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Genetic Modification – Separating Science from Science Fiction

By Peter Miljak

Throughout the ages, consumers have paid a higher price for foods that are advertised as ‘healthier’ or more ‘natural’. “fat free”, “organic” … and now ‘NON-GMO’; NON-GMO stands for non-genetically-modified-organism. The World Health Organization defines genetically modified foods as foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally.

It is a highly popular marketing trend today for a variety of edible products to advertise as non-GMO (non-genetically-modified-organism). This has been so widespread in recent years that products as varied as salt and kitty litter, (which both don’t even have any DNA in them to modify) jumping onboard. In addition, it is illegal to grow GM food in South Australia and Tasmania as well as 26 nations across the globe who either have total or partial bans on GMO’s including France, Germany and Russia, the latter of which does not allow the cultivation or any imports of GMO foods.

It is clear that there is widespread fear about the rise of GM foods and opposition lobby groups are growing ever more powerful. An example comes from the EU where the chief scientific advisor to the EU, Anne Glover was sacked on purely political grounds after publicly expressing pro-GM views, Ms Glover was put under intense pressure from environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as well as other governments such as France, all of whom had no scientifically founded cause for her removal.

But is all of this scepticism warranted, or is it a marketing trick that benefits companies who charge a higher price for non-GM products?

Well the fact is that humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years in various ways, and every food we eat has at least some genetically modified component. Ever since the dawn of the agricultural age, humans have tampered with the genetic makeup of plants through controlled selective breeding; the original 8 varieties of corn in 7000 b.c consisted of just 5-10 hard woody kernels that had to be opened by a hammer have been selectively bred to produce over 200 breeds of corn that are on average 1000 times larger.

In the agricultural revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, still some decades before current GM technology was invented, scientists were already finding ways to change the genetic makeup of crops. The method of ‘Mutagenesis breeding’ involves exposing hundreds of plant seeds or buds to substantial doses of gamma radiation to produce random non-specific mutation in the hope that one may be desirable. The UN food and agriculture organisation reports that there are over 1000 mutagenic varieties of staple crops being grown worldwide ranging from rice, to barley to grapefruits. Most variety have desirable traits such as shorter growth time, better yield and greater disease resistance.

Neither selective breeding nor mutagenesis breeding counts as being ‘GM’ under Australian or American labelling standards even though they can arguably be made to sound more scary than modern GM methods.

The most radical human induced changes in crops have been brought about by selective breeding and many people do not realise that most modern innovations are much more subtle.

The scientific processes behind modern genetic engineering are not well understood by mainstream consumers and anti-GM lobby groups use this to their advantage, most famously using images of beloved fruits full of hypodermic needles; this is not how genetic modification works at all.

Today, genetic modification is a lot less random. Science now has the technology to isolate single genes that encode for a characteristic that is beneficial, for example a gene from another plant that makes it resistant to a particular herbicide. Using enzymes, the gene can be taken out of a DNA segment and then can be attached to a new segment of DNA in a different plant. The new genetically modified plant contains basically all of its old DNA except for a handful of isolated genetic traits which may help it in some way. Through GM we have increased yield of many staples and reduced the use of harmful pesticides in some areas, although the most major changes in plants have occurred through the use of the 2 earlier methods of selective and mutagenic breeding.

So, when sitting down for your next genetically modified meal, just remember that GM foods have had a good track record so far and are deemed safe to eat by the World Health Organization, in fact GM has opened up a whole new world of research into ways to make our food more eco-friendly. It is certainly an area of research that needs to be supported into the future, not dismantled through unscientific claims.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.