Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have become an extremely hot and controversial topic, but, as usual, much of the information about them is actually misinformation, and scare tactics and appeal to emotion fallacies abound. Later on, I plan on dealing at length with a number of specific arguments against GMOs, but in this post I want to simply reveal a fundamental problem with the anti-GMO movement. You see, many of the arguments against GMOs rely on the concept that they are novel or unnatural and, therefore, harmful. Beyond the blatant appeal to nature fallacy, these arguments represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the science behind our food. As I will demonstrate, virtually everything that we eat has been genetically modified, even if it isn’t technically considered a “GMO.”
First, we have to talk about how we grew food prior to GMOs. Excluding seafood, almost none of the food that we eat is truly natural, even if it has been organically grown. The type of corn that we eat, for example, is not found in nature. Natural corn (teosinte), is tiny and pathetic. So where did our large, juicy ears of corn come from? Well, thousands of years ago someone discovered that you could eat the tiny, pathetic wild corn. So they began to grow it, but they were smart, and each year they planted the new crop using only the best plants from the previous year. In other words, each year they selected the biggest and best ones, and they planted those. As a result of this process (known as artificial selection), each year the ears of corn became a tiny bit bigger than they were the previous year. After several thousand years of this process, we finally have the corn that we enjoy today.
Obviously, no one objects to artificial selection. No one says that it is “unnatural” even though it is by very definition unnatural (i.e., “artificial” and “natural” are antonyms), but, the products of artificial selection are, in fact, genetically modified organisms. We don’t label them as GMOs because they weren’t made in a lab, but they are organisms whose genetics have been modified. They have genetic codes that simply are not found in nature. So, if your problem with GMOs is that you don’t like the idea of humans creating and consuming organisms that don’t exist in nature, then you had better live by foraging from the forest, because virtually all of our crops and livestock have been genetically modified by careful breeding.
Further, our genetic manipulations through careful breeding are not limited to making crops larger, we can also breed different populations to get two beneficial traits in a single crop. For example, suppose one field of corn is very drought resistant, but it doesn’t produce large ears. Meanwhile, a different field produces large ears, but doesn’t do well during droughts. We can cross breed those two populations, and the resulting generation will have genes from both groups of corn, resulting in crops that are large and drought resistant. Notice, by doing this we have made a novel combination of genes that is not found in nature. We have recombined the DNA of these plants to produce new gene sequences. The only difference between this and a GMO is that we used crossbreeding to combine the genes whereas GMOs rearrange the DNA in a lab. Either way, we are manipulating organisms’ genetic codes.
Even more spectacularly, we can hybridize two different species of plant! This doesn’t simply result in a plant that is larger than the ones found in nature, rather, it results in an entire fruit that is not found in nature. Think about this for a second, one of the biggest objections to GMOs is that people don’t like the concept of splicing the genes from two different species together, but that is exactly what fruits like plumcots are. Biologists took the genes of two different species and merged them. We don’t consider plumcots to be GMOs because their genes were spliced by breeding not by laboratory manipulation, but this distinction is completely artificial. It doesn’t matter whether this new organism was formed by splicing genes in a lab or by careful breeding, either way, it results in a novel genetic code that does not exist in nature.
With this realization in place, the majority of the arguments against GMOs fall apart because if they worked, they would also apply to our non-GMO foods. For example, you may have heard about concerns that GMOs will hybridize with wild plants, well guess what, our non-GMO crops can do that too, and they are just as unnatural as GMOs (i.e., they also contain a genetic code that is not found in nature). Similarly, you may have heard that bacteria in your gut will take up some novel strand of DNA and make a new and dangerous protein, but, since our hybrids and other non-GMO crops also contain novel strands of DNA, bacteria can, in concept, do that with regular crops as well (note: there are lots of other problems with that bacteria argument, but I won’t go into their details here).
My point here is quite simple: GMOs are not some novel freak of science. They are simply a natural extension of what farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Virtually all of our crops are unnatural, even if they are grown organically. Almost every bite of food that enters our mouths contains novel strands of DNA that are not found anywhere in nature. So if this concept of eating “unnatural” foods freaks you out, then I am afraid that you are in serious trouble, because nearly all of our crops and livestock have been genetically modified by careful breeding.