GMOs

What’s crackin’ Kraken?

Is the plural of "Kraken" Kraki?
Is the plural of “Kraken” Kraki?

Today’s post will be a slight departure from the regularly scheduled programming normally available here on marathonsam.com. I believe that you, my gentle readers, will find this content informative and entertaining, but today’s post will be slightly longer on written words and shorter on selfies in spandex.

Though not entirely devoid of spandex-selfies...I gotta be me.
Though not entirely devoid of spandex-selfies…I gotta be me.

One of my main goals for this itty-bitty blog is to hone my abilities as an effective science communicator. I’ve explored the data behind the benefits of meditation and tempo runs. I like to learn about the nutrition claims behind some of my favorite “superfoods” whenever I try my hand at recipe writing. I have also, of course, written ranted ad nauseum about climate change.

I can't help myself...I'm passing fond of winter.
I can’t help myself…I’m passing fond of winter.

While I am proud of my previous efforts, each topic deserves more in-depth analysis than 1,000 words and a smattering of selfies. I would love the opportunity to exhaustively investigate a topic over the course of multiple articles. Maybe I’m just catching the “Serial” fever, but I like the idea of rigorously researching and explaining a single issue for you, my gentle readers.

I have a WICKED case of cereal fever...wait, what?
I have a WICKED case of cereal fever…wait, what?

Without further wasted words, let me introduce a new feature for 2015: Marathonsam’s Pragmatic Perspective. As a blogger, scientist, and part-time superhero I get EXCEEDINGLY frustrated when I hear or read pieces by pundits that COMPLETELY over-interpret, misinterpret, or miss the point of a new scientific study. The problem is particularly pernicious when it comes to a ubiquitous, scary-sounding, and poorly understood topic: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food supply. Break out your forks and knives! We are going to learn-along together about franken-fruits and vegetables.

I LOVE vegetables!
I LOVE vegetables!

I’ll be writing about just what exactly a GMO is (this becomes trickier to define by the decade), how GMO plants are constructed (we stole a trick from, surprise! Bacteria), whether GMO foods pose a risk to human health (they might, but definitely not in the way that people claim they do), the impacts of GMOs on the environment (negative), the economy (positive…for a select few), agriculture in general (definitely atrocious), and any other juicy topics that I turn up in my research.

No GMOs in THIS tutti-fruti hat
No GMOs in THIS tutti-fruti hat

Today I’m using some recent news as a jumping off point to begin to address the question: “How the heck do GMOs turn up in our food, anyway?” The USDA just approved a new GMO product for the United States market: a potato, patented by the privately held food and agribusiness company Simplot. Simplot’s potatoes have two claims to fame: they don’t develop brown spots when their flesh is exposed to air, and they don’t produce acrylamide when heated to high temperatures. Simplot is aggressively marketing their special potato to fast food venues—purporting that this technology will yield pristine French Fries with a bonus health boost! For the moment, let’s leave aside the fact that the minute amount of acrylamide generated in potato-flesh at high heat is, frankly, small potatoes health-wise (pun intended) as compared to the truckload of oil, starch, and salt served up with a carton of French Fries. Instead, let’s focus on why this potato represents a few important “firsts” for GMO agriculture.

Yes, these can totally be health-food with just a few minor tweaks.
Sure, these are just a few minor tweaks away from “health-food.”

In order to tackle this question, it’s important to define a few terms. Most GMOs take genes from one organism and splice them into another, producing a hybrid with desirable traits from both. Think of it as technologically advanced extreme selective breeding.

Like a labradoodle...but y'know, more scientific.
Like a labradoodle…but y’know, more scientific.

One example of multi-genome-mash-ups is freeze resistant citrus fruit. Oranges are delicious, but their cells burst when temperatures fall; flounders swim happily through sub-freezing waters because their cells make a protein that protects them from the cold. It would be pretty difficult to make a flounder have sex with an orange tree, but swapping chunks of DNA around is as easy as pie. Insert the flounder cold-tolerance gene into an orange’s genome…voila! Cold-tolerant tasty tangerines all winter long!

Yummmmmmm.
Yummmmmmm.

The cold resistant citrus that I described (which is no longer available for sale in the US, apparently the idea eked out consumers) is an example of a transgenic GMO: an organism that carries genes from a different life form within in its own genome. Bt corn and Round Up Ready soybeans (the most common GMOs in the United States) are also both examples of transgenic technology.

For amber waves of...GMO grain
For amber waves of…GMO grain

Simplot’s potato is NOT a transgenic. Scientists didn’t add any genes from another organism into its genome. Unmodified potatoes go brown and make acrylamide because of natural processes happening in their own cells. The clever scientists at Simplot just figured out how to turn the dimmer-switch down on these processes. GMOs that don’t have any DNA from different species in their genomes are called cisgenic organisms. Simplot isn’t the first company to make a cisgenic GMO: the widely hyped and widely reviled FLAVR-SAVR tomato was generated using a related strategy.

FLAVR-SAVR tomatoes don't scare me, but they did taste terrible
FLAVR-SAVR tomatoes don’t scare me, but they did taste terrible

So why is the scientific community excited about Simplot’s potato? A mildly healthier, more aesthetically pleasing tuber isn’t exactly a cure for cancer. However, this potato is a technological achievement. Simplot’s scientists used a newer technique called RNAi to turn the dimmer switch down on those undesirable genes that cause browning and acrylamide in French fries. RNAi has been kicking around research labs for a few years, but the potato is the first commercial product created with this method.

I take my potatoes pretty seriously.
I take my potatoes pretty seriously.

The second, and more interesting, reason why this potato might represent the start of a sea change for GMOs (in the United States, at least—Europe has highly strict regulations on these types of products) is because of who produced it. Simplot is a giant food and agriculture company, at first glance interchangeable with any other large, soulless corporation. However, the fact that Simplot gained approval for a new GMO product is notable precisely because of whom they are NOT.

Perhaps you've heard of these people?
Perhaps you’ve heard of these people?

Monsanto has been the major player in GMO products in the United States for the past two decades. Monsanto owns the patents on (among other products) Round-Up Ready Soybeans and Bt corn. Given that these two GMOs cover approximately 94% of the agricultural land in America (more on THAT later), Monsanto effectively has a stranglehold on farming in general in the United States, through its dominance of the GMO market. A new GMO gaining approval produced by someone OTHER than Monsanto could portend an important shift in the prevailing winds of commerce.

Who knew fries could rock the dominant paradigm?
Who knew fries could rock the dominant paradigm?

Or maybe not. Shortly after the USDA approved the Simplot potato, McDonalds publicly announced that it would NOT appear on menus at the golden arches. Anti-GMO advocates tout this as a victory: apparently a GMO potato is simply unpalatable to McDonald’s customers. However, before we start congratulating uncle Ronald McDonald for a principled stance against GMOs, let’s stop to consider what ELSE appears on McDonalds’ menus: burgers (made from corn-fed American beef), soda (made with high-fructose corn syrup), chicken McNuggets (corn-breaded, fried in soybean oil and made from…well let’s just not go there).

Seriously. Let's just not and say we didn't.
Seriously. Let’s just not and say we didn’t.

I can 100% guarantee that every single drop of corn syrup, and every kernel of livestock feed that goes into producing all of the other McFoods on McDonalds’ McMenus come from GMO sources. GMO corn is ubiquitous in America. McDonalds’ hypocritical high-profile rejection of Simplot’s potatoes does not source from some deeply held concern for their customers’ health. McDonalds made a token anti-GMO gesture, which stifled a potential innovator in the marketplace, while solidly maintaining the status quo. The GMO potato is dead, long live corn, the GMO king.

The times...aren't really a changin'
The times…aren’t really a changin’

Personally, I am conflicted about the Simplot potato. I think that it, as a product, is a solution in search of a problem. French fried potatoes are pretty much delivery vehicles for grease, salt, and ketchup.

God I love ketchup.
God, I love ketchup.

The world was not clamoring for a spot-free fry. The lower acrylamide levels are interesting, but fries are NEVER going to be a “healthy” choice. McDonalds’ gesture against GMOs is encouraging, yet empty. Monsanto will likely continue to lord over GMOs in general and thus the majority of agriculture for years to come. However, I think that the (non)-story of the Simplot potato nicely illustrates the complexity of the issue. The label GMO encompasses many different types of products. It is not appropriate to casually throw this term around without some understanding of what exactly the particular GMO is, how it was made, and how it is used. I’ll be tackling those topics (and many more) in later posts.

Thanks for reading, I’m interested to know: What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term GMO?

8 thoughts on “GMOs

  1. Hello Sam, I stumbled upon this blog and have a few comments.

    I don’t think Simplot is going to market their potato for the french fry industry anyways, so McDonald’s gesture really is empty. Since the potato is non-browning, Simplot wants to go straight for fresh market and have cut up potatoes in the deli and veggie section of groceries. I can get behind this because it encourages eating fresh potatoes rather than heavily processed potatoes. I find the non-browning aspect to be of much greater benefit than the reduced acrylamide aspect. Hundreds of millions of tons (around 400 mil I believe) of potatoes are discarded every year due to bruises accumulated during harvest, storage, and transport. If this potato can reduce the amount of food we waste before it ever hits the table, then I think that is something working towards.

    In answer to your question, I’m pro-GMO as far as seeing the possibilities. I did my MSc research in agricultural entomology and I’ve worked in the potato research industry and I see how many steps are taken to keep all crops free from insect pests, the diseases they transmit, and the fungi that love them. Herbicide tolerance aside, I think Bt crops are bang on. If we want to reduce agrichemical controls in our food production, making the crops themselves resistant to those diseases and pests is the direction I think we should go in. It makes me shake my head when I think about all the tons and tons of pesticides that could have been removed from production if the New Leaf potato was accepted. We spray so many agrichemicals on potatoes every year for Colorado Potato Beetle and Late Blight, and that isn’t healthy for the environment, the potato market, or overall agricultural sustainability.

    There’s also the area of nitrogen fixing cover crops that could alleviate the need for more fertilizers, synthetic or otherwise. Adding one element to the soil isn’t simple, and a grower can easily burn their field with P while still being deficient in N. If we can breed cover crops to fix the necessary nutrients in the soil, then we can encourage crop rotation, increasing organic matter in soil (soil health), and help growers move away from needing to spray products, which can translate into cheaper crops, less petroleum products burned in order to spray hectares of crops, and more time for the grower to do other things.

    I find the whole system fascinating and look forward to future blog posts.

    Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Amelia! Thanks so much for stopping by, it’s great to hear perspective from a fellow scientist who REALLY knows the agricultural angle of the GMO issue.
      I hadn’t even considered the food-waste element to the Simplot potato, that is a remarkably perceptive argument in favor of the technology. It goes to show how easy it is to get caught up with a flashy, though ultimately trivial, headline like the acrylamide aspect.
      I agree that insect resistant GMOs are a FAR preferable alternative to the megatons of pesticides we spray on our fields each year. It bums me out that these days most Insect-resistance traits are stacked with herbicide-tolerance, so what we save in pesticides we more than overcompensate with round-up. I’m not too educated about nitrogen fixing GMOs (my favorite nitrogen fixers are Rhizobia bacteria), I’ll have to learn more about them. I think switch-grass for biofuel production is pretty promising as well.
      I think I’m on the same page as you: I’m not against GMOs, but I’m firmly opposed to shitty farming practices. Unfortunately, sometimes the two are pretty closely linked.

      I’d love to keep picking your brain, it would be fun to compare notes from the trenches of studying microscopic bugs to learning about real bugs :).

      Cheers!

      Like

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