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.

Johan Urh

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


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.



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.


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 )?


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


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.


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.


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.

Mike B

The fear of GMO's is the left's answer to religious fundamentalists showing us all that no one political wing has a monopoly on fanaticism. My question is where are the militant pragmatists who demand rational thinking and peer reviewed studies?

Ian Kemmish

Alternatively, maybe we should expand the definition of what's unnatural to include Australian rabbits or cane toads? Or English monkeyweed or mink? Or ?

What causes problems is introducing novel organisms into an ecosystem. GMO technology merely ensures that the resulting crop is going to be novel no matter where you put it.

Andrew L.

Jimbino...I'd be interested in looking at the source of your stats on the religious beliefs of scientists and mathematicians .

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

There are many ways to induce mutagenesis and hybirdize in addition to cloning and DNA technology. And these are not well know to the public but are as unnatural as a chain saw.
For thousands of years, animal breeders have been forcing siblings to mate resulting in pure bred dogs, horses and chickens with certain genetic traits. In breeding is both unnatural yet not GMO.
Mendel inbred his peas in a very controlled but unnatural experiment.
Methylation of DNA induces rampant mutation. Some live, most die, but it can rapidly speed up variation.
Radiation induced mutation changes using Gamma or x-rays. Same principle as methylation.
Other organic chemical treatments as acid, carboxylication, carbonylation, reduction and oxidation.
All these yield mutations. Select for a hybrid. Win some lose a lot more. Sometimes you get lucky. All not GMO, but all equally capable of making a monster.

The yellow corn, the red tomato, the orange carrot and the Fuji apple you eat: ALL are highly evolved and selected species much changed by man over the centuries from their native bretheren.

GMO is a more controlled and rational approach to mutagensis. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.



If I were Al Franken, I would object to my name being used to put down Genetically Modified Food.

Richard G

Gee, I hope this nonsense article gives consolation to embryologist Dr. Andres Carrasco at the Buenos Aires Medical School for being attacked by a Monsanto-supported mob of thugs (Carrasco's colleague suffered lower-body paralysis) for his INDEPENDENT research in birth defects due to Monsanto products, and the many other scientists who have dared to sacrifice their careers and reputations to study the adverse health risks of GMOs. There remains to be published a single gold standard scientific study to show GMOs are beneficial in any manner whatsoever.

Eric M. Jones

Gee, The last three postings I made on The Freakonomics site have been about marijuana...oh well....

Of interest to the genetically-modified-organisms world is "Dr. Walker's Daze", a newly developed strain of marijuana. What is remarkable about it is that it was the UNCONTESTED winner of a California weed competition.
Who can say what the future will bring...?

See: "Dr. Walker's Daze" or "Getting High with DragonFly" website for the whole story.


Whoever came up with this is SO way off base. Cross-breeding and Genetically Modified Organisms are not the same thing, and we've seen plenty of evidence to prove GM creation/testing/meddling (whatever you want to call it!) of crops, crops+animals, etc. is very dangerous and detrimental to the environment, plant life, animal life, and most importantly, human life. This type of poor insight makes me sick. For just one documented item of many, take a look at these results from genetically modified organisms and then you decide if you want YOUR children eating this junk.

Have a nice day!


Dear Author,

GMO's have been shown to cause organ damage in lab animals, just google it.

Livestock grazing on GMO cotton have died en masse.

Pesticide use is going up in many cases because of GMO-resistant "superweeds."

We are facing an epidemic of bees dying off and many people blame pesticides yet we are doing nothing to promote organic farming.

Then there are the issues of pesticides in the water, pesticides harming workers, killing frogs en masse, damaging the ecosystem etc etc.

We need to get back to natural farming and for those say we wont have enough please check your facts. The problem is easily distribution of food and wealth not the amount of food capable of being produced.

Organic farming also preserves the soil for future generations....use your gut instinct here, this is wrong and Monstano et al are profiting off it.

Craig Tock

Here's one good reason not to pursue GMO's any further:

This is one example, there are hundreds of reports similar to this. GMO foods should be thoroughly tested for safety before they are realeased on the market, and when they are they should be labelled as such instead of concealed and crammed down consumers throats. This effort at concealment by corporations and legislators should itself raise a huge red flag. There are also a number of studies out showing that organic crops have in fact outproduced GMOs with none of the associated consequences. Look it up! Large corporations like Monsanto are out for profit, not to save the world or improve your health!


Like #4, I worry about human greed and overconfidence with this technology will lead to disasters. Breeding takes a lot longer and spreads a lot slower, the effects of mistakes are smaller by nature. Unexpected and dire side-effects could so easily screw our fragile society.

Joel Upchurch

It is become clear from metagenomic studies that organisms swap DNA with other species all the time in nature. It is becoming clear that this swapping is the main driver for evolution instead of mutations within a species. It is so much easier to borrow new DNA from other species than it is to make your own.

Compared to this, GMOs are small potatoes. It is also good to keep in mind that all of this occurs without the safety controls we have in our laboratories.