Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Can we please get our GMO terminology straight?

Genetic engineering in food is a strange phenomena occurring today which is causing a lot of confusion. Even academics and journalists get it wrong. I think this is because of the defensive reaction this technology invokes in those who have taken the view that it’s ‘no big deal’ and so they fail to investigate the matter. But how can an intelligent debate occur when educated people cannot be trusted to put forward accurate information on the basics, never mind the science and policy? And while all the confusion is stirred up, the transnational corporations are stepping up their push to patent all the sources of food that they can manage.

One common misunderstanding arises with the use of the word “transgenics” instead of using “genetically modified organism.” When someone uses this word, it is highly likely that they are in favour of the technology. But strangely enough, it shows that they are ill informed, especially if they live in Europe, which leaves their opinion in the lurch. For starters, I think it would be helpful if those writing about the subject would get the terminology right. Let me give a helping hand here.

Europe has a legal definition of genetically modified organism, which is simple and to the point. It includes any procedure of creating an organism “that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” This does not include traditional breeding techniques, organisms derived by increasing chromosome numbers (polyploidy induction) or chemical transformations (mutagenesis).

Transgenics is a subset of GMOs and involves creation of organisms by inserting DNA from a different species. Whether the gene comes from the same species or a different one is not what defines a GMO. Again, a GMO is defined by the method involved in creating the organism. Whether it is more controversial to insert genes from the same species or a different species is another issue.

Other words are bandied about. For example, gene technology comes under the broad umbrella of biotechnology which also includes traditional breeding techniques such as artificial selection, hybridization and the use of microorganisms involved in the manufacture of cheese, bread and beer. Furthermore, gene technology is not limited to genetic modification (also called genetic engineering), but includes other methods of gene manipulation, such as cloning.

One popular method of genetic modification involves attaching genetic constructs to microscopic gold or tungsten bullets and shooting them into a culture of embryonic cells. The tool for this operation is called a gene gun and this term reveals its combatant nature. Although some claim that this is a more precise technique than traditional breeding, the reality is far from it. The risks involved are merely on a different level.

Phew! Just trying to explain what a GMO is trying! But this is no excuse for scholars and journalists to ignore the details. If I read one more book that refers to transgenics instead of GMOs (or GMF for genetically modified food or GMC for genetically modified crops) ... well, I’ll now be able to send the authors a link to this blog article!

Meanwhile, if a few scientists were to try to explain just what happens when the foreign genes are forced into the intended organism, I think we’d be here a long time. I’ll leave that for another day ... but we really need to consider these things before we saturate the food chain with GMOs.

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