Defining GMO is nearly impossible

Sweet potato, natural GMO

Defining what a GMO is seems simple enough in theory. It’s not nearly so obvious in practice. For example, disease-resistant French wheat was created in the 1940’s by doubling the number of chromosomes. The EU has exempted it from regulation because there seem to be no issues with it. There have also been thousands of beneficial mutant plants that were bred with radiation, many of which we all eat. Also, if a gene is silenced or edited, is it then a GMO?

Many organic farmers grow crops that are arguably GMOs because they resist disease, are seedless, or have other beneficial characteristics. Cheese today uses genetically engineered bacteria, instead of scraping a calf’s stomach to get rennet.

The solution was a genetically engineered bacterium that produces the same enzyme [as rennet]. But, perhaps because the bacteria themselves stay in the lab, or perhaps because it was never politicized, cheese doesn’t feel like a GMO.

The following definitions either exclude things thing that could be GMOs or include things that aren’t. Read the article for detailed explanations.

  • Moving genes from one species to another
  • Anything that couldn’t occur naturally
  • Genetic modification done by human

Further complicating things, sometimes gene jumping between species occurs naturally. Plus, parasites can alter genes too.

The thing is, having farmers be co-evolutionary seed breeders didn’t work very well. For centuries, crop yields were essentially flat. When professional breeders started to figure out genetics, yields took off.

The question “to GMO or not to GMO” isn’t really useful. The real question we should be asking is this: How fast, and in what directions, should agricultural innovation advance?

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