GMOs and Mother Nature? Closer Than You Think

Photo: Aunt Owwee

When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), one criticism stands above the others: it’s unnatural.? The idea that (unlike conventional genetic exchange within a species) genes from one species can be transferred to another fuels this perception of unnaturalness. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive, a watchdog group for worker health, explains that “genetic modification occurs when the genetic material of an organism (either DNA or RNA) is altered by use of a method that does not occur in nature.”? The anti-biotech Non-GMO Project notes that genetic modification creates “combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur in nature.” The Huffington Post plugged last October as “non-GMO month” on the grounds that genetic modification produces goods through processes “that do not occur in nature.”? Greenpeace has described “breaching species barriers” as “unnatural.”? Daily Kos insists that “gene splicing does not occur in nature.” In a word: frankenfood.

Well, you know where this is going.? Scientists have now confirmed what evolutionary geneticists have long suspected – nature does produce GMOs. Swedish researchers discovered an enzyme-producing gene in a meadow grass that naturally crossed into sheep’s fescue about 700,000 years ago.? “The most plausible explanation,” said Professor Bengt O. Bengtsson of Lund University, “is that the gene was transmitted by a parasite or pathogen, such as a virus, perhaps with the help of a sap-sucking insect.” The fact that cross-species gene transfer happens without human intervention in nature, however rare, provides further justification for viewing transgenic technology not as a Frankensteinian intervention into the natural world, but as yet another method of trait selection, something we’ve been doing with heroic results since the dawn of agriculture.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t sound reasons for vigilance when it comes to GMOs.? Critics oppose the technology on many other grounds besides the perception that the process is unnatural. But the discovery that there’s a precedent in nature for transgenic technology demands that we take a more intellectually nuanced look at food production – a look that acknowledges that agriculture is, by definition, manipulating nature (and what’s possible in nature) to serve human needs. ?Whether organic, conventional or biotech, the act of farming is, as the classicist-raisin farmer-writer Victor Davis Hanson once wrote, “the elemental fight with soil, water, and living organisms to produce harvests at a profit.” To divide the precious manifestation of that fight – our food supply – into “real” and “frankenfood” insults not only those who grow and produce our food, but nature itself.

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  1. Johan Urh says:

    I always found the term ‘frankenfood’ fitting for GMO produce not because it is ‘unnatural’. The term is fitting because GMO plants can not actually reproduce on their own. Thus, much like Frankenstien they are produced in a lab. BOOM, end of discussion

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    • Rob says:

      Um, GMOs can reproduce – in your lamentable ignorance, you seem to be confusing sterile hybrid cultivars, which are not used for most crops other than corn (maize), with GMOs at large. Most farmers cannot legally re-plant seed from their GMOs because they are a patented product created by the seed company. A GMO is just a cultivar that has been tailored by direct modification of its DNA–much like a cultivar is just a wild plant tailored by selective breeding.

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  2. Nosybear says:

    The only thing different about GMOs and the cows and wheat we eat every day is how the change was affected. The claim of “unnatural” is vague and squishy – how “unnatural” is a maize plant that bears little resemblance to its fore bearers or a chihuahua that looks nothing like its ancestor the wolf? The monocultural field in which wheat is grown is an anathema to Nature and requires great effort to maintain yet I don’t hear of anyone boycotting bread because it is somehow “unnatural.” Genetic engineering gives us the capability to combine genes from organisms that normally couldn’t cross and I agree the effects may be unpredictable, the fears of the plants “contaminating” nature are unfounded – we’ve contaminated much more with tamarinds, zebra mussels and Russian olive trees. Do we need to respect the technology and realize its implications? Sure, just as we need to recognize the technological impacts of internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. Do we need to fear them? I don’t think so. Like every technology, there is a balance between good done and harm done. If we wait for absolute certainty, we’ll never act.

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  3. Jimbino says:

    Humans are as much a part of nature as the sap-sucking insect that might have transfered the genes in the grasses.

    So what? All this talk and obsession of what is “natural” is pure Roman Catholic hogwash. The same hogwash that claims that homosexuality, abstinence from breeding and using rubbers is “unnatural.” It’s past time we abandoned this medieval conceit.

    Thank Darwin that over 90% of scientists and mathematicians like me have no use for god, much less for the pathetic pronouncements of the pope.

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    • Dominic C. says:

      True, but you yourself portray Darwin as a godly figure. I am sure that you know he was just a really smart guy who nobody believed at first, but still-that seems kind of hypocritical of you to say that ” Thank Darwin 90% of scientists and mathematicians like me have no use for god” when you’re idolizing Darwin with that comment.

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    • Rob says:

      Yeah… Copernicus, Newton, Harvey, Boyle, Pasteur, Mendel, Carver, and Georges Lemaitre all had no use for God. And hey, maybe Neil “I have a TV show and 300 honorary degrees” DeGrasse Tyson could find a use for God, since his and all other atheists’ cosmology involves a logically impossible infinite regression of events. Oops…

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  4. Tony says:

    I am not so concerned with what is “natural” per se. Heck, 99% of the materials we interact and come in contact with everyday, along with the materials that allow us to interact with those so called natural materials, are “unnatural.” My concern is what is safe? What are the collateral consequences (environmental and physical )?

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  5. Quill says:

    Any number of “natural” crops cannot reproduce on their own, including corn, cranberries, mangoes and turkeys. Boom, discussion restarted.

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  6. James says:

    Re #1: “…because GMO plants can not actually reproduce on their own.”

    You’re wrong both ways. Many GOM plants can reproduce on their own, while many varieties produced by conventional breeding techniques either can’t reproduce on their own (sterile hybrids & seedless varieties), or don’t come true to type.

    I must confess that I’m far less concerned with either safety or “naturalness” (whatever that is), than with the fact that most commercial varieties are bred/created for shipping ability rather than taste. Consider how real sweet corn has been replaced with that horrible white “super-sweet” variety, or traditional apple varieties with ones that have the taste & texture of sugar-soaked balsa wood.

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  7. Vanessa says:

    Humans have been hybridizing plants for a long time. Many of these hybrids would not occur naturally. GMO plants are simply hybridized at the cellular level. Tinkering is tinkering. Opposing GMO tinkering sure seems silly to me unless one also opposes hybridization by humans and only consumes heirloom plants.

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  8. ChefL says:

    The ‘natural’ vs ‘unnatural’ argument is purely emotional. We put laboratory-derived substances in our bodies all the time, but when we call them ‘medicine’ or ‘natural flavor’ the majority of rational individuals ingest them for their perceived benefit. To know that similar processes occur in nature may lessen some of the irrational concern.

    GMO seeds certainly can reproduce, however many of the seeds produced by agribusiness have a ‘suicide gene’ inserted to prevent reproduction. This protects the intellectual property of the companies selling the seed (and ensures repeat business.) Other business and legal practices by those companies limit farmers’ ability to save and use heirloom seeds, thus limiting biodiversity in our food supply. I’m much more concerned about recent legal decisions that protect ownership of life forms that constitute the majority of our food supply.

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