial-and-error method that often took generations of plants to perfect.
A desire to create a plant with the best possible traits, compounded with new technology, gave way to genetic modification in the 80s and 90s. No longer reliant on cross-pollination, geneticists could directly alter the DNA of a given plant.
Modern Plant Geneticists: As Much Scientists as Gardeners
Lee DeHaan is a plant geneticist at The Land Institute, where he is developing perennial wheatgrass Kernza. Thus far in his work, he has always worked with traditional plant breeding to achieve the results he seeks.
“We work with the entire genome of the plant, tens of thousands of genes.”
“We grow thousands of plants in the field, select the best ones through data collection and complex analyses, and then intermate the individuals that have the best odds of producing outstanding offspring,” he explains. “By selective breeding generation after generation, it is possible to rather quickly change important traits, like seed size or yield.”
But just because he doesn’t use genetic modification techniques doesn’t mean these technologies aren’t exciting or useful to him.
“Instead of growing plants in the field for several years to find the best ones, we can test seedlings and identify those with promising genetics when they are only a month old,” he continues. “This way we can select the best plants and intermate them immediately, saving years of time.”
A similar use of genetic techniques to gain knowledge rather than actively change plant DNA is used by Michael Mazourek at Row 7, a seed company developed in cooperation with Chef Dan Barber that is innovating new and exciting vegetables..
“We work with the entire genome of the plant, tens of thousands of genes,” he says. “Once we have a better idea of which plants can cross together most productively with all that genomics information, we can analyze the results and select the best plants in a much more sophisticated way.”
The CRISPR Question
Some of the recent difficulty in regulating GMOs has come from the development of new technologies, such as CRISPR, which is distinct from genetic modification that has been carried out in the past.
“We’re symbiotic organisms – all of us.”
Traditional GMO technologies work by splicing a foreign gene into a species’ genome, like AquAdvantage salmon which has been spliced with genes from Chinook salmon and ocean pout to grow more quickly, or Bt corn that has had the gene from a bacterium added to its genome in order to produce its own insecticide. This sort of GM technology is known as transgenic technology, and it’s problematic for more reasons than one.
“You really don’t know what else is taking place,” says Wil Hemker, Entrepreneur Fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation, noting that even if the genome of a given plant or animal is fully mapped, it’s difficult to know what repercussions adding a foreign gene will have on the whole.
“We’re symbiotic organisms – all of us,” he continues. “The human cell itself is only one-tenth of what we’re made up of.”
But CRISPR, unlike other GM technologies, is not transgenic. Rather, it allows scientists to suppress a preexisting gene within a given plant. Chinese plant biologists successfully used the method to create a mushroom that doesn’t go brown, and Hemker himself has worked with a multinational team to develop a way to grow natural rubber by manipulating a dandelion genome.
“In doing so,” he explains, “It becomes economical to grow rubber right near the source where it’s going to be used.”
For DeHaan, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of experimentation. On the contrary, it’s quite exciting, so long as it’s used in beneficial ways.
“As a plant geneticist, I feel that regulation should be focused on the plant that has been developed, rather than the process used in its development,” says DeHaan, noting that both dangerous and beneficial crops can be grown using traditional plant breeding and through the use of genetic modification.
“When you buy a house, are you concerned about the kind of hammer that was used to pound in the nails, or are you more concerned that the right number of nails were placed in the correct locations?” he continues. “I think most would agree that we just want the final product to be safe, and we’re not concerned about the particular tools used in the construction.”
The question of safety has led some to make an important distinction between transgenic GMO methods and techniques like CRISPR: whether the new plant could be developed with traditional approaches, albeit at a slower pace.
Aligning GMO Technology with Sustainability
“We know the techniques that are going to be sustainable are going to be ones that work with the complexity of the system.”
Despite the excitement linked to these technologies, however, both Mazourek and DeHaan prefer to use these up-and-coming technologies to gain more knowledge of a plant’s given genetics, rather than to modify the plant’s genome directly.
“The genealogy of the plant is really fascinating and illuminating and will help us understand the relationships of those plants we cross together,” he continues.
After all, despite how far genetic science has come, we’re still learning more every day. The sheer complexity of plant genetics has led Mazourek to note that “more genes is better,” and that it’s important to look at plants, less as an ensemble of different traits, but as an intricate, elaborate whole.
“We have come so far in the science and the tools we have that we have been able to move away from reductionist approaches,” he says. “We know the techniques that are going to be sustainable are going to be ones that work with the complexity of the system.”
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