Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Frankenfood Paradox!

On Sunday there was considerable confusion about the alleged "GMO" grass that killed cattle.  Turns out it was not GMO grass at all, but a hybrid. CBS has since retracted the story. In the meantime I received many inquiries about the difference between a GMO and a hybrid, as the latter sounded truly freaky and much more invasive than any frankenfood.

While hybrids are not the technology we usually think of with the terms genetic modification or genetic engineering, it is just that-- humans manipulating plants by modifying the genes of an organism toward crop improvement. No lab needed, just cross two sexually compatible plants that are different! The next generation has literally tens of thousands of new gene variants, and maybe new genes, that are different from the parents.

So let's scrap the pedestrian term GMOs and work with something more precise: transgenic.  This means that the plants contain a gene inserted using recombinant DNA technology.

To clarify the issue on Sunday I slammed a table together that contrasted transgenic technology against other methods of plant improvement.  A look at the table reveals that all are methods of genetic modification, and everything we eat is truly a genetically modified organism, especially when compared to wild, ancient antecedents.

Since then, I've enjoyed feedback from colleagues and readers, and did a little thinking and googling.  Here is the new and improved table: 

New and Improved!  Take a look at the methods used to improve plants
by manipulating their genes. Some of these methods have been in place for 20,000 years.
Click on it for a larger version. 

Particularly, please compare:
1.  How many genes are transferred.
2.  If we know where transferred or affected genes are located
3.  If we know what transferred or affected genes do
4   If genes can be used from one species to another
5.  If plant products are acceptable for organic cultivation
6.  If laws are pending to label the products
7.  How long it takes to make an improved plant product

Now honestly answer these questions:
1. Which technology is most precise?
2. Which technology is best understood?
3.  Did you realize that humans have intervened to create so many common foods?
4.  Did you know that you regularly consumed so many genetically altered products?
5.  Isn't it amazing that humans just implement nature's own tools to improve plants?

I hope this helps your understanding.  Thanks to everyone that offered such great feedback.  Maybe together we can share an honest discussion to take the franken out of frankenfood, and use the best available safe and proven technologies to shape the future of food.


Pamela Ronald said...

Table is getting better and better! One point. I think of grafting (eg pluots) as different than interspecific crossing (pollination)

Kevin M. Folta said...

Pam, I read that pluots were from pollination, just like the interspecific apricots, limequats, meyer lemons, etc. It could be wrong! Thanks!

Jeremy said...

Pluots are definitely bred, and registered.

Mary said...

There's a great article about the creator of the pluot (and other fruits) at SF Gate.

I often use it to illustrate this nice old guy who patents plants.

Vachon said...

I liked this post. While I doubt it will even cause my anti-GMO friends to reconsider their opinions, I will have to remember to link your post at the next available opportunity.

That table is a great arguing point.

Paul Vincelli said...

Kevin, I am not a molecular biologist, therefore I do not read that peer-reviewed literature regularly. Nevertheless, I have been struck by how many recent papers I have come across showing evidence of natural horizontal transmission of genetic material in evolutionary history. My collection of such papers is rapidly growing. This seems to directly challenge any notion that GMOs are "unnatural". In fact, I even posit that, because horizontal transfer occurs in natural ecosystems, genetic engineering is merely a mimic of nature and therefore is consistent with agroecological principles. I wonder what your thoughts are about this.

Brenhin said...

Completely untrue, see here:

- "But the technique of genetic engineering is new, and quite different from conventional breeding. Traditional breeders cross related organisms whose genetic makeups are similar. In so doing, they transfer tens of thousands of genes. By contrast, today's genetic engineers can transfer just a few genes at a time between species that are distantly related or not related at all."

Mike Lewinski said...

I never gave this post formal recognition for the substantial role it played in changing my opinions on biotechnology in agriculture. I'd like to correct that now and say Thank You, Kevin, for all you do.

Also for anyone finding this via Google or link I've left along the way, the Genetic Literacy Project has a very simplified version of this chart that may be useful in certain forums for the layperson. It took a long time for me, as a non-scientist, to fully appreciate Kevin's chart here and the GLP version might have moved me along just a little quicker. Both are invaluable in their own way.