I recently wrote about the Mother’s Day present of my dreams: For mandatory GMO labeling to never, ever take effect. I was an amazing mom all year, so I had my hopes up. Alas, all I got was a county-wide ban on GMOs in Oregon, and the more well-known and controversial Vermont GMO labeling law. In addition, I received some gorgeous drawings, a card, a cute bracelet, and lunch at an Indian restaurant.
The reason I revisit this is that since I wrote my most popular post to date, “All I Want for Mother’s Day is Non-labeled GMOs,” I’ve heard a lot of interesting assertions from all sides. I’ve had several intriguing, informative, and often discouraging discussions during this time. Fortunately, my tendency to be tactful yet assertive has come in handy. Here are the details on the more common themes I’ve encountered in discussion and latest news, with a representative screen shot below:
GM technology is scary
There is so much of what you see outlined in red running rampant on the internet. “Leave us alone…we don’t want our food or bodies to be genetically altered by unproven, dangerous technology.” What does this even mean? This all too common sentiment from “Label GMOs Minnesota” illustrates my mantra that fear of the unknown leads to a mob with torches and pitchforks mentality. The person running this page clearly has no clue about basic molecular biology, let alone how genetic modification is carried out, therefore s/he not only rejects GM technology outright, but speaks for the state of Minnesota by using resounding but unsubstantiated “we” and “us” collective language. This said, my primary intention of pointing this out is not to be snarky, but to encourage scientific literacy (and if you follow my writing, my apologies for sounding like a broken record.)
Pro-GM folks have been repeating ad nauseam, “we’ve been modifying crops/organisms for millennia,” a process known as artificial selection (check out this neat image of well-known crops in their indigenous states.) I must agree and add that if you understand basic biology, you know that organisms have been modifying themselves as well (natural selection.) More so, artificial selection by conventional breeding is so much less precise than genetic modification; GM could be called targeted artificial selection. IMO, I’m all for my children consuming foods with predictable, targeted, and tested traits (GMOs are among the most stringently-tested crops in existence.)
So as usual I need to digress for a moment, this time to give a quick explanation of protein structure.
And as usual, I’ll steal from one of my previous posts for a layperson briefing on genetic literacy: Essentially, proteins are the most basic functional components of living things. Proteins serve all purposes from structure, immunity, metabolic, nutritive, enzymatic functions, and more. They are macromolecules comprised of amino acid chains (polypeptides.) The sequence of amino acids in any protein determines its 3D structure. This sequence of amino acids is determined by codons, each codon coded for by 3 adjacent nucleotides. The DNA in a gene of any organism can be transcribed (into RNA), and translated (into proteins) in many varied permutations by alternative splicing of introns, allowing the functions of life to be carried out. This is a very abridged explanation, but there are some nice primers here and here.
Importantly, the 3D structure determined by the amino acid sequence results in a protein, comprised of multiple structural and/or functional units called protein domains (which themselves are comprised by structural motifs.) Effectively, these various functional structures make proteins do what they do in any given organism. Without this knowledge at minimum, you can’t logically promote an inherently anti-GMO stance, even if you have a few hundred page likes on Facebook.
This brings me to my next point. When discussing the central dogma of molecular biology, I’ve been asked, “Is the protein itself modified in GMOs?” This is a broad question. We know that organisms are modified to achieve desirable traits through introducing or changing expression levels of proteins. As GM technology gets more precise, individual protein domains could very well be manipulated in more specific ways. While scientists are still discovering and cataloguing domains, it’s safe to say GMOs do not sport any novel protein structures. Furthermore, when we eat, our systems digest the hell out of proteins in food! As we all know, consumption of proteins is essential to life functions. Digestion breaks them down into polypeptide chains, which are further processed into amino acids. Proteins, or at the very least protein domains are indistinguishable between GMO and non-GMO food, just like water is identical even with homeopathic treatment. So unless you believe in homeopathy, fear not! There is no way that our bodies will be genetically altered by GE food as the “Label GMOs Minnesota” fears. Genetic material in food (organic, conventional, or GM) cannot alter our genomes any more than colorful frosting can change our eye color.
The next all too common assertion I hear is represented by purple in the screenshot: Everyone involved in the GMO realm is in it for the money!
First I’ll address the idea that I can’t be objective because of my employment and finances. I’ve blacked out my employer’s identification, but it certainly isn’t Evil Monsanto, nor even Evil Dow Agrisciences (TIC. I don’t actually believe these companies are more or less evil than many other for-profit entities.) The assumption that all GM technology advocates are shills is complete BS, and based largely in fear. Also, I’m not a genetic engineer, nor are most pro-biotech advocates cackling and malevolent scientists. I will reiterate that my employer company, like many, is involved in indirect bioinformatics and analytical research in not only agriculture, but clinical genomics and human health. In addition, the “woe is the farmer, the David against the Big Biotech Goliath” sentiment is simply inaccurate. There are plenty of pro-GMO farmers, with evidence-based reasons for their stances. Furthermore, when the majority of the scientific community is in consensus on the safety of a technology, objectivity of a lone blogger is negligible. If you’re in the “follow the Big Ag/biotech money” camp, I certainly hope you consider the realities of “Big Wireless Phone,” “Big ISP,” “Big gasoline,” “Big Cable TV,” and “Big Capitalism” in general. Money, my friends, makes the world go ’round. Moreover, in contrast to the prevalent ideology that organic is pure and good, the industry is far from purely philanthropic. Make no mistake, this fast-growing multi-billion dollar industry thrives on charging a premium for food nutritionally equivalent to non-organic counterparts.
Finally, the comment in yellow on non-GMO rennet relates to a story that I posted publicly. I won’t get into this in detail, but here’s the story. I was surprised yet unperturbed to learn than 80-90% of hard cheeses in the United States are made using recombinant microbial GM rennet. (Rennet is a substance containing chymosin, an enzyme that coagulates milk in the cheese-making process. It is traditionally derived from the stomach lining of calves.)
So readers, there you are. I’ll leave you with one imperative message. If you’re pro GM technology, please express your opinion! Whether on social media, or over coffee or wine with friends or family, make your stance known. The potential to change the world and improve human health is too high a stake. We all know how important it is to share the importance of vaccines. Yes, it’ll be contentious. Yes, you may end up arguing with your friends and family. Still, just like with vaccines, if you’re pro-GM technology, for the love of science, logic, and non-quackery, speak up!