A couple weeks ago I was frequenting the farmers market as I prefer to support “organic” (some are not certified organic but are generally non GMO) local farms. I try to track down someone that I can talk to about the produce before I purchase it to clarify how their crops were produced. In one of my conversations with a lovely Hutterite man, I went through my routine of questions. He gladly pointed out which vegetables had been sprayed this year. I then asked him. “Are your seeds Genetically Engineered? Is your produce non GMO ?”. He stared at me blankly. ” To be honest ma’m, I don’t really know? what exactly is GMO?” I tried to explain as best as I could and he responded. “Isn’t that cross breeding with plants? Cause we have done that for centuries! So what’s the difference?”
It got me thinking how few people probably know the difference. Are genetically engineering crops the same as what farmers have been doing for decades? Here are some things to help you understand the major difference.
The following are the natural ways that farmers commonly used in the past to increase the quality of their crops.
Traditionally, farmers saved seed from plants with favorable traits, such as high yield or better flavor, for replanting. In doing so year after year, the farmers created new strains of crops. Farmers in other regions did the same thing, resulting in different strains suited to their needs.
-involves intentionally transferring the pollen of a flower from one plant to the stigma of a flower from another plant of the same or closely related species. Successful pollination results in viable seeds. When the seeds grow, with luck, one or more of the offspring plants will exhibit beneficial traits.
Cross-pollination requires the parent plants to be compatible — that is, the same species or a closely related species.
The first step in creating a hybrid is to create two pure strains of plants by repeatedly inbreeding plants until a very stable strain is attained. Breeders then cross-pollinate these parent plants, yielding seeds that grow into uniform plants with predictable traits, called F1 hybrids. The drawback is that seeds from F1 hybrids won’t produce offspring with the same traits as their parents.
There are also Natural Mutations that occur in plants just like with human DNA.
— perhaps a “mistake” in DNA replication — the offspring (or even just a portion of the parent plant) can display different characteristics. If the mutation confers some benefit that makes the plant better able to survive, the trait may be passed down to subsequent generations. On rare occasions these mutations yield traits that are considered desirable to plant breeders
And Induced Mutations
-plant breeders began trying to induce mutations using irradiation and chemicals, hoping they’d eventually stumble upon mutations that resulted in beneficial changes.
Breeders also discovered that plants grown using tissue culture, during which plant tissue is cultivated using artificial nutrients in sterile conditions, are more prone to mutation than conventionally grown plants.
Something to keep in mind though, is that they were not adding the DNA of another tissue or plant to cause the mutation.
Although the mutations are artificially induced, the DNA remains that of a single species.
So what is Genetic Engineering and how did we get GMO’s?
– inserting genetic material from one organism into the DNA of a completely unrelated organism, even a non-plant species… the only method available to plant breeders to confer beneficial traits between unrelated species.
A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified by having some of its DNA removed or having the DNA of another organism inserted, it is the by product of GE. There is nothing natural about it when you are completely changing the species of the plant. Another good explanation:
In classical breeding, thousands of genes are being rearranged, whereas GE involves the specific handling of single genes (using “chemical scissors”). The genes used in GE can come from any organism, and the genes in classical breeding must be very closely related.
To summarize, natural methods of cross breeding plants could be compared to breeding dogs with other species of dogs. GE is like taking a Dog and breeding it with a Horse and maybe throwing a bit of Tiger in there. There is nothing naturally occurring about it, and although that “new kind of Dog” may run fast, it also has very dangerous traits that lead to all kinds of behavioral unknowns, only time will tell how the full effects of these altered genes will pan out.
Photo Cred: Here