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Genetic Selection Versus Genetic Surgery

At our house, we avoid GMO food by buying organic vegetables and other products marked as not containing GMO ingredients. We aren’t against GMO as a rule. However, the discussion over what GMO is has become so convoluted. After doing my own reading, I’ve come up with my own perception of what GMO is about.

I’ve seen people say that we’ve been performing genetic modification for years. I think this is why genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are named the way they are. The term is crude, vague and easy to make a case that what is happening today is just part of a long tradition. I hope to show that is not at all the case.

Gregor Mendel is recognized as the person who discovered the concept of genetics. He used controlled breeding and selection to show predictable patterns of characteristics among pea plants in particular. Although Mendel is not technically the first person to ever use selection to influence breeding, he was the first known person to document patterns. One example is the idea of dominant and recessive genes, where dominant genes appear whenever they are part of a genetic code and recessive genes appear only when there are no dominant genes.

Genetic selection has actually been a long tradition of naturally retaining and breeding only those kinds of plants and animals that show ideal characteristics. Carrots are an interesting example of this. Wild carrots that grow here in Oregon are actually white. However, the carrots we buy in the store are orange. Also, I have seen carrots that have a dark purple color. These are all naturally occurring characteristics, and what you see at a store or market is based on what people choose to grow.

This is not at all the same as genetic surgery, where recently people are surgically transplanting genetic material into or out of our foods. The term for genetic surgery is used more often regarding treatment for human illness. Look up “genetic surgery” or “CRISPR” and you’ll find plenty of articles about it. However, genetic surgery is undoubtedly what is used for what GMO is supposed to describe. It is precise alteration the way surgery is a precise alternation, and it is the introduction (or removal) of specific genetic material that circumvents generational breeding.

Why is this important? Well, we need to understand what GMO really is before we can understand if it is good for us or bad for us. The kind of alterations I’m concerned with are those to increase plants’ resistance to pests or bacteria. Now that we know we rely on helpful bacteria to digest our food, these kinds of resistance may actually be a problem for our bodies. If plants have natural antibiotics, the only way those plants may break down is through the enzymes our body creates, which takes plenty of effort. We will get less benefit from probiotics, and we have yet to find out how all of these things come together. Other modifications may not affect us at all and may not wholly beneficial. We just need to be able to talk about it clearly and with as much awareness of effects as possible.

We now eat organic food as much as possible. It is the one way we can trust the food we eat is not GMO or surgically altered. We can’t be sure everything we eat is not GMO, but with everything else we do for our diet, we think this is one way to make sure we stay as healthy as possible.

Read about Gregor Mendel on Wikipedia

Read about carrot colors on the Tree Hugger site

Read about genetic surgery on the Scientific American site

Read about antibiotic resistance in altered plants on the NIH site

Read about probiotics, digestion and immunity on the Dr. Axe site

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