Informed Eating: Understanding GMOs

by Adam Canal

Graduate Research Assistant, Agriculture Editor/Writer


GMOs. Transgenics. Pesticides.  

Does the thought of those give you chills?

The thought of where your food comes from, or how it’s grown, should not fill you with terror. To a segment of our population, the aforementioned are to be avoided at all cost. But luckily for us, there are people dedicating their lives to the continued safety of our food supply.

These days, there seems to be an air of hysteria and confusion around where science and technology has gotten us and where it’s driving.  My ultimate goal is to introduce you to the key concepts, from the point of view of a plant scientist, that may help you to parse through the onslaught of misinformation pouring out of social media.  

Obviously, I cannot sit here and give you a four-year degree’s worth of information, but hopefully I can help clear some of this up. I’m afraid that this post will only scratch the surface, so we will need to do a little deeper digging later.  To get everyone up to speed on what the fight is about, let’s investigate some terms and ideas that you may come across in your perusing and look at what they really mean.  Hopefully, this will show you that the science isn’t so scary if you sit down and look at the issues.  

Canal, Graduate Research Assistant at North Carolina State University, studies Plant Breeding and Genetics.

For now, let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of transgenesis.  Transgenesis is merely an exchange of genetic information.  In nature, we call this same process horizontal gene transfer.  Because our essence is composed in the universal language of DNA, genetic material is exchanged constantly between bacteria and bacteria, bacteria and plants, plants and bacteria, viruses and animals, the list goes on.  It has only been a recent development that humans have been able to harness this power to do our bidding.  We have taken this seemingly random process and have made it a targeted and efficient method of breeding.  

A transgenic crop is a crop that has a gene or a set of genes from another species (cisgenics have a copy of a gene or genes from the same species).  These are the crops designated colloquially as “GMOs.”  Many people have been led to believe that there are animal genes in plants and that the horrible seed corporations are just doing whatever they want with nature.  This simply is not the case.  So far, the amount of species used as gene donors (all of which are plants and bacteria) and crops through which these genes are expressed is limited.

The crops that are currently being grown with transgenes in the US are soybeans, corn, potato, cotton, sugarbeet, papaya, canola, and summer squash.

Notice how I said earlier that transgenics was a “method of breeding,” not an ingredient.  Knowing this is crucial to becoming an informed consumer.  Even though these crops are somewhat ubiquitous in our food supply. The refined ingredients that we use in our foods (the oil, the starch, the sugar) do not contain the transgenic product.  To be more clear, the foods you eat, even if you were worried about GMOs, most likely don’t contain the actual protein that the transgene makes.  This, of course, is not the case with the papaya and the summer squash, which are eaten fresh in most cases.  In later posts, I’ll go over the central traits in this industry and a little about the biochemistry behind transgenes. The story about the Hawaiian papaya industry is special and will demonstrate the impact these technologies can have.

“Notice how I said earlier that transgenics was a “method of breeding,” not an ingredient.  Knowing this is crucial to becoming an informed consumer.  Even though these crops are somewhat ubiquitous in our food supply. The refined ingredients that we use in our foods (the oil, the starch, the sugar) do not contain the transgenic product.”

The process of incorporating transgenes is no easy feat.  The return rate for successful transformation (this is the term we use to denote an asexual bacterial-mediated genetic exchange) events is around 2%.   But, that is more than enough to make this a worthwhile venture.  The most common technique is derived from a natural process, during which the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens (let’s call it Agro for short) incorporates accessory DNA, called a plasmid, into the genome of a host plant.  The plasmid contains all the necessary instructions for the plant to create a growth that produces the bacterium’s nourishment.  

Glove and Flowers.PNG
Specifically, Canal researches a relatedness analysis of sweet potato among global centers of diversity, quantitative trait loci (QTL) analysis for anthocyanin pigment inheritance in potato, and identification of genetic markers for breeding against internal heat necrosis in potato. Pictured above: head of potato flowers.

Scientists – public and private alike – have taken this process and altered it slightly so that, instead of the plant accepting a plasmid and expressing these growth-inducing genes, it now expresses the genes that we want it to.  In more straightforward terms: the bad genes are merely cleaved from the old plasmid and the new, helpful set of genes is inserted.  Transformation events can number in the hundreds per experiment.

Click here to learn more about this process: Transgenics Made Simple

The total process can take up to 10+ years to complete before a line is possibly ready to be released. On top of that, another few years of safety testing and government regulations.  Plant breeding alone takes many years and a lot of hours to produce a market-ready variety, and transgenics are no exception.  

This monumental technology should be used in conjunction with other breeding and production methods to provide our producers with a crop that is going to ask him or her to put in as little inputs as they need.  

It is easier/cheaper for farmers if there is:

  • increased disease and insect resistance
  • more herbicide tolerance
  • better fertilizer usage

As activists and freshly informed food consumers, we should look out amongst our peers and help them to understand that this process isn’t much different from any other method of plant breeding.  In the interest of feeding the world, fight for those who cannot, do your research, and understand that there’s still a lot more to be done. It’s going to take a global effort, but I have faith in humanity.  


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