Who's Afraid of the GMO? part 1: unknown consequences
By Sara Davis on January 11, 2009
Since last month's post on the role of technology in feeding the
world, I've been thinking a lot about the fundamental issue of GMO's.
A primary GMO-related fear is the unknown consequences of the
genetic manipulation. I won't discount this concern, but I would like
to put it into perspective.
Every bit of variation in all the food crops (plant or animal) we
consume arises by genetic mutation. As humans domesticated plants and
animals, we selected mutants (sounds a lot scarier than 'variants',
doesn't it?) that suited our needs better. These mutations had some
visible difference (color, faster growth, better taste), but beyond
what we could see, we had NO idea what other changes were caused by the
Since early in this century, plant breeders have produced new varieties of all sorts of plants by something called "mutation breeding".
Seeds are subjected to some form of mutagenizing agent, such as a
chemical, UV light or x-rays. Thousands are planted to screen for and
select desirable mutations. This is a primary way in which
disease-resistant varieties of vegetables, fruits and other crops are
developed. The FAO maintains a database with thousands of catalogued varieties.
Even heirloom varieties are mutants. Are you familiar with those
cool zebra-striped heirloom tomatoes? Those stripes are caused by a
"jumping gene" that randomly inserts itself in the genome, sometimes
disrupting a color gene.
At least the GMO varieties had to go through some sort of characterization of their biochemical properties
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