I’ve been hearing lately that people are confused about what it means exactly to be GMO and how that is different from being hybridized. I’m posting this in hopes of clearing up that confusion. Please let me know in the comments if you still have questions.
Think back to elementary school science class about how we classify all living things. We start with the very broadest of categories, called Kingdoms, and then get narrower and narrower, until we reach one single living thing. For example here’s the classification for a cow: Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Artiodactyla, Family Bovidae, Genus Bos, Species Bos taurus or Cow.
In nature things cannot reproduce with other things that are not closely related. Usually this means they have to at least be the same Species or the same Genus. So even if two things are in the same Kingdom, Phylum, or Class they cannot breed together. This is why we don’t have Minotaurs, Centaurs or Hippogriffs roaming around.
A Toyota Prius is a hybrid car. It combines features from gas and electric cars to create a new kind of car that can use both fuels. A hybrid living thing is a lot like the Prius. Two different, but closely-related, organisms reproduce to make a new offspring. This happens in nature when a Blue-winged warbler mates with a Gold-winged warbler and they have little baby Lawrence warbler chicks, hybrids between the Blue and Gold. People can facilitate hybrids like when a Cocker Spaniel is bred with a poodle to make designer puppies called Cockapoos. In each case, whether bird or dog, the organisms are close enough that they can reproduce without surgical or technological help. Hybridizing techniques have been used for centuries to make more beautiful roses, hardier tomatoes, and fluffier sheep, and a whole lot more.
GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)
A Genetically Modified Organism is a living thing, whether plant, bacteria, insect or animal, whose genetic material has been altered using technology through genetic engineering techniques. Perhaps a better name more clearly expressing this combination of genetically unrelated things would be trans-genic . This biotech process produces a completely new living organism with novel genetic material. These completely modern organisms cannot happen without technological intervention because they combine two unrelated things.
Like the mythological Hippogriff that combined lion and eagle to create something entirely its own new being, the biotechnology that combines genetically unrelated organisms has created a new population of seemingly mythical creatures. So far GMO technology has produced combinations of such unrelated organisms as corn with jellyfish, sugarcane with human, corn with hepatitis virus, soybean with soil bacteria, canola with bay tree, spiders with goats, fish with strawberries, corn with bacteria, and pigs with jellyfish.
When foreign DNA invades your body, as when a cold virus tries to live in your nose, you automatically launch an attack to get rid of it. The watery eyes, the runny nose, all that mucus – that’s your body trying to evict the invaders. The genes of all living things naturally guard against foreign DNA. As we discussed at the beginning of this article, unless two things are closely related, their DNA does not willingly combine. In order to create trans-genic GMO it requires outside intervention, special technology; and truthfully this technology isn’t all that precise.
To insert foreign DNA into a non-compliant organism requires drastic measures. We use gene guns with DNA-coated ammunition and shoot them at cells; we use electric shocks to tear holes into cells to stick in the new DNA; we use viruses to “infect” cells with new DNA. Out of thousands of bombarded cells only a few get successfully re-engineered.
We are still learning about genetic expression and the environment’s effect on our genes. The field of epigenetics is in its infancy. We do know every living thing is connected by the vast web of life. Not only are there unknown consequences to altering living things by tampering with their genes, but the natural environment is also at risk. A trans-genic plant produces pollen that blows on the wind; insects chew these plants and are then eaten by other animals; small animals live in the fields and nest among the roots of these plants. A GMO fish swims away with its new genetic material sharing it with other fish as it mates, and sharing it with the animal that eats it for supper.
We already know that pollen from GMO corn carried by the wind has landed on milkweed plants killing off monarch butterfly larvae who were eating the pollen-coated milkweed. The monarch butterfly already has “Near Threatened” status. This surely won’t help its recovery.
When plants and animals used as food are genetically modified, it can also change their nutritional profile. It can give them too much or too little of certain nutrients, or even create new kinds of proteins that have never been in our food supply. This affects the animals and people that eat them. Safety testing has been left up to the companies that produce these GMO foods. The FDA does not do independent testing. Some in the scientific community are now taking it on themselves to test GMOs and are finding toxins, allergens and nutritional problems to be just the tip of the iceberg.
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