What we talk about when we talk about genetic modification

And, why “Are GMOs safe?” is an asinine question

I was set to meet my best friend’s new boyfriend for the first time when the message came through, “He wants to discuss GMOs with you, so be ready!” She framed it like the prospect excited her, like it would be a fun exercise in differing opinions. But, all I could imagine was how terribly it could go. What if he’s a fanatic? What if I act like a cornered pitbull? My insides squirmed as I tried to formulate my response. I saw how it could transpire — he would attack genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with some debatable “facts”; my retort would be filled with useless science jargon like “transgene,” “resistance,” and “glyphosphate”; we’d spiral into a heated discussion of food security politics, Monsanto, industrial agriculture, Monsanto, organic agriculture, and, for an extra dose of fun, Monsanto; lastly, we’d subside into a heavy silence that expressed mutual discomfort.

Previous experience — and every online forum about GMOs, ever — told me that there was very little chance that this exchange would be productive. Rather, for reasons of relationship-preservation, my only viable option was to pre-emptively decline to participate. Thanks but no thanks; sorry, not sorry. Opt-out, cop-out, whatever one wants to call it. But, then I did some thinking. I realized that, in my nightmarish vision, very little of the conversation actually dealt with genetic modification (GM) technology. Instead, majority of the theoretical discussion was devoted to dragging out and throwing down over all of the extraneous baggage that the term ‘GMO’ drags along behind it.

*Strokes chin, deep in thought* Whyyyyyyy?

GM technology does not exist in a vacuum — it is intimately connected to food security, industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, and, yes, Monsanto. However, GM technology is none of those things. In the context of plant science, genetic modification (GM) technology is the introduction of transgenes into non-native host plants via biotechnology methods. But, for most people, I might as well have just typed the phrase ‘GM technology is a science-y thing that I can’t explain rn lol ttyl’ — because the definition I offered, although accurate, is rendered meaningless by the use of exclusive terminology. What is a transgene? What is a non-native host? And, what the hell are these vague and sinister-sounding ‘biotechnology methods’?

This is where scientists, myself included, have thus far gone wrong in explaining GM technology — we toss around big words and expect everyone else to trust that we know what we are talking about. Come along with us, guys! We are doing things to the food that you put in your body, but don’t ask question because it’s complicated! If you have doubts, remember, we are smart! This isn’t in an intentional deceit — rather, it’s an extension of the dual hubris and naivety that a PhD imparts. For years scientists tried to placate the public with this strategy of ‘hush, hush, trust,’ and, as a result, there is a dearth of widespread understanding of GM technology. The public is sceptical, and rightfully so — after all, science itself “is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

In the absence of understanding of what GM means, the anti-GM movement has gained considerable traction, turning every social media outlet into a platform for #GMOFree advocates. However, in debates between the two sides of the GM divide, the concept of GM technology is often muddled, confused, or lost all together — such as in my nightmare scenario that never came to pass. To make future discussions of GMOs productive, we need to stop conflating GM technology with every controversial issue that it is tangentially related to or inappropriately correlated with. We need to define what we talk about when we talk about genetic modification.

I’ll state my bias for the record: I am an advocate for GM technology. But, this isn’t some long-form think-piece justifying my position, trying to sway people towards my stance. Those articles have been written before and they will be written again — science writers will beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the same circular argument. I want to skip that messy topic, and dive into the clear-cut science of GM technology. If your eyelids grow heavy at the prospect of a science lesson, then so long farewell auf wiedersehen goodbye. I cannot convince you to stay, beyond stating that at the end of this article — if I do my job well — there will be a feeling of clarity that stands to benefit everyone vested in the GM topic.

If we define GM technology in understandable terms and use this definition to guide our discussions, then we can begin to tease apart the messy GM debate. We can separate GM technology from the variety of ways in which it is used, and stop using GMO as a blanket-term to refer to everything we think is wrong with agriculture today. With a strong conceptual understanding of genetic modification, we can begin having the difficult discussions that the topic requires. We can talk about genetic modification — safety, regulation, policy, and ethics — when we talk about ‘genetic modification’. We can consider the question of, “Are GMOs safe?” and send that question to the ‘Garbage Questions’ dumpster where it belongs. And, finally, we can begin to ask better questions about GMOs and construct a new conversation about GM technology.

So, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start — back to the definition that I presented earlier, the one that made you want to close this window and watch an uplifting cat video instead. “In the context of plant science, genetic modification (GM) technology is the introduction of transgenes into non-native host plant via biotechnology methods.” We are going to pull this bad boy apart phrase by phrase, word by word — and, when we meet again on the other side, we’re going to have the language that we need to thoughtfully talk about GM technology. We are not going to shy away from science words (gene, DNA, genome, proteins, etc.) in our dissection of this GM definition, because these words are necessary to communicate intelligibly about this topic. However, I will provide the definitions of important words and linked [examples] for conceptual understanding. Because, oh patient reader, I don’t want this piece to have the same pitfalls as almost all other GMO explainers — namely, dropping science words like context-less cartoon anvils.

Okay. *Rubs hands together with excitement* Let’s get down to business.

Before we tackle the word ‘transgene,’ we need a thorough understanding of the word gene. Genes determine the observable characteristics (i.e. traits) of every living thing. [Conceptual example of what a gene is] To imagine what genes physically look like we have to think about DNA, the omnipresent and nebulous acronym. DNA is short for ‘deoxyribonucleic acid,’ but you can think about DNA like a textbook — a very stable, small, and reliable textbook. Each organism has a unique DNA textbook (in science-y terms, what’s called a “genome”). Each cell (the smallest structural and functional unit of living things) of every organism has a copy of that organism’s specific DNA textbook and the way in which each cell in an organism reads their textbook determines how that cell functions. Like beneficial mob mentality, cells in the same tissue read their DNA textbooks in the same way. For example, leaf cells read their DNA textbooks in the Leaf Way — that’s why leaf cells, collectively, form leaves (instead of roots, stems, or fruits) even though they have the same DNA textbook as every other cell in the plant. So, on the macro scale, the traits of every organism are the sum of a beautiful, collaborative DNA textbook reading party — millions of cells, all reading away, coordinating with their neighbouring cells, and having a grand ‘ole time.

Although DNA functions like a textbook, its structure is chemical. Whereas a textbook can use the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet to make words, DNA has only four chemical letters — A, T, G, and C. Analogous to the English language, the order (i.e. sequence) of these chemical letters determines the meaning. Like highlighting a sentence on a page, signals guide cellular machinery to read certain sequences of the DNA textbook. Each one of these discrete DNA sentences is a gene. In a physical sense, a gene is a sequence of DNA — a string of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs — that is read by the cell and translated into a product that carries meaning for the cell. [Example of this translation process] The product of genes are proteins. You know proteins — those things in post-workout drinks. Right? Correct, but also so much more. Proteins are required for the structure, function, and regulation of all cells — in sum, cell function is the cumulative result of that cell’s many active proteins. So, when leaf cells read their DNA textbooks in the Leaf Way, this process produces a leaf-specific profile of proteins that makes leaf cells perform the function of leaves — capturing light, turning colours in the fall, etc. [Summary of concepts thus far]

You might be thinking, “WTF, this was supposed to be about GMOs and this has been Genetics 101…?” Patience you have had, young padawan. Now we have the terminology we need to move on to the complicated stuff. For starters, now we can think about transgenes. A transgene is a gene that has been taken out of its native genetic context — the DNA textbook where it is found in nature — and placed into a new genetic context (i.e. a ‘non-native host’). [Example of a transgene] There’s a variety ways that one can move genes from organism to organism. Some methods of transfer are considered a natural re-shuffling of genes, and some are considered genetic modification (GM); thus, some of the resulting organisms are considered natural, and some are considered GMOs.

The natural method of reshuffling genes is via plant breeding. Plants, like animals (like you and me, dear reader), reproduce sexually. Traditional plant breeding is the purposeful mating of different plant varieties in order to create a plant offspring with the desired characteristics. [In-depth example of what plant breeding looks like in practice] Most all of our crops, vegetables, and fruit varieties are the product of generations and generations of plant breeding — it is how our corn cobs have plentiful kernels, how our tomatoes are juicy, and why almost every plant product you eat looks and tastes the way that it does. Modern agriculture has developed methods to streamline the plant breeding process significantly, but it is still a time-consuming and labour-intensive process. Plant breeding has served humanity extremely well over the past thousands of years and will continue to be used well into the future.

But, despite the obvious usefulness, traditional plant breeding is limited to transferring genes between the same or very closely related species. Like animals, plants that are too distantly related do not produce viable offspring. Such as a cat and a dog cannot mate to produce a cat-dog, two unrelated plant species cannot cross to make a weird chimera plant — natural breeding has its limits. [Example of the limits of plant breeding] Due to these limitations, you can imagine that many of the genes one might desire in a commercial plant variety — disease resistance, drought tolerance, salt tolerance, etc. — are unattainable via traditional plant breeding. However, the biotechnology methods of GM technology are not limited by the genetic relatedness of the “parent plants,” because, with GM technology, there are not “parent plants” in the same way that there are in plant breeding. Rather, one plant species (or another, non-plant organism) is the source of a transgene and the other species is the target non-native host; how the transgene gets from the source organism to the non-native host is the result of the modern magic of biotechnology.

One of the biotechnology methods that is used in the process of getting a transgene from source to non-native host is cloning. ‘Clone’ is a distracting word that conjures up images of Stormtroopers and Dolly the sheep, but the kind of cloning I’m talking about is a little less exciting and it’s on a much smaller scale. As relevant to GM technology, cloning is a biotechnology method that involves the targeted replication of a specific sequence of DNA. Having many copies (millions!) of a desired physical bit of DNA makes it possible to perform tasks with it, whereas a single copy is about as useful as a single grain of salt.

The second biotechnology method is called transformation. Transformation is the umbrella term used to describe the introduction of foreign DNA into a non-native host. For plants, there are many different transformation methods. So, in the practice of generating a GMO, the desired gene is cloned from the DNA of the source organism and subsequently transformed into the non-native host species. [Example of the entire GM process] The result of this process is a plant that has new sentence added into its’ DNA textbook — or, in science-y terms, it is a transgenic plant that has a transgene integrated into its’ genome.

Fundamentally, a plant resulting from this GM process is not dissimilar from a plant resulting from breeding — if we used both processes to introduce the same gene into the same type of plant, then both of the offspring would have the same observable traits. What differs between these hypothetical plant offspring is the origin of the desired gene, and the method used to introduce it into the plant; thus, these differences are what makes one plant a GMO, and one a plain ‘ole plant. Specifically, the GMO contains a transgene which, in the process of introduction, was (1) cloned and (2) integrated using (wo)man-controlled transformation, both biotechnology methods encompassed by genetic modification (GM) technology. This is what GM is.

I would argue that the source of a transgene and its’ method of introduction are irrelevant to the safety of the resulting plant. A gene is a gene — it is a sequence of DNA and, as a molecule, DNA has zero chance of harming you. The DNA can be from any organism — literally, any organism — and it is still just a sequence of the same chemical letters, A, T, G, and C. Moreover, the method of transgene introduction, be it by plant breeding or by transformation, has no effect on the action of the gene product in the cell. Either the gene is present and active, or it is not.

What does matter to me, and what I find of critical concern, is how a transgene is read by the cell, what protein product it makes, how that protein acts in the cell, and how that action has consequences outside of the cell and, more generally, outside of the plant. I would argue that, when we debate genetic modification, our debates should be centred on these points. And, crucially, that these debates should be different for each and every GMO. Every GMO has a different transgene or set of transgenes, and thus different protein products banging around the cell.

Considering this fact, “Are GMOs safe?” is an asinine question. I’m certain that if I made a GM plant that produced rat poison it would not be safe. However, if I made a GM plant that had a transgene to produce a protein from another plant, previous evidence would suggest that the resultant GMO is going to be harmless. Thus, sweeping generalizations about the safety of GMOs, whether #AntiGMO or #ProGM in their flavour, are insufficient and irresponsible. We need to ask more informative questions and, through this line of inquiry, start a new conversation about GMOs that reflects the complexity of the topic.

Rather than, “Are GMOs bad?” we should ask a series of questions for each and every GM product: What is the cellular function of the transgene protein product? How does this cellular function affect the traits of the transgenic plant? Are there negative consequences — for humans, wildlife, or ecological systems — of these plant traits? Moreover, are there negative downstream effects of the way that this GMO will be used in agriculture? Lastly, do all of the negatives outweigh all of the benefits of using this GMO in agriculture? These are the questions that regulatory agencies (U.S., Europe) already ask in order to allow GM products on the market — but these are the questions that consumers need to ask, too. Moreover, industry scientists, academics, and government agencies need to be up to the task of answering these questions transparently and in understandable terms. The results of safety testing should be clearly communicated so that when a GMO is deemed ‘safe,’ consumers aren’t left wondering what ‘safe’ means.

Rather than a climate of ‘hush, hush, trust’ this shift would foster an environment of ‘ask, ask, understand,’ — not as punchy to say, but far more powerful. If consumers are able to recognize the primacy of these questions and access digestible information that satiated their inquisitive appetites, the GM debate as we know it would cease to exist. In place of garbage questions, oversimplified hashtags, and jargon-filled scientific placations, we’d be able to have a genuine, well-informed discussion about GM technology and the resulting GMOs.

In the context of plant science, genetic modification (GM) technology is the introduction of transgenes into non-native host plant via biotechnology methods. With this now-understandable definition — which has plagued you throughout — I hope that when we talk about genetic modification, we talk about the technology and the safety of the products, leaving the oft-conflated issues (food security, industrial agriculture, Monsanto’s policies) for another conversation. When we talk about genetic modification technology and the safety of the products, I hope that we also talk about the myriad of products and the diversity of GMOs. I hope that we forgo sweeping generalizations and, instead, opt to ask more nuanced questions and seek accurate answers. With clarity, we can break out of the current circular, unproductive argument and really talk about genetic modification when we talk about ‘genetic modification.’


Thanks to the friends, family, and nice humans that read the earlier drafts of this. Thanks to The Sound of Music for providing me with a wealth of cultural references (that resonate with all of the 65+ year-olds that *I am sure* read this).