What’s crackin’ Kraken?
Today’s post will be a slight departure from the regularly scheduled programming normally available here on marathonsam.com. I believe that you, my gentle readers, will find this content informative and entertaining, but today’s post will be slightly longer on written words and shorter on selfies in spandex.
One of my main goals for this itty-bitty blog is to hone my abilities as an effective science communicator. I’ve explored the data behind the benefits of meditation and tempo runs. I like to learn about the nutrition claims behind some of my favorite “superfoods” whenever I try my hand at recipe writing. I have also, of course,
written ranted ad nauseum about climate change.
While I am proud of my previous efforts, each topic deserves more in-depth analysis than 1,000 words and a smattering of selfies. I would love the opportunity to exhaustively investigate a topic over the course of multiple articles. Maybe I’m just catching the “Serial” fever, but I like the idea of rigorously researching and explaining a single issue for you, my gentle readers.
Without further wasted words, let me introduce a new feature for 2015: Marathonsam’s Pragmatic Perspective. As a blogger, scientist, and part-time superhero I get EXCEEDINGLY frustrated when I hear or read pieces by pundits that COMPLETELY over-interpret, misinterpret, or miss the point of a new scientific study. The problem is particularly pernicious when it comes to a ubiquitous, scary-sounding, and poorly understood topic: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the food supply. Break out your forks and knives! We are going to learn-along together about franken-fruits and vegetables.
I’ll be writing about just what exactly a GMO is (this becomes trickier to define by the decade), how GMO plants are constructed (we stole a trick from, surprise! Bacteria), whether GMO foods pose a risk to human health (they might, but definitely not in the way that people claim they do), the impacts of GMOs on the environment (negative), the economy (positive…for a select few), agriculture in general (definitely atrocious), and any other juicy topics that I turn up in my research.
Today I’m using some recent news as a jumping off point to begin to address the question: “How the heck do GMOs turn up in our food, anyway?” The USDA just approved a new GMO product for the United States market: a potato, patented by the privately held food and agribusiness company Simplot. Simplot’s potatoes have two claims to fame: they don’t develop brown spots when their flesh is exposed to air, and they don’t produce acrylamide when heated to high temperatures. Simplot is aggressively marketing their special potato to fast food venues—purporting that this technology will yield pristine French Fries with a bonus health boost! For the moment, let’s leave aside the fact that the minute amount of acrylamide generated in potato-flesh at high heat is, frankly, small potatoes health-wise (pun intended) as compared to the truckload of oil, starch, and salt served up with a carton of French Fries. Instead, let’s focus on why this potato represents a few important “firsts” for GMO agriculture.
In order to tackle this question, it’s important to define a few terms. Most GMOs take genes from one organism and splice them into another, producing a hybrid with desirable traits from both. Think of it as technologically advanced extreme selective breeding.
One example of multi-genome-mash-ups is freeze resistant citrus fruit. Oranges are delicious, but their cells burst when temperatures fall; flounders swim happily through sub-freezing waters because their cells make a protein that protects them from the cold. It would be pretty difficult to make a flounder have sex with an orange tree, but swapping chunks of DNA around is as easy as pie. Insert the flounder cold-tolerance gene into an orange’s genome…voila! Cold-tolerant tasty tangerines all winter long!
The cold resistant citrus that I described (which is no longer available for sale in the US, apparently the idea eked out consumers) is an example of a transgenic GMO: an organism that carries genes from a different life form within in its own genome. Bt corn and Round Up Ready soybeans (the most common GMOs in the United States) are also both examples of transgenic technology.
Simplot’s potato is NOT a transgenic. Scientists didn’t add any genes from another organism into its genome. Unmodified potatoes go brown and make acrylamide because of natural processes happening in their own cells. The clever scientists at Simplot just figured out how to turn the dimmer-switch down on these processes. GMOs that don’t have any DNA from different species in their genomes are called cisgenic organisms. Simplot isn’t the first company to make a cisgenic GMO: the widely hyped and widely reviled FLAVR-SAVR tomato was generated using a related strategy.
So why is the scientific community excited about Simplot’s potato? A mildly healthier, more aesthetically pleasing tuber isn’t exactly a cure for cancer. However, this potato is a technological achievement. Simplot’s scientists used a newer technique called RNAi to turn the dimmer switch down on those undesirable genes that cause browning and acrylamide in French fries. RNAi has been kicking around research labs for a few years, but the potato is the first commercial product created with this method.
The second, and more interesting, reason why this potato might represent the start of a sea change for GMOs (in the United States, at least—Europe has highly strict regulations on these types of products) is because of who produced it. Simplot is a giant food and agriculture company, at first glance interchangeable with any other large, soulless corporation. However, the fact that Simplot gained approval for a new GMO product is notable precisely because of whom they are NOT.
Monsanto has been the major player in GMO products in the United States for the past two decades. Monsanto owns the patents on (among other products) Round-Up Ready Soybeans and Bt corn. Given that these two GMOs cover approximately 94% of the agricultural land in America (more on THAT later), Monsanto effectively has a stranglehold on farming in general in the United States, through its dominance of the GMO market. A new GMO gaining approval produced by someone OTHER than Monsanto could portend an important shift in the prevailing winds of commerce.
Or maybe not. Shortly after the USDA approved the Simplot potato, McDonalds publicly announced that it would NOT appear on menus at the golden arches. Anti-GMO advocates tout this as a victory: apparently a GMO potato is simply unpalatable to McDonald’s customers. However, before we start congratulating uncle Ronald McDonald for a principled stance against GMOs, let’s stop to consider what ELSE appears on McDonalds’ menus: burgers (made from corn-fed American beef), soda (made with high-fructose corn syrup), chicken McNuggets (corn-breaded, fried in soybean oil and made from…well let’s just not go there).
I can 100% guarantee that every single drop of corn syrup, and every kernel of livestock feed that goes into producing all of the other McFoods on McDonalds’ McMenus come from GMO sources. GMO corn is ubiquitous in America. McDonalds’ hypocritical high-profile rejection of Simplot’s potatoes does not source from some deeply held concern for their customers’ health. McDonalds made a token anti-GMO gesture, which stifled a potential innovator in the marketplace, while solidly maintaining the status quo. The GMO potato is dead, long live corn, the GMO king.
Personally, I am conflicted about the Simplot potato. I think that it, as a product, is a solution in search of a problem. French fried potatoes are pretty much delivery vehicles for grease, salt, and ketchup.
The world was not clamoring for a spot-free fry. The lower acrylamide levels are interesting, but fries are NEVER going to be a “healthy” choice. McDonalds’ gesture against GMOs is encouraging, yet empty. Monsanto will likely continue to lord over GMOs in general and thus the majority of agriculture for years to come. However, I think that the (non)-story of the Simplot potato nicely illustrates the complexity of the issue. The label GMO encompasses many different types of products. It is not appropriate to casually throw this term around without some understanding of what exactly the particular GMO is, how it was made, and how it is used. I’ll be tackling those topics (and many more) in later posts.
Thanks for reading, I’m interested to know: What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term GMO?