We talk a great deal about GMOs, what they mean for public health, how to avoid them, etc., but we never seem to discuss how GMO crops are made. For those who are concerned with eating natural, this process may be a bit of a shock, as although the ingredients are derived from nature, there’s nothing nature-based about the process. Understanding how genetically modified crops are made is likely to affect how individuals judge the whole GMO debate.
Understanding A Seed
The first step toward creating a GMO crop is understanding the crop itself. Some crops are particularly susceptible to heat or pests, and once you’ve determined what you want to change about a particular crop, you can start searching for a gene to solve that problem.
This can take quite a bit of time, but scientists already have a very clear understanding of plants’ DNA and other DNA out there they can use to create superior species. Once that special gene has been found, scientists can really get to work.
Now is when scientists use that infamous gene gun—it shoots a metal particle coated in DNA into the plant tissue. (Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?)
Monsanto no longer uses this technique, but many biotech companies still do. Today, Monsanto uses a more subtle approach: the Trojan Horse of DNA manipulation. They heat up the seed until it is stressed out and vulnerable. At this point, they introduce a bug that specializes in invading DNA and tricking it into accepting the new DNA as its own. If all goes well, the plant believes the new DNA is right where it should be; if it doesn’t, the scientists start again.
It’s Time For Testing
When this new seed becomes a plant and pollinates, all the new seeds share this modified DNA. The biotech companies still don’t know how these newly modified plants will turn out, and they continue to test them to ensure that the gene actually went to the right place in the genome and weed out the poor contenders for farming. (If the gene wasn’t placed properly, there could be lots of negative side effects for the plant.)
This process can take up to two years, but once they’ve determined which new seeds perform the best, those seeds hit the market.
Using Nature As A Guide
Monsanto argues that this technology is truly spectacular, and that’s a hard point to argue. They also say that they are using nature as a guide—this point is a bit easier to dispute. Although nature has produced certain protections against the things that plague farmers like chemicals and pests, there’s nothing natural about extracting DNA from one living thing and shooting it into another living thing. We simply can’t understand the implications of these changes; genetically modified organisms are too new a technology for scientists to draw conclusions about the long term effects.
This puts farmers in a place where they are faced with convenience versus staying true to nature. It’s a choice that every farmer needs to make for themselves, but ultimately, those choices will change the landscape of agriculture for years to come.