Mendel's peas

Mendel’s Peas & Today’s Conversation Around GMOs

In the grand scheme of things, genetics is a relatively young field. The innovative human spirit has taken science to new heights in only the past two hundred years or so. (That’s not really a whole lot of time.) Some of our more brilliant ideas have aided the human race in previously unimagined ways, while others have created even bigger problems. The flame that lit the GMO firestorm that concerns many, many individuals today was actually sparked back in in mid 1800s with the experiments conducted by a man named Gregor Mendel.

Mendel’s Peas

Mr. Mendel set out to study plant hybridization in 1856 as a monk in a monastery that focused on science and research. He chose to concentrate his efforts on the common garden pea plant because they can easily be grown in large numbers, their reproduction can easily be manipulated because they have both male and female reproductive organs, and they were widely available in distinct shapes and colors at that time. Not only did the pea plants have many offspring, but the generation time was quite short, allowing Mendel to learn a great deal in only a few short years.

Mendel made three important discoveries while studying the pea plant:

  1. Although Mendel didn’t yet understand what a gene was, he did observe that an unchanged “factor” was passed on to descendants.
  2. An individual will inherit one “factor” from each parent for each particular trait.
  3. Traits are still passed on whether or not the next generation displays them.

After his death, Mendel was dubbed the father of genetics, and thus his work is often brought into the debate over GMOs today.

Changing Biology Into An Industry

The human experience truly changed that day in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix, or DNA. This amazing discovery has opened the doors for incredible scientific discoveries. It has allowed us to determine and even predict the occurrence of genetic diseases. Humans can now trace their ancestry in more than a purely anecdotal way, and we have a very powerful weapon to help us solve history’s mysteries and even crimes. The discovery of DNA, however, also allowed the immediate and profound manipulation of the natural world in a way that isn’t as pleasant. Biology went from the plants and creatures that nature created us to be to a huge industry, basically overnight.

DNA stores the biological code for all life on this planet of ours. With human cleverness, we’ve determined how to alter that code and create completely new organisms. By 1987, we had started genetically engineering plants, paving the way for the rampant overuse of dangerous pesticides and herbicides on our food—chemicals that were specifically designed to kill living things—and we haven’t slowed down since.

Mendel’s Work Isn’t An Argument For GMOs

It’s not uncommon that advocates for GMOs will cite the father of genetics in their arguments in favor of GMOs. However, as Joel Salatin reminds us, “Yes, Mendel was hybridizing peas, but he was doing peas on peas on peas. He wasn’t doing peas on peppers on tomatoes on salmon on pigs on people.” This is an important distinction to make—in fact, it’s kind of essential.

Mendel was breeding plants to gather information about how traits are passed from one generation to the next. While he was doing all of this as experiment, farmers have been creating hybrid plants for centuries in an attempt to create a super plant that will work best on their land, in their climate, against predators, etc. It’s not unusual. The difference between these two situations and the one we find ourselves in today is that humans have taken it upon themselves not just to allow similar plants to breed, but to completely alter their genetic makeup.

GMOs Are New Science

Most individuals alive today haven’t lived in a time when science didn’t affect everything they touched, so it’s understandable that the average person doesn’t question the world as it has been given to them. What most fail to uncover is that GMOs are relatively new science; they don’t stand the test of time because they haven’t been given enough time to truly be tested. What we do know is that GMOs are a severe manipulation of nature. While the jury may be out on how GMOs affect human beings—and even that argument itself is debatable—they open doors for other harmful technologies like herbicides to reap havoc.

Mendel’s experiment with pea plants were designed to learn more about nature, not to destroy it. Why then do we put Mendel’s work in the same category as GMOs? Once we remove Mendel and his peas from the conversation, it’s easier to see that the use of GMOs today are less about genetics and more about convenience, making money, and mass production—three things we bet Mendel didn’t factor into his work.

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