A Hippie’s Defense of GMOs

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 25 2013 10:48 AM

A Hippie’s Defense of GMOs

I’m a vegetarian yoga instructor, and even I can tell the case against genetically modified food is overblown.

Research Biologist Heidi Windler takes tissue samples from genetically modified corn plants inside a climate chamber housed in Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, 21 May 2009.
Research Biologist Heidi Windler takes tissue samples from genetically modified corn plants at Monsanto agribusiness headquarters in St. Louis. Monsanto may not be the poster child for the bright side of GMOs, but not all GMOs are bad.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Let me get a few things out of the way.

I'm a crazy hippie. I go to Burning Man every year. I teach yoga. I live in a co-op. For the past two years, I've been delivering organic vegetables for a local delivery service. I've been eating vegetarian for years, and vegan for the past four months.

I'm also fascinated by genetics. I read every book that comes my way on evolutionary theory, population genetics, and mapping the genome. I took several classes on the subject at the University of Pennsylvania. All told, I have a pretty solid understanding of how genes work.

And ultimately, I'm just not that scared of GMOs.

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Now don't get me wrong. I understand where my liberal friends are coming from. I share the same desire for a safe and healthy food supply. There's a lot that disturbs me about the state of food production and distribution in America.

I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.

But I'm also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research.

When genetic engineering is used to decrease pesticide use, to add nutrients to crops in malnourished countries, and otherwise improve the quality of our food products, then it's a valuable tool that can contribute to a safe and healthy food supply.

I want to address three points that are often brought up by anti-GMO advocates that are either simply untrue, or a lot more nuanced than we've been led to believe:

1. GMOs create more "unnatural" mutations than traditional breeding methods.

Genetic manipulation is nothing new. Humans have been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. Many of our staple crops (wheat, corn, soy), would not exist without human intervention. The same goes for domesticated farm species.

Whether we’re using genetic modification or selective breeding, we're playing God either way. But some people seem to think that selective breeding is "safer"—that it allows less opportunity for damaging mutations than genetic engineering does. This couldn't be more wrong.

The entire process of evolution is dependent upon mutation. UV radiation changes the structure of the DNA code in each individual organism. Most of these mutations aren't beneficial. Some leave out necessary proteins. Others add useless information. And yet, a percentage of these "errors" are helpful enough that they're passed along to future generations and become the new normal.

If there's any danger with genetic engineering, it's that we can be too precise in our manipulation. We can ensure that each new generation of seeds contains the exact same DNA sequence, double-checked for errors and mutations eliminated. The "unnatural" process actually produces fewer mutations, not more.

2. GMOs contain animal DNA that has been "spliced" into plants.

One of the most enduring myths about genetic engineering concerns a GM tomato which, as legend would have it, contained flounder genes spliced into tomato DNA. While it's true that Calgene experimented with a freeze-resistant tomato, the company used a "synthesized ... antifreeze gene based on the winter flounder gene"—not a cut-and-pasted copy of the gene itself.

Those freeze-resistant tomatoes never made it to market, but a different version called the Flavr Savr did. Tomatoes contain a protein called polygalacturonase (PG), which breaks down the pectin in the cell walls, causing the tomato to soften as it ripens. To create a tomato that would ripen more slowly, Calgene took the gene that encodes for PG and reversed it. This backward strand of DNA, known as an "antisense" gene, binds to the forward-running strand and cancels it out. Without PG, the pectin (and therefore the tomato) breaks down more slowly. The simplicity of the process is remarkable. No toxic chemicals, no mysterious bits of DNA. Just a simple tweak of the tomato's own genetic code.

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