GMOs Pt 3: What the Heck is Out There?

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

Welcome to the third part of this mini-series on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), where we’ll take a more detailed look at what the heck is out there in the environment. If you’ve just tuned in, you might like to first read up on what exactly genetic modification is, and maybe how to make your very own GMO.

Let’s start with some context by taking a starry-eyed look back over 10 of the most significant developments in GMO technology that have led up to today.

A Montage of Genetic Modification

1953: Watson, Crick and Franklin discover the structure of DNA.

1973: Boyer and Cohen create the world’s first ever GMO when they modify the bacteria E. coli to express an antibiotic-resistance gene. In the process they unintentionally foreshadow a serious problem soon to hit the world: the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals.

1974: Jaenisch and Mintz create the first GM animal. They injected a primate virus into mouse embryos, then transplanted the embryos into surrogate mothers. The mice grew up normally except that they contained the viral DNA.

1978: Genentech, the world’s first genetic engineering company is founded, and engineers E. coli that can produce human insulin. Diabetics and livestock everywhere rejoice.

1980: The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 in General Electric’s favour that “A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter”. In so doing, it sets the entire course of GMO history to come. GE immediately patents a bacteria engineered to eat crude oil.

1983: The first modified plant is created, again by adding an antibiotic resistance gene. Can you guess the species? (Hint: it was the ’80s). Yep, of course it was tobacco.

1987: The first field release of a GMO takes place – a “Frostban” bacteria designed to protect crops from frost. Activists attack and attempt to sabotage the trial site the night before. It’s said that history repeats.

1994: Calgene produces the first commercial genetically modified (GM) crop plant, the Flavr Savr tomato. This tomato doesn’t produce a natural protein that degrades cell walls, meaning it stays ripe for longer. The Flavr Savr experiences a tumultuous commercial life of initial success, then by a decline at the hands of consumer distrust, and finally discontinuation by 1997.

1995: The commercial GMO market explodes, with the development of potato, cotton and maize strains that can resist insects.

In the ensuing two decades, two particular classes of modification have come to dominate the GM plant market: insect resistance (via insertion of the “Bt” toxin gene), and resistance to the herbicide “glyphosate” (marketed as Roundup). Glyphosate resistance now dominates the GM market to such a degree that it is present in a whopping ~90% of all transgenic crops, making it the Big Cheese of commercial GMOs. We’ll talk about this as well as Bt in the next instalment.

How many GMOs are out there?

To date, all GMOs approved for human consumption have been plants. A common source of confusion regarding this claim is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which is injected into dairy cattle to increase milk production. rBGH is produced by genetically modified bacteria, in much the same way as human insulin. Injecting rBGH into cattle doesn’t cause them to become genetically modified. It is however a form of doping, one which is demonstrably harmful for their health and wellbeing. Human growth hormone has been abused by athletes since the ’80s.

So, why haven’t GM animals been commercialised (except for certain novelty uses)? There are a few possible reasons. Plant products make up the bulk of the average person’s diet, and consequently plants account for the majority of the value of the agricultural sector. Aside from this economic incentive, plants are arguably easier to modify and cultivate than animals.

Nonetheless, there’s also a clear legislative bias at play against commercialising GM animals. This may reflect an unproven notion that there’s less risk of GM plants escaping and spreading. A more reasonable argument might be that because plants lack sentience, there’s no risk of them suffering because of a modification. The main reason for the bias may not be so rational though.

Since animals are our closest evolutionary ancestors, we typically hold them in a more reverential and even “sacred” light than plants. You can probably imagine a mutant two-trunked pine tree without being too bothered, but a two-headed rat feels a lot more uncanny valley.

Whatever the reason, at this point in history, crop plants are the undisputed stars of GM technology, so we’ll refocus our radar in the direction of agriculture.

 Delicious Data About Agriculture

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Agriculture covers a full third of the Earth’s land area, and as of 2013, GM crops made up about 3.5% of the total. That corresponds to more than 1.7 million square kilometers, or an area greater than the entire landmass of Iran. Given this, it’s probably fair to say the prevalence of GMOs is not insignificant.

Legal regulations and social attitudes towards GMOs vary widely between countries, which means that these crops aren’t just scattered around the globe randomly. A particularly rich source of information on GM crops is the report Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012, commissioned by the pro-GM group ISAAA (The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications). Despite their partisanship on the issue the data seem solid, and the report is worth a read if you’re interested in details about a particular country’s GMO activities.

Which nations are the biggest adopters of GMOs? There were only 28 countries growing GM crops as of 2012, though these countries are home to 60% of the world’s population. Uptake is overwhelmingly focused in North and South America. Interestingly, and largely owing to Europe having the strictest GMO regulations in the world, there are only eight industrialised countries growing GM crops, meaning the rest are developing nations.

Most GM-growing nations are currently focusing on cotton, maize and soybean. GM food crops are predominately used as livestock feed rather than for human consumption, and as mentioned earlier, most GM crops are herbicide resistant and/or insect resistant. This is changing though, with an increasing proportion of “second generation” strains entering the market, which have these traits stacked with others, such as enhanced nutrition or drought tolerance. The USA and China are cultivating GM versions of several other food crops, including things like papaya, sugarbeet and sweet pepper.

While the USA has the greatest land area devoted to GM crops of any nation, as well as the highest number of GM species, GM land is mostly devoted to just a few staple crops, for which an extremely high proportion grown are GM varieties. For the “big three” of cotton, maize and soybean, over 90% of farms are now growing GM varieties. In Canada, a record high of 97.5% of canola crops are GM.

The increasing uptake of GM crops is an interesting story. Despite the USA easily dominating the pack in this modern day space race, the vast majority of remaining GM crops – and 90% of GM farmers – are located in the developing world. Developing nations are also taking up GM technology at a greater rate. As you can see in the chart below, industrialised nations have already lost the majority share of the market.

How do we explain the huge differences in GMO legislation and uptake rates between countries, particularly Europe and the USA? It’s worth first reminding ourselves that, by many metrics, the USA is just a weird outlier, so this may be a very difficult question to answer.

Nonetheless, one possible explanation is labelling requirements (though the causality is hard to tease apart). In the late ’90s, a strong opposition movement to GMOs grew in Europe, and it succeeded in mandating strict labelling of any GM products. Supermarkets responded with a wave of panic, banning products containing any GM ingredients out of fear of losing customers. In a very short time, the entire European GM industry was dead. Conversely, see North America on the graph below (click for larger version). It has no labelling requirements.

Without labelling of GM products, there is less consumer concern and less avoidance of them, meaning the economic incentive for farmers is to grow GM crops rather than less efficient conventional ones. Is this a bad situation for the USA? This debate is currently raging in several US states, with recent or upcoming votes on GMO labelling. All we will say here is that when public concern is coupled with scientific misunderstanding, the outcome can be quite harmful.

Unravelling Some Sticky Side-Issues

Neil deGrasse Tyson was recently lambasted for defending GM technology by claiming it is not all that different from the domestic selection that humans have been exerting on plants and animals for thousands of years. As he pointed out when he later clarified his statement, there is a big sticky mess of related issues tangled up with GMOs, and it was these that his attackers mostly took issue, not the science itself. It’s worth dissecting out a couple of these confounding topics before closing the book on current GMO status.

The sticky mess includes things like: corporate exploitation of small farmers, monocultures, and the merits of “organic” farming (a term that every organic chemist will tell you is meaningless as they sigh into their erlenmeyer flask).

1. Corporate exploitation and patenting. Tales are rampant of farmers in developing countries being forced into unfair annual contracts for GM seeds, or of organic farmers losing their organic licence then being sued because their crops have been contaminated by a GM strain. Such situations rightly invoke our moral outrage. However, according to the excellently researched and independent Genetic Literacy Project, these stories simply aren’t true. Some are myths while others have the facts twisted. Even if these tales were true though, lawsuits and rigid contracts are issues of equitable IP legislation, not of science. The same problem applies to the pharmaceutical industry, with potentially life-saving medications being fiercely protected by patents and kept artificially expensive.

2. Monocultures. A common claim is that GM crops are always “monocultures”, meaning genetically identical plants are grown en masse. The risk here is that if a virus or pest evolves which one plant is susceptible to, all would be susceptible, leading to rapid losses of huge numbers of plants. As it turns out though, when a GM plant is developed, the trait is typically bred across into many cultivars in order to increase the genetic diversity and minimise this risk. That said, growing only one type of crop in an area does harm soil quality and biodiversity and so should be avoided where possible. Most GM crops, excepting pesticide resistant ones, can be grown in mixed plots with no barriers.

3. Organic food. The main point to stress here is that GM crops are not the opposite of “organic” crops. While organic farming excludes the use of GMOs on ideological grounds, it is primarily an alternative to conventional large-scale agriculture. You could grow a patch of GM alfalfa using entirely organic farming practices if you wanted to. Despite this, GMOs and organics are often pitted against each other in the context of food production and security.

Whatever merits organic farming may have, superior food production is sadly not one of them. A 2012 meta-analysis published in that most weighty of scientific journals, Nature, found that organic farming typically produces 34% lower yields when compared to conventionally farmed crops in comparable conditions. This entertaining and well-researched video explores the pros and cons around organic food and dispels some common myths.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You should now be clued up on exactly what genetic modification means, where GMOs come from, their history, and what the heck is out there at the moment. This means it’s time to face the upcoming last part in the series: GMOs Pt 4: Is the Apocalypse Nigh?

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