Anti-GMO activists are excellent at stirring up emotions and creating fear. They are better at frightening gullible people than just about any group that I can think of (though anti-vaccers give them a run for their money). Their posts are full of images of grotesque mutations, giant needles sticking out of vegetables, and bizarre genetically hybridized organisms. The real question, however, is whether or not those fears are justified (spoiler alert: they aren’t). You see, it’s fine to present a fact that also evokes an emotion, but when you are exaggerating or ignoring the truth in order to scare someone, then you are committing a logical fallacy known as an appeal to emotion, and that is exactly what anti-GMO activists are doing.
The term “Frankenfood” is perhaps the greatest embodiment of this fallacious line of emotional manipulation, and honestly, it’s brilliant propaganda. It is simultaneously evocative and memorable. It’s a buzz word that instantly conjures images of mad scientists and dangerous, unethical experiments. It also deliberately misrepresents GMOs. The reality is that GMOs are extremely precise, tightly regulated, and carefully manufactured. As I will demonstrate, there is nothing about them that is deserving of the title, “Frankenfood.” However, to understand GMOs, we first need some context. In other words, we need to understand how our traditional foods are made before we can really understand the significance of how GMOs are made. Therefore I am going to start by explaining how our traditional crops are manufactured, then I will briefly explain how GMOs are produced. All that I ask of you as you read through this, is that you set aside any biases that you might have and briefly ignore all of the anti-GMO fear-mongering.
Note: I am including organic under the umbrella of “traditional crops.”
GMOs are often presented as being unantural and therefore dangerous; whereas traditional crops (especially organics) are presented as natural and good. Beyond the blatant appeal to nature fallacy, this dichotomy is demonstrably false. As I have previously argued, essentially none of our food is “natural,” and all of it has been genetically modified by thousands of years of careful breeding. You know that nice, delicious, essentially seedless banana that you get from your grocery store? It doesn’t exist in nature. Similarly, those large, juicy strawberries from your farmers market don’t grow in the wild. In fact, virtually none of our crops can be found in nature. So how did we get them?
We got our crops from artificial selection. At some point in history, someone started cultivating things like bananas, and each generation, they selected the plants with the biggest, most delicious fruit, and bred them. Thus, over thousands of generations we went from wild bananas to the far more edible fruit that we have in stores today.
There are several important points here. First, this is a type of genetic manipulation. Anytime that two individuals mate, novel combinations of genetic material are being formed. You see, for organisms like most plants and animals, each individual has two copies of each gene (one from mom and one from dad). We refer to these copies as alleles, and within a population, there are usually many different alleles for a given trait (for an explanation of the difference between alleles and genes go here). Further, most traits are polygenic, meaning that they are influenced by multiple genes, each of which has multiple alleles. This provides extraordinary potential for genetic variation in the offspring. Indeed, any time that two individuals mate, 50% of the offspring’s genes will be from mom, and 50% will be from dad, resulting in novel combinations of genetic material.
Artificial selection is, however, a means of eliminating that variation. For example, when we cross two individuals who both produced large fruit, we expect them to pass on the alleles for large fruit, which should result in offspring with large fruit. Thus, we are deliberately modifying the genetic makeup of the next generation by determining which alleles it is going to get, and when we do this over thousands of generations, we end up with varieties which simply do not exist in nature. In other words, we create distinct and novel genomes.
Now, here is the really important part, this process is extremely messy and unpredictable. Remember each individual is a combination of 50% of the genetic material from two different individuals, and the results are often unexpected. We might be interested only in the alleles that make big fruit, but artificial selection doesn’t let us exchange only those alleles. Rather, alleles for all of the different genes get exchanged as well. So although we can predict that two individuals with large fruit will produce offspring with large fruit, we cannot predict what the consequences will be of making new combinations of alleles for all of the other thousands of genes. Anti-GMO activists are technically correct that anytime that we make a new combination of alleles we can produce novel and unexpected proteins, allergens, “toxins,” etc., but they ignore the fact that this is also possible from traditional breeding methods. In fact, it is far more likely from them because the entire genome is getting modified, rather than just the trait that we are interested in.
Domestic dogs provide a good illustration of this. We select them for traits like head shape, coat color, size, etc., but selecting for those traits often has unintended consequences for other traits. For example, bulldogs often have to be artificially inseminated in order to breed, pugs are prone to heart problems, German shepherds often have hip dysplasia, etc. All of these are a result of the unrefined and unpredictable nature of artificial selection. Selecting for one allele can inadvertently affect another trait or cause some harmful combination of alleles to rise to prominence. It is a very crude and imprecise process.
Just in case you were unimpressed with artificial selection, let’s talk about hybrids. All of the same concepts and problems apply, but with one important difference: in typical artificial selection you are combing 50% of the genetic material from two individuals of the same species. They may be from different populations and different parts of the world, but they are still the same species. Hybrids, however, are crosses between two different species. Think about this for a minute. We are making entirely new organisms that contain half the genes from one species and half the genes from another species, yet no one refers to plumcots, tangelos, pluots, etc. as “Frankenfoods.”
The fact that anti-GMO activists don’t attack mutation breeding is one of the most astounding inconsistencies imaginable. What if I told you that many of the crops that you eat were created by exposing them to radiation or chemicals in order to induce mutations? Would you be surprised? I was. I knew that it occurred, but I didn’t realize its true extent. The reality is that thousands of different varieties of crops have been produced this way, and the production process is a scene straight from a comic book. We literally expose plants to Gamma radiation in order to induce mutations (that’s the same stuff that produced the Hulk), then we select and breed the ones with beneficial mutations. Mutations are, however, totally random. So a crop may have one beneficial mutation, but several harmful mutations. There is simply no way for us to know what we are going to get out of this process. We just induce mutations and hope for the best. To be clear, breeders try to cross the mutated strains such that only the beneficial mutations survive, but ensuring that nothing detrimental anywhere in the genome gets passed on is nearly impossible. It would be entirely possible, for example, for a mutated plant to be selected because it had a mutation for larger fruit while, unbeknownst to us, it also had a mutation that would cause a severe allergic reaction in many people. Nevertheless, no one seems to freak out about this, and even organic companies will often sell crops that were produced by mutation breeding.
Before I explain how GMOs actually work, I want to briefly recap. Traditional breeding practices include: altering a breed’s entire genome by selecting for a particular trait (often with unintended consequences on the rest of the genome), creating entirely new organisms that are 50% one species and 50% another species, and using radiation and chemicals to induce completely random, uncontrolled, and unpredictable mutations. In contrast, GMOs are made by carefully and precisely modifying or inserting a handful of genes. Think about that for a minute. Let it really sink in. Anti-GMO activists freak out over “Frankenfoods” and the potential of unintended allergens and toxins from modifying or inserting one or two genes, yet traditional crops are made by modifying the entire genome! How can anyone possibly think that deliberately and precisely changing a very specific set of genes is dangerous, but randomly and unpredictably mutating the genome is just fine? Why should we call something a “Frankenfood” for having one or two genes from another species when hybrids are universally acceptable even though half of their genes came from a different species?
I want to be very clear here, I’m not saying that traditional breeding methods are dangerous. Rather, I am saying that all of the potential problems with GMOs are also potential problems with traditional crops, but GMOs involve fewer genetic changes, and the changes are very carefully controlled. Yes, there is always the potential of unintended consequences when you modify a genome, but the odds of an unintended effect are much lower when you deliberately and carefully change one very specific part than they are when you change massive sections with essentially no control over what alleles are being swapped or modified. Indeed, that is exactly what a study comparing GMO rice with mutation breeding rice found (i.e., there were more unintended effects in the mutation breeding rice; Batista et al. 2008). That result really should make intuitive sense. Genetic engineering is done very precisely to modify a specific gene in a specific way, but mutations modify random genes in completely random ways! It makes absolutely no sense to oppose GMOs but readily consume mutation crops, hybrids, etc.
Essentially all of our foods were created by manipulating an organism’s DNA, but genetic engineering is unique among our cultivation methods in that it is extremely precise and only changes small, carefully selected parts of the genome. Other breeding methods result in extremely large and unpredictable exchanges of DNA or even the random creation of entirely new and unpredictable genetic traits. Therefore, there is no reason to think that GMOs themselves are going to be more dangerous than traditional crops or that they will have more unintended consequences. So if you want to describe something as a “Frankenfood” you should be talking about mutation crops or hybrids, not GMOs.
Note: for more technical info on the similarities and differences between GMOs and traditional crops, as well as unintended consequences form the various methods, I recommend Cellini et al. 2004.
Note to commenters: this post is about GMOs themselves. In keeping with the Comment Rules, please stay on topic. Issues such as pesticide use, Monsanto’s business practices, and GMO labeling will be dealt with in future posts. If you want to discuss those topics, please wait for those posts.