The “M” Word” (by Mike Murray)

Genetically Modified Organisms such as Monsanto’s “Round-Up Ready” products have been in the news and on a lot of people’s minds these last few years. Last year there were measures on the ballot like Measure 92 here in Oregon, which was narrowly defeated, addressing labeling concerns of GMO foods. There has also been a lot of debate over the health concerns and the environmental impacts of farming and consuming these products. Although I am going to take a look at the process of genetically engineering our consumables, this is not an argument for either side of those debates. Regardless of how one feels about genetically modified organisms and their health or environmental implications, it is impossible to fairly debate the topic when the term itself carries the bias of the very people who stand to profit the most. The word modified is not accurate, it does not do justice to what has occurred on a molecular level at the hands of scientists and genetic . Any number of words could convey this process more accurately but the term Genetically Altered Organism is neutral and allows both its supporters and critics a legitimate platform for discussion.
When I hear that something has been modified I think of cars. I think of all the sweet modifications that my uncle made to his Hemi so that it would do zero to sixty in under six seconds. My friends and I used to make the same kind of mods to our BMX bikes as kids so we could catch more air off a jump or to have better petal grip. Either way they were widely viewed as improvements and therefore undeniably positive changes that obviously had no direct impact on the environment or on public health. I realize that this is a complex issue and that the comparison between cars and GMO is not quite fair, that’s precisely my . There’s a prodigious difference between altering the DNA sequence of a living organism intended to be consumed and modifying the engine of a car. One of the first and most common genetically modified foods was the tomato. In one case scientists were able to extract a sequence of DNA from the arctic flounder, a fish that can withstand extremely cold temperatures, and implant it into the DNA strand of a tomato (What is Genetically Modified Food?). The intent was to have a tomato that could tolerate a frost without dying, therefore allowing the farmer to grow and sell his product with higher yields and significantly less loss. As a gardener I completely understand the appeal to this. Our first frost in Portland can vary wildly and has caught me off guard more than once. Although the idea of this capability makes my inner nerd go crazy with the possibilities, the deeper I dig, the more I find myself challenging the defining term modified. In order to get the new DNA strand into the cells of a tomato or any other genetically modified food they use a carrier strand, the strand of choice often being e. coli (What is Genetically Modified Food?). The e. coli DNA is altered by adding the desired section of new DNA to it and then it is deposited into the cells of the plant. A healthy cell wall will reject any foreign objects however so bioengineers have come up with ways around that. There are three techniques commonly used to carry the new e. coli strand past the cell wall. The first involves using electric shock to damage the walls and create gaps for the strands to penetrate. The second uses a gun of sorts to shoot gold particles laced with the e. coli through the walls. The third technique employs a soil bacteria which causes tumors on the plant weakening the cell walls which ultimately has the same effect and allows the new DNA to pass (What is Genetically Modified Food?). The point being that the plant itself is significantly weakened either by disease, precious metals, or electric shock and then intentionally infested with e. . Although e. coli is a naturally occurring bacteria found throughout nature and in our own intestinal tract, harmful infections of e. coli. are caused when the bacteria mutates which is extremely common. This remains one of the larger concerns for the general public regarding GMO foods and understandably so. These are foods that we are putting into our bodies and we have no control over the inevitable mutations of their altered DNA. If I were basing my argument on this information alone, I could easily make a claim that GMOs should be renamed genetically infected organisms. It may seem one sided or unfair, but it’s not untrue. To take an organism and inject it with a bacteria that could weaken it and makes it sick is akin to me having a bacterial infection such as a cold, and I definitely don’t feel modified when I’m sick. As recently as 2011 GMO foods were called genetically enhanced foods (Lammi, 1). Why the recent change? It’s possible that after years of pushback from the public and a few botched experiments the powers that be realized that they would have to redefine their product a bit less positively. The effect of the differences in terminology is illustrated well by April Harris of The 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen in her post to allergykids.com where she states: “Interestingly enough, at that time you rarely saw the words “genetically modified” in the North American press – instead you saw the words “genetically enhanced”. My goodness that sounded better. Enhanced is a good thing, isn’t it? Don’t we all want things to be enhanced and improved? “(Harris, 2) We’ll likely never know why GEOs were redefined as GMOs but I do know I don’t hear that term anymore and I don’t think many people would believe these foods are “enhanced”. There has been too much negative publicity around the matter for most of us not to raise an eye brow when presented with that term. Realistically these altered foods are produced to be sold for profit and any company trying to sell a product is going to put it in the best possible light by choosing words deliberately and intelligently. Using the word modified or its predecessor enhanced over other options is done to give it a positive connotation, to make us think of it as an improvement without saying as much. Isn’t that what we all infer about GMO foods, they are better in some way? They boast higher yields to feed the hungry and bring down costs (Newsroom, 2). It would seem the portrayed intent of GMO manufacturers is bordering on humanitarian work if it wasn’t for the fact that the companies which make and sell these products also modify seed so that it will not reproduce the following year. This practice ensures that farmers purchase new seed every year instead of saving the best seed from the previous, year as they have done since the Fertile Crest. The intent is profit and creating dependency cultures their profit. In several of the journals and articles that I read while researching this topic I found statements like these:

  • Genetically modified foods are derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with deliberately altered genes and genetic sequences. (McIntosh, 1)
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, and microbes whose genetic code, or DNA, has been altered, using biotechnology. (Burkhardt, 1)

Notice the change in terminology from modified to altered. If so many authors of scientific journals feel the need explain that modified actually means they have been altered, then doesn’t it make sense to cut out the middle man, modified? In fact, don’t we and the individuals providing this information have a duty to inform without bias? If that is the case then every time we say genetically modified organism, we are continuing inaccuracy and propaganda. In the interest of accuracy, efficiency and honesty, let’s call them what they are: Genetically Altered .       Works Cited Burkhardt, Jeffrey. “Genetically Modified Organisms and Biotechnology.” Encyclopedia of                              Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Ed. J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2009. 453-458. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Feb. 2015. Harris, April. “AllergyKids Foundation.” AllergyKids Genetically Modified or Genetically                     Enhanced Its a Thorny Question Comments. N.p., 26 June 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. Lammi, Glenn G. “Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Enhanced Foods: Why It’s Not On the Policy Menu.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. McIntosh, Phillip. “Genetically Modified Food.” Galegroup.com. N.p., n.d. Web. “Newsroom.” Monsanto. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. “What Is Genetically Modified Food.” http://www.mediaroots.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

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