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GMOs have their time and place. Here's the when, the where and the how.

Photo: Golden rice vs white rice. UBC


Before we jump into anything, let's make one thing clear: Click & Grow DOES NOT use genetically modified seeds or organisms in our products. The following is a scientific view on the processes taking place in nature and plant breeding.


We have always been dependent on plants. In big picture, absolutely everything in our lives has more or less been made possible because of them. It also means that we are pretty good at draining this resource. If the population keeps growing at the same speed as now, then by 2050 we'll need 75% more food to survive. With natural resources not being able to pick up with our consumption habits, we have to find new ways to produce food cheaper and more efficiently. By now the best-found solution is to recombine the genetic codes of the plants to create stronger, hardier, better (and cheaper) offsprings. It might sound artificial, but it's actually what often happens in nature, and even the hated/loved GMO methods are inspired by this natural recombination aka traditional breeding methods. Here's how it happens.


Traditional plant breeding

As plants generally don't move, they can't afford to be too picky when it comes to choosing their "life partners". The pollen is carried uncontrollably by bees and wind, and so it sometimes happens that the father isn't even from the same species. We call it hybridization, and boy, do we love it - all strawberries, grapefruits, peppermints and many other plants are actually all interspecific hybrids.


What happens is that two different genomes meet and create a new offspring with awesome new features, and these new features is what traditional plant breeding is all about. It enables us to choose the best "parents" for our maize and reproduce the potatoes that are easier to peel and that don't get eaten by insects. Having mastered the art of traditional breeding, today we can combine basically anything we want.


Photo: NSF


Hybridization is not the only trick traditional plant breeding has in its pocket though. As the plant is constantly bombarded with temperature fluctuations, intense sunlight, insect damage or anything else, mutations can occur. Some of them are good, some - bad. Some occur naturally, others can be induced. However, if these mutations are willing to pass on to offsprings, a new cultivar might just come to life. Basmati rice, pink grapefruit or the Golden Promise barley used in making beer and whiskey, have all actually come to life through this so-called mutation breeding.
So what's the difference between traditional breeding and genetically modifying the plants?
Let's say we have a great tasting apple, but it is prone to some apple disease such as apple scabWhat to do? Chemical plant protection is bad for your kid, GMO doesn't sound good, and therefore traditional plant breeding is the way to go.


The first step is to cross the good-tasting apple cultivar with the scab resistant one. We will get approximately 1000 offsprings. We wait for the apple tree to grow, and after about 6 years, we have a scab resistant apple that looks like the good-tasting one. But as all genes were recombined, we have gotten the looks, but lost the great taste. This means we have to take the resistant look-alike offspring and cross it with the good tasting one once more. Again we get 1000 offsprings and one of them is indeed scab resistant AND tastes a little more like the desired apple. To get the taste as close as possible to the original, we wait 6 years again. The procedure has to be done enough times for us to be able to get the same great taste along with scab resistance on a full scale. This is traditional breeding at its best and it can be certified non-GMO (the author does not take responsibility for randomly occurring mutations during the process).

Using new gene transfer methods, we can take only a specific part (one responsible for scab resistance) of the genetic code of the scab resistant apple and introduce it to a genome of the great tasting apple. A couple of years of lab work, and we reach the same thing as with traditional breeding. But this also means that we skipped a lot of the randomly generated genetic material on the way. From the point of view of Charles Darwin, it is not necessarily a good thing. And this is what we call genetic modification (GMO).
GMO plants are often compared with synthetic chemical products which have proven themselves harmful - DDT, PCB. The biggest difference here is that genetic modification is generally NOT inventing new features or genes - it is transferring the genes from one organism to another in a rather controlled manner. Just because something has three letters, it doesn't mean it's necessarily all bad.


GMO, as all things, has its time and place. Want to use GMO to develop plants with greater disease resistance? Yes, please do that - the amount of chemical plant protection agents in our food is outrageous! Want to produce plants that help to alleviate vitamin A deficiency?* Yes, approval granted. Want to produce plants with bigger root system to prevent erosion and minimize irrigation? Be our guest! Want to combine the genes of fish and plants to produce plants resistant to a kill-all chemical herbicide produced by your company? Not okay, spanking is in order.

From a scientist's point of view, this is how things are supposed to happen - first we spin a dog around the orbit to verify the rocket's safety, then we sell Virgin Galactics tickets to outer spaceHowever, just like your new hybrid car uses less gallons of fuel, gene modification techniques provide faster and more precise methods for creating plants with neat features. Can fuckups occur during the development process? Does the pope shit in the woods?


So what to take from here? Like in all technologies, advancements need to be done. Electricity is deadly and we're sure people preached to get rid of this misery back in the day. But we can assure you that most scientists dealing with plants actually take the conditions of our home planet very seriously. Are GMOs good or bad? Information exists to help you make up your mind. And as Bob Marley once said, "have no fear for atomic energy, cause it can't stop the time". 
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