GMO labeling.

I had a creative thought about GM labeling that might also teach people something about the evolutionary past of plants and agriculture (both of which involved extensive genetic modification of plants before what is considered GM came into being in the 1980’s:

Figure 1. Complete GM history of crop plants. (A) A made up phylogenetic tree of plants, focusing on Zea mays, with notes (small arrows). Small arrow s indicate notes/interesting evolutionary features/sarcastic notes (B) A basic lineage of modern hexaploid wheat. Purple circles indicate areas of modern species, even if there is a GM trait present. ya = years ago.

I believe something like the cartoons in Figure 1 (panel A has made up branches to the dendrogram, but the relationships are basically right. Panel B is a very basic diagram of the species’ genomes that hybridized to form hexaploid wheat) tell the full evolutionary history including any genetic modifications in modern times. If a GM label exists, it has to be more than ‘GMO’…that’s not the important part in a lot of ways; the specific modification is (as in, what trait has been conferred or taken away from the plant through that genetic modification). Heck, maybe with this ‘full’ label, even Monsanto would be in favor of labeling their products since it provides the full picture of plant modification (both the natural and some unnantural).

Some thoughts on GM & companies behind them (& why they’re so loathed by some):

—Yes, Monsanto is a large for-profit biotech company that is part of the industrial agriculture complex that basically owns the US Government and can get whatever policy they want passed (fact is, it still costs $10 million to go through the regulatory hurdles to bring one of their GM crops to market– which is why all GM crops come from large companies…they’re the only ones who can afford to go through the regulatory approval process).

—Monsanto sells a product. It is genuinely useful to some farmers in some places. In other places, less so. Mileage will vary. Now, Monsanto’s marketers would (probably) tell you that GM is a panacea, but it’s not. They’re great for some situations, but right now at least, certainly not ALL situations. But I’m sure scientists are hard at work coming up with new GM products that might genuinely help even more farmers grow higher yielding food on their land.

—A lot of the hate Monsanto gets is exactly why anyone hates a large corporation (or the government)…it’s a big entity that seems to get away with things the rest of us who are *ACTUALLY* people can’t get away with (tax shelters, anyone?).

—The optics of a large company these days are inherently terrible: They own Washington & get all the legislation they want (just see the FCC & Net Neutrality debate) and will do anything to enrich executives at the expense of other employees (& favoring share holders above all). It has little to do with what the company actually does. However, the bad optics don’t matter unless it affects the profits of said company (how many bank CEOs got canned after the financial crisis?). And of course, I’m sure this is a bit of a cartoonish picture of how things actually operate, but there is some validity to it, and that’s kind of sad that people like me have become  so jaded by ‘The Man’, for lack of a better term.

—Boycotts and actual science can work to change a company; Monsanto used to make agent orange…they don’t anymore as far as I know in part due to a changing Ag industry and in no small part due to the shift in the culture at large.

—Monsanto hasn’t done itself many favors by being so opaque about it’s technologies and what their scientists are motivated by; they’re not out to destroy the world, I genuinely think they want to leave it a better place– they have kids and families too, after all.

—Monsanto is keenly aware that if they put out a GM product that is actually dangerous or detrimental, they’re done. Finished as a company, no one will trust them ever again. So they really do extensive testing of their products before releasing them. And they’ve got a great safety record (the environmental degradation is not necessarily due to GM, but simply to agriculture itself…a very disruptive process to the environment…something that I hope they’ll work to improve, after all, no environment & we’re all kinda screwed…).

Labeling issues.

Vermont recently became the first state to mandate GM food labels. There are other proposals and this was recently in ‘The Atlantic’. It’s popular and part of why it’s popular is the simple ‘right of the consumer to know’ what they’re eating. Other states have come close to passing similar legislation. I haven’t followed these debates closely, but here are some of the issues to consider in labeling GM foods:

—What would the genetic engineering label entail? Not all GM crops are the same; scientists can put basically any gene into a plant (we do this for strictly research purposes all the time), so is labeling each modification important? (yes, it is– depending on the gene, a lot of different traits can be conferred to a plant, that is more important than the fact that it’s been genetically modified).

—What ‘counts’ as GM? Agriculture has been practiced for 10,000 years. The crops we grow now are selected varieties for traits that are good for growing a lot of food in a small area…like dwarf wheat, responsible for the Green Revolution; there are some very real genetic modifications that happened in that time…even whole genomes introduced into plants (that’s about 20,000 genes…not just the usual 1 or 2 of today’s GM). And then, of course, evolution shapes plant genomes too; is that genetic modification?

—Nature is messy. So called horizontal gene transfer (a gene passing from one organism to another that aren’t related; in other words, not a direct descendant) happens all the time. Viruses insert DNA into genomes of all kinds of life every day.  Bacteria swap genes constantly, sometimes into eukaryotes like humans and plants, and there are even examples of eukaryotic horizontal gene transfer, the neochrome gene in many ferns originated in an early land plant called a hornwort…and yet anti-GM activists aren’t torching the fern covered forest floors. Natural does not mean good, it means natural. Human-made does not mean bad (often, that’s the case, but not always), it means human-made.

Wrap up.

So does a GM label have to incorporate both modern and traditional GM? Should it include all of the genetic, natural and evolutionary history of a plant we eat? Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, after all. My Ph.D. advisor found an op-ed once by a guy saying that if he ate a plant engineered with a human gene and ate it, it’s cannibalism. That’s a little ridiculous…after all, humans share quite a bit of DNA with plants (so that salad you had for lunch…you may be 50% cannibal), and at the molecular level, we’re all pretty similar, made of all the same stuff. We’re all breathing in and incorporating atoms of people and diseases long gone and forgotten by history…does that make us all cannibals?

it is difficult to trust a large company (I’m uncomfortable having Google know everything about me at some level), but Monsanto does, ultimately want to help farmers and they recently acquired a company that models climate/climate change to help farmers grow food in what will be an increasingly changing climate. That’s not the move of a company that doesn’t think about the future and leaving the Earth a better place (of course, they’ll make money doing it, but profit isn’t inherently evil…it just can be). I know a few scientists that work at Monsanto and I would consider working for them myself (not that they have reason to hire me— especially after I’ve been a bit harsh on them here..after all I think too much and ask too many questions). I am not an expert in everything Monsanto does (in fact, a lot of it is kind of under wraps, trade secret…which also probably doesn’t help themselves), nor farming. I am a plant scientist studying plant development







Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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