GMOs - Genetically Modified Organisms

What is a GMO? And why is genetic engineering important?

A Genetically Modified Organism is simply something whose genetic material (DNA) has been changed.

Genetic engineering allows scientists to insert desired traits or features into an organism – enhancing a crop’s resistance, for instance, or promoting photosynthesis. This artificial manipulation of DNA would never happen in nature. It replaces the traditional method of selective breeding, a common and completely safe practice used by growers.

European law defines a GMO as an organism in which “the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

Genetic modification is a contentious issue. This article looks at its use in plants in particular. At how and why large chemical agribusinesses, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, create the crops that feed us or our animals.

We discuss three main concerns: the environmental impact and the health risks of GM organisms, and the moral politics in the GM business. Finally, we look to the future.

The issues are complex. But as you read, we urge you to follow the links, listen to the interviews and read the research papers. GM is unlikely to go away, but – as organic growers and suppliers – the more we understand the subject, the greater strength we have in order to influence safety regulations, to prevent contamination, and to encourage governments to support growers and farmers who use less invasive crop cultivation.

“GM is an issue which generates much heat and emotion,” says James Campbell, Garden Organic’s Chief Executive. “Scientific facts and figures are bandied about, often misunderstood and misinterpreted, and with substantial commercial interests heavily involved. These pages aim to provide an independent summary, to allow an objective judgment to be made.”

Why is genetic engineering important?

It is rapidly changing a traditional process of crop generation. Work done in the lab can replace years of careful breeding selection. This may be a good thing. Here in the UK, for instance, genetic manipulation could create a species of ash tree that is resistant to the deadly Chalara fraxinea blight. See Ash dieback.

However, the consequences of changing the genes of an individual cell are still unknown. DNA is not like Lego – if you break or replace one sequence, it has a knock on effect elsewhere in the organism. Called ‘Pleiotropy’, this effect is hard to predict. It is these unforeseen consequences that require caution and regulation when producing genetically engineered crops.

Unfortunately, regulators often rely on short term ‘safety’ testing carried out by the commercial funders and proponents of genetic engineering. There is very little long term independent analysis of the effects from eating GM crops (see Health Concerns).

GM crops are bred to encourage monoculture, ie growing vast quantities of just one crop. Most have been engineered to have inbuilt pesticide and weed killer resistance, for instance Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, which allows farmers to spray extensively with toxic glyphosate formulations. This means pesticide and herbicide use has actually increased where GM crops are grown. See Environmental Concerns.

Agribusinesses that fund genetic engineering claim this is the only way to feed the world. But with consistent crop surpluses worldwide, analysts say it is politics, waste and war that cause hunger in the world - not insufficient food production. See causes of World Hunger and Ways to Feed the World

To sum up

Watch these two videos - one promotes GM the other strongly refutes some of the claims.

You may also like to see these Q&As, produced by the Royal Society in June 2016. Here scientists explain the process of genetic engineering as a plant breeding technique. However, they do not consider the moral, political and health issues which surround it. They aim to demystify the subject, by looking at it purely through the scientific lense.

Advocates argue that

  • GM continues an age-old process, but with expert lab techniques. See Sense About Science
  • That the increased output from GM crops is the only way to feed an expanding population. See Genetic Literacy
  • and it will help farmers make better use of the land. See GM crop benefits

Critics say that

  • There is insufficient knowledge of the consequences of gene manipulation. Tampering with DNA creates unforeseen and unpredictable outcomes. See biosafety implications
  • It leads to increased use of toxic pesticides and herbicides, and thus loss of biodiversity. See record use of glyphosate
  • Genetic engineering doesn’t always work, can take longer and is more expensive than traditional selective plant breeding. See Biotech cost report
  • There is a real risk of contamination from GMO crops. Once GM is planted, there is no way to contain it, and therefore it compromises non GM crops. See GM contamination register.
  • Persuading farmers to use GM seeds, and monopolizing their cultivation techniques, leads to damaging monocrop agriculture. See GM Watch

Now read about the health, the environmental and political concerns with GM. And what lies in the future.