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Blog Post
20 February 2018

Biotech 101 – What is this GMO malarkey anyhow, and what does it mean for global food security?

The year 2030 is approaching and we have a big challenge ahead to end hunger, achieve global food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. We should be using all the resources available to make this a reality. However, there are some methods which are embroiled in controversy. Yes, you know what I am referring to, it’s those three letters which divide social scientists, natural scientists, politicians and the public alike: G-M-O.

Some of you may view GMO in a positive light, citing the achievements of improved nutrition, reduced pesticides and the ability to create drought resistant crops. Whereas, others may worry about the safety of consuming genetically altered crops, or the environmental risks, or whether GMO is even necessary!

Others may not have a firm stance and would like to know more. This is where I stand. I see the hugely positive benefits of GMO into our food systems, but it is a subject I do not know enough about. With so much misinformation surrounding the subject, I asked someone who has been studying and working in the field of plant genetics.

Meet Carly; a research entomology technician with a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from the University of California, Davis.

Sunil: Hi Carly! As you can see, I really don’t know enough about GMO. Would you mind explaining to me what a GMO is?

Carly: Sure! According to the world health organization (WHO) GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination, allowing selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species. While this definition refers to the artificial practice of scientists manipulating DNA, it is essential to acknowledge that the origin of these mechanisms is natural.

S: What are all the arguments about?
C: Genetically modified organisms, abbreviated GMOs or GM, have been a centre of controversy since their conception. Banned in the EU, yet relied upon for food production in many countries of the western hemisphere, global citizens have not yet reached a consensus on the appropriate role(s) of GM technology.

A bacterium called crown gall (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) creates abnormal growths in the forsythia plants. Young galls are usually rounded and whitish, but they darken and take irregular shape as they age.

Agrobacterium is a genus of bacteria that cause tumors in plants. This tumorigenic capacity is given by its natural ability to transfer DNA to plant cells, a fact that scientists quickly took advantage of to convert it into a tool for the creation of transgenic plants through genetic engineering.

S: Sounds fascinating! But it’s unnatural, right? Scientists must have cooked up this GMO technology in a secret laboratory…

C: Not at all, Agrobacterium tumefaciens (pictured), for example, is one species of bacteria that exists ubiquitously within agricultural ecosystems and naturally targets plant cells to transform the host DNA with bacterial plasmid DNA. Once scientists discovered this mechanism, they developed methods to inoculate specific sets of DNA with known functions (genes) into the bacterial plasmid, which then infects the host plant genome. Synthetically generated bacterial DNA recombination is one example of scientists adopting a common process from nature and applying it artificially to achieve a desired goal.

S: I keep hearing that GMO’s are bad for human health…

C: Well, the production of insulin is a fantastic example of scientists hijacking a naturally occurring procedure for a beneficial outcome. In nature, insulin is produced by the pancreas to monitor blood sugar levels. Therefore, it can be extracted from animals of many species and be prescribed to human patients. In the lab, scientists have developed methods to biosynthetically produce insulin using recombinant DNA technology via genetic modification in the plant safflower. This approach will not only reduce insulin production costs, but it will also require less natural resources while creating an oxygen supply and sequestering carbon from the environment. Biosynthetic insulin made in “plant factories” is much more pure than animal derived insulin, reducing the postproduction labour needed for the product. This example is only one of many ways that GM technologies can be applied in a life saving manner while promoting environmental health and sustainability.

S: Wow, that’s really interesting! I can see the benefit of that, but is it safe?

C: Although insulin is used as a medication that is not ingested, similar GM technologies can be used in food crops with goals of increasing yields while simultaneously reducing system inputs such as water and fertilizer. Currently GM crops such as BT cotton help reduce sprays of toxic pesticides by internally producing bacteria that is pathogenic to cotton pests. Without spraying, there is no chance that a non-target species will be affected by the pesticide. This also comes at a reduced cost to farmers, who simply plant the seed and no longer need to spend time and money on pesticides. And reduced pesticide sprays are beneficial to crop producers and consumers alike.

BT Cotton

Photo by Abhishek Srivastava on Flickr

S: So, are pesticides dangerous? What about organic food?

C: When sprayed in high concentrations pesticides can be harmful to human health and even develop resistant lines of plants due to natural selection. Some GM crops are designed to tolerate pesticide applications, such as Monsanto’s lines of “Round- up Ready” corn and soybean. While I am a firm believer and practitioner of integrated pest management, or using the best combination of biological, cultural , and chemical control rather than relying solely on chemical pesticides, I am also aware that glyphosate, the active ingredient in roundup, is highly effective against pests at low concentrations without posing a threat to human health (provided the applicator uses appropriate personal protective equipment).

Contrastingly, organic productions often require more sprays at higher concentrations of expensive pesticides, because the control agents deemed suitable for organic cropping are weaker in function and more difficult for farmers to source. This leads to higher residues on the plants and less disposable income in the pockets of farmers. GM crops can reduce system inputs and improve environmental health by decreasing or eliminating toxic chemical sprays, while maintaining or increasing crop yield.
Furthermore, even GM crops that are not herbicide resistant are banned from use in organic productions. That being said, organic farmers are missing out on the yield increase and resource saving benefits of GM crops.

A helicopter sprays pesticides on a corn field

S: I see, so GMO offers a way to reduce the amount of pesticides used in farming, but can it do anything else to ending hunger and improve nutrition?

C: While plants that use fewer resources and produce high quality and quantity will be essential in achieving global food security by the year 2030, GM technologies can be applied to crops to combat human health problems resulting from incomplete diets. Alongside food security, growing public health threats in many countries are increased malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Recombinant DNA technology has been successfully used in the staple crop rice to increase beta carotene, the precursor for vitamin A. In many of Asia’s developing countries, vitamin A deficiencies in children lead to irreversible blindness and even death. Yet even with life saving properties, this “golden rice” has faced a widespread social backlash, from protesters tearing crops out of research and production fields to consumers disconcerting views regarding the crop’s colour. Dr. Pamela Ronald, UC Davis plant geneticist and director of grass genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute, makes a strong case for engineering our food by stating that some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations will go hungry due to the fears of those who have plenty to eat.

S: Wow! Aside from genetic modification, what other forms of bio technologies are used in modern food production?

C: Recent developments in genome editing technologies are speeding up the rate and precision at which scientists discover and develop medicines and foods. Before these methods were known, agronomists and scientists relied on other forms of genetic manipulation in food production. Induced mutagenesis and traditional breeding are two ways in which plants are altered with the goal of achieving a superior product to the one naturally coded for by an organism’s DNA. While these methods have given rise to many improved crop varieties, it should also be noted that they are much slower and less predictable than genetic manipulation via modern genetic editing. Chemical or radiation mutagenesis makes use of “forward genetics”, an approach in genetic evaluation which consists of inducing random mutation by causing DNA damage, followed by examining the results and attempting to attribute any changes to the radiation. Finally, the damaged region will be mapped and its function characterised. One example of a fruit altered this way is seedless watermelon, which is exposed to the chemical colchicine that prevents complete sexual reproduction and thus prematurely halts seed formation. Radiation mutagenesis has yielded bright red grapefruits compared to the natural varieties which are more orange in colour.

Bananas at the IAEA Plant Breeding Unit, Seibersdorf, Austria

Photo by IAEA Imagebank on Flickr

S: So why don’t we just rely on other, non GM forms of biotechnology for crop improvement?

C: Because in nature these processes are completely random, there is no way to predict the changes induced on the plant and whether they will be positive or negative for producers and consumers. Traditional breeding, a method that evolved with the conception of agriculture nearly 11,000 years ago, relies on plants’ lengthy life cycles to achieve progress. The varieties with the closest to desired traits are selected for further propagation while those that are not up to par are tossed. Not only does this process take from years to decades to complete and require adequate land, water, and nutrients, but it also causes a great loss in the genetic variation of domesticated plant species. When focus is limited on one or a few traits in a breeding program, it is easy to ignore the rest of the genetic material and diversity present within the starting population. As a result, traditionally bread lines are generally genetically identical, increasing their susceptibility to pests, pathogens, and other environmental stresses. Meanwhile, the use of single gene editing can modify desired traits without altering the rest of the genome. This allows for the insertion of specific, characterized, beneficial mutations without risking loss of the remainder of the genetic material. Thousands of independent safety studies have found that neither chemical nor radiation mutagenesis, nor genetic transformation produce adverse effects on consumer health. While older methods are applicable in many cases of variety development, researchers should not be limited in the tools and technologies they use to enhance food products in a safe manner.

S: You’re an American working in Sweden. What are some of the main differences you have discovered between GM development in the two countries?

C: Over the last four years I have had the privilege of working in plant science departments in two of the world’s most highly distinguished agricultural universities, first at the University of California, Davis (UCD), followed by a summer lab position at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). GM production differs greatly in the two countries.
For example, during my undergraduate education at UCD, where I studied plant genetics and breeding, part of our graduation requirements was to generate a GMO. Each individual in our small group of undergraduates, with no previous cellular biology experience, was able to successfully and easily transform tobacco cells to produce a higher protein content using the Agrobacterium tumefeciens method. The total process of GM tobacco generation took only ten weeks from cell to mature plant, and we even did it without wearing our lab coats. The majority of us were already aware of how often we consume GM products, especially corn and soybean, as we lived in the United States, which eliminated fears about GM production and consumption.

SLU, Uppsala

Photo by Patrick Strandberg  on Flickr

Contrastingly, when I moved to the EU, specifically to Uppsala, Sweden, I was exposed to the lengthy and regulated process of GM development in Europe. Due to my interests in genetic research and my passion for plants, I scheduled a behind the scenes tour of SLU’s Biocentrum, directed by Dr. Johan Meijer. The Biocentrum is the only building in Uppsala suited for genetic modification research due to strict regulations created by the Swedish government. On the tour Dr. Meijer emphasized in importance of the double quarantined containment system surrounding the genetic engineering lab. All entry ways require two sets of doors; after walking through the first door into a locker room where all entrants are required to put on shoe covers, gloves, lab coats and goggles we moved through the second set of doors into the lab where GMOs are grown. Not only are the entry ways double quarantined, so are the irrigation and ventilation systems into the lab. All of the water that comes into and out of contact with the genetically edited plants is boiled twice after use before it can reenter the water systems. Similarly, all of air from the contained environments with genetically modified organisms passes through two filtration systems before it can be reintegrated into or out of the building. When it comes to science, strict safety regulations are crucial if there is an identified hazard being used.

S: That sounds a bit excessive, is this level of caution warranted?

Well, after thousands of independent scientific studies, none have been published showing negative environmental effects of the DNA altered through genetic engineering or the modified gene products. Thus, the strict regulations that SLU along with many other European institutions adhere to have become costly and damaging to both the environment and the productivity of scientific research. Double quarantined air, irrigation and ventilation systems require high energy input, enhancing the negative stresses predicted to arise from global climate change. Furthermore, the increased energy inputs come at higher cost to the institution. This means there will be less available funds for testing genetically engineered products, as more money will be allocated towards energy costs. Scientists should not be prevented from easily using technologies that are deemed safe by the scientific communities due to fears of the general public. In agriculture, it is essential that the best tool be used for each job to ensure a healthy and food secure planet.

The questions on this blog post are answered by Carly Miranda, a research entomology technician with a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from the University of California, Davis. Carly developed a strong interest in her emphasis, plant genetics, which she carried with her to SLU in the summer of 2017 where she worked as a crop production ecology lab assistant in the Bommarco lab. This post was inspired by a visit to the SLU biocentre, one of the few places in Sweden that is permitted to conduct research on genetically modified organisms.