If you’ve ever been grocery shopping, you’ve probably seen food labelled as “non-GMO.” But what’s the deal with GMOs anyway? Delve into the world of genetically-modified organisms through these GMO facts.
- Over 12% of global farmland grows GMO crops as of 2016.
- 54% of all GMOs worldwide grow in the Third World as of 2013.
- Soybeans count for half of all GMO crops grown worldwide.
- GMO corn has between 6 to 25% greater yields than non-GMO corn.
- 38 countries around the world ban the growing of GMO crops inside their borders.
- Humans have grown GMOs as early as 12,000 BC through selective breeding of crops and livestock.
- Friedrich Miescher first isolated DNA in 1869.
- Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA’s structure in 1953.
- Paul Berg combined genes from two different viruses for the first time in history in 1972.
- Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen made the first GM bacteria in 1973.
- Rudolf Jaenisch made the first GM animal, a mouse, in 1974.
- Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson founded Genentech, the first genetic engineering company, in 1976.
- Michael W. Bevan, Richard B. Flavell, and Mary-Dell Chilton made the first GM plant, an antibiotic-resistant strain of tobacco, in 1983.
- China started growing virus-resistant strains of tobacco in 1992.
- The FDA approved the growing of insect-resistant GM potatoes in 1995.
- GMO stands for Genetically-Modified Organism.
- The first GMO animal is the GloFish, a Zebrafish modified to glow in the dark.
- Scientists agree that GMO foods are no more dangerous than any other kind of food.
- Studies show that GMO crops have fewer chances of mutating compared to non-GMO crops.
- Scientists have developed GM livestock, but none have approval for commercial use as of 2019.
Golden Rice is a GMO.
The name comes from the rice’s golden color, a side-effect of the genetic engineering done on the crop. Golden rice has modifications to produce beta-carotene during growth, which turns into Vitamin A once digested and metabolized. Research and development of Golden Rice aimed to solve Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), a disease that kills over 600,000 children worldwide every year. Another 500,000 children also go blind from the disease every year. With rice a staple for between 30 to 70% of people in Asia alone, scientists hoped to increase Vitamin A in people’s nutrition through an easy and effective manner with Golden Rice. What a resourceful example of GMO facts.
The first GMO food to reach the market was a tomato.
Called Flavr Savr, Calgene developed and sent the tomatoes to the FDA for approval in 1992. The FDA granted approval in 1994, and Flavr Savr appeared on the market until 1997 when Calgene stopped producing the tomato. Flavr Savr’s modifications gave it longer shelf life, meaning it lasted longer after getting harvested. According to the FDA, Flavr Savr had no difference in nutrition and posed no health risks compared to non-GMO tomatoes.
Genentech used GMO bacteria to produce insulin for use by diabetes patients.
Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas that makes it unable to produce the hormone insulin. This causes sugar to build up in the body, causing a series of complications that can lead to death. Doctors give insulin injections to manage the disease, with the hormone previously-taken from human donors. But in 1978 Genentech developed GMO bacteria with human genes to produce insulin with. The FDA approved GMO bacteria-produced insulin, called humulin, to enter the market. This made it cheaper and more available to diabetes patients. A milestone of achievement, no matter how we look at it, here at GMO facts.
The first GMO animal approved as food did so in 2015.
Called AquAdvantage salmon, AquaBounty Technologies began development as far back as 1989. Scientists mixed genes between Atlantic salmon and Pacific Chinook salmon to produce the GMO. Their goal was a fish breed that bred and grew faster than other breeds. To keep AquAdvantage salmon from damaging the environment, all examples of the breed are born female and sterile. This is because if they escape into the wild, they’ll outbreed other salmon breeds. AquAdvantage salmon received FDA approval in 2015, the first time a GM animal received approval as a food source.
Gene guns were the first tool to carry out genetic modifications.
These tools fired microscopic bullets of either gold or tungsten. Scientists attached DNA fragments to the bullets and then fired them at a target cell sample. The bullets passed through the cells, leaving their DNA fragments behind them in the cells. Once inside, the cells incorporated the fragments into their DNA. Scientists developed many GMOs such as those for wheat using this method. The main disadvantage of this method is that it damages cells in the process. The method is also inaccurate, as scientists have only limited control over the genes getting combined.
Bacteria are also used to perform genetic modifications.
This one surprised us here at GMO facts. These bacteria are agrobacterium. It’s a special kind of bacteria, as they modify their target’s genes to make it more suitable for them. Scientists used specially-bred agrobacterium to insert desired genes into their specimens. This method has mixed success, though. While successful with crops like tomatoes and potatoes, this method is unsuccessful when it came to modifying other crops like wheat.
Other methods for genetic modification include electroporation and microinjection.
Scientists discovered that electrical pulses cause cells to open pores in their membranes. They then use those pores to introduce new genes into the target cells. Microinjection is the simplest method of genetic engineering, by injecting new genes directly inside a target cell.
One of the most advanced methods of genetic engineering is CRISPR gene editing.
CRISPR is actually a means with which certain bacteria protect themselves from viral infections. It works by producing certain biochemicals that cut the bacteria’s own DNA. In this way, they remove those parts of their DNA compromised by a virus. Scientists studied this process, and in 2000, used it to perform genetic engineering.
Dubbed in science as CRISPR gene editing, scientists used similar biochemicals to cut out unwanted sections from target DNA. These sections could be the ones causing a disease or make a subject vulnerable to certain infections. Scientists can also replace removed sections of DNA with news ones to give desirable traits and characteristics.
GMOs aren’t limited to food.
GMOs are also made for purely-physical appeal. Flowers with colors that don’t appear in nature were even among the first GMOs ever made. GMO roses with lavender or mauve petals are popular in countries such as Japan, the USA, and Canada among others. Other examples of flowers modified to answer demand include chrysanthemums and primroses. Now that was a surprisingly-colorful example of GMO facts.
GMO animals are also used for research.
GMO mice are the most common of them all, their genes modified to study the effects as part of research into various subjects. These include the causes of diseases like cancer, as well as possible cures. Other animals include pigs due to their larger size and closer relationship with humans, and non-human primates. It was only in 2009 that a marmoset became a test subject for studies on Parkinson’s Disease.
A goat began producing a drug for use by humans in 2009.
We’ve mentioned before how GMO bacteria produce insulin for use by humans. This time it’s different. Insulin is still a natural substance, produced in this case by GMOs as a supplement for people whose bodies can’t make enough insulin on their own. In contrast, ATryn isn’t a natural substance, but a drug used to prevent unwanted clots during operations like surgery or childbirth. And in 2009, the FDA approved the use of GMO goats which produced the drug in their milk.
GMO livestock are under study to provide food in more ways than one.
That is, these breeds of animals aren’t meant for eating. One example is a breed of cow under study to produce milk identical to human breast milk. Scientists expect this to benefit mothers who are unable to produce breast milk on their own. Another example is a cow that produces hypoallergenic milk, something they aren’t normally able to produce.
GMOs are a possible means to bring back extinct species.
The current idea is to change the DNA of an existing cousin of the extinct species so that it resembles the latter. Scientists are also studying the possibility of adding the genes of extinct animals taken from existing samples to the DNA of existing animals. For example, adding genes from the extinct mammoth to those of African Elephants. Scientists say though that replacing the whole DNA and even reversing evolution is still a very long-distance goal. So no matter how much we here at GMO facts wish it were so, a real-life Jurassic Park isn’t likely to happen soon.
Humans as GMOs is a very controversial concept.
Although gene therapy is already used to treat diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and heart disease, scientists are skeptic of modifying traits that can be passed down to a person’s children. Ethical concerns and incomplete understanding of human DNA as a whole make the idea of GMO humans a premature one at this time.
GMO insects are under study.
A common trait among GMO crops is their ability to resist insects and parasites. But scientists are also studying if they can solve the problem directly. Instead of making crops resistant to diseases, or making more and better drugs against diseases carried by insects, why not remove the insects in the first place?
One species under study is the Aedes aegypti mosquito, infamous for carrying germs that cause dengue and malaria among other diseases. Scientists produced a male breed of the mosquito carrying a gene that causes death at a certain point. While not yet available to widespread use, use against test populations saw 80 to 90% of the mosquitoes wiped out. Scientists believe this method is usable against other pests like moths.
Whether GMO foods get labeled as such depends on the country.
For example, the European Union requires all GMO foods to have a label informing consumers that they are. Processed food or drink which has more than 0.9% of its ingredients as GMOs must also have a label. In Canada and the USA, producers are not required at the federal level to label their goods as GMO or not.
There’s no such thing as non-GMO Water or non-GMO Salt.
Some water or salt brands label themselves as non-GMO. This is meaningless advertising, as neither water nor salt are alive in the first place. They have no DNA to modify, so they cannot be GMOs. Talk about strange examples of GMO facts.
GMO crops actually reduce the price of food.
This is because GMO crops have higher yields compared to non-GMO crops. This allows supply to more easily keep up with demand, dropping prices as a result. Studies actually show that without GMO crops, food prices would be 5 to 10% higher than they are today.
One common misconception about GMOs is that their impact on human health is not considered.
This is actually one of the biggest misconceptions about GMOs. All GMOs undergo case by case testing and certification before getting placed on the market. In the USA alone, FDA approval for GMO crops and medicines takes years or even decades of study to get.
Even then, they’re still subject to review and appeal afterward. Scientists are even frustrated at delays caused by continued testing on the distribution of Golden Rice in places like the Philippines.
GMO crops don’t damage the environment.
Another big misconception about GMO crops is that they damage the environment. However, it’s actually not the case. For one, GMO crops are actually less dependent on pesticides because they are engineered to resist pests on their own.
Studies show an 8% drop in pesticide use from the adoption of GMO crops. GMO crops also need less water to grow, reducing the strain on existing water resources. If anything, GMO crops help protect the environment.