GMOs and Bioengineered Food – What is It?

Knowledge is power.

I think the brouhaha surrounding GMOs is making it hard for people to learn about bioengineered food so this post series will attempt to filter out the noise.

Reading about the upcoming U.S. genetically engineered (now called bioengineered) food labeling standard put genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on my radar screen again. I had long wanted to research and write about GMOs and genetically modified food but it is a daunting task. Not only is it a complex subject, it is highly controversial with proponents and opponents who are equally passionate about their positions. So, I have been procrastinating—until now.

I am not immune to ranting and raving about an issue I feel strongly about, but I do not think it is at all helpful. It is hard to listen when someone is in your face shouting in person, on a screen, or in writing.

Rather than be deterred by the divisiveness encompassing GMOs and bioengineered food, I decided to attempt to wade through it to find some useful information for you and me, and to practice using my indoor voice.

This is the first post in a series of posts about GMOs and bioengineered food intended to deliver information in easy to read and understand bite-size chunks (pun intended). I will include resources and links for readers who want more information.

This post will introduce you to key genetic engineering terms, traditional breeding and genetic engineering differences, and how genetic engineering works. Future posts will cover historical milestones, U.S. laws and regulations (including the labeling standard), and environmental concerns and issues.

After you read this post series, I hope you will feel more informed about GMOs and bioengineered food and will take action yourself to encourage civil discourse about this topic. Have a discussion with your family at the dinner table, share this post with a friend, talk with a coworker during lunch, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or share your thoughts and concerns with your elected officials.

Why Should You Care about GMOs and Bioengineered Food?

Okay, so you read the first section of this post but maybe you are wondering why you should allocate time from your busy life to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food.

Well, in 2017, genetically modified (biotech) crops covered 189.9 million hectares (469 million acres or 11 times the size of California) of land in 24 countries.1, 2 The United States was the largest producer in the world, planting 39.4% of the global biotech crop hectarage.3 That is a lot of land and plant matter, which could have a significant positive or negative impact on people and the environment.

Where Biotech Crops Are Grown Around the World

In the United States, genetically modified plants have been widely adopted by growers of 5 major crops (sugar beet—100%, soybean—94%, cotton—93%, corn—92%, and canola—90%).4 These crops provide food, ingredients for processed foods, animal feed, fiber, and bio-fuel. Chances are you, your family, and your pet eats bioengineered food at least some of the time.

For me, a good reason to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that biotech crops continue to expand across the world and I want to learn what impact that is having or might have on people and the environment.

A good reason for you or anyone else to learn about GMOs and bioengineered food is that being informed about a topic gives you a sound basis for choosing to take action or not. Although it is well known, that people often make decisions based on their feelings and opinions, I do not see any downside to having some information in the mix.

Global Area of Biotech Crops 1996 to 2017 Chart

Key Genetic Engineering Terms and Definitions

Below is an introduction to some of the terms you will come across while learning about genetic engineering. These definitions are from the USDA’s Agriculture Biotechnology Glossary.

  • Chromosome: The self-replicating genetic structure of cells, containing genes, which determines the inheritance of traits. Chemically, each chromosome is composed of proteins and a long molecule of DNA.
  • Cross-pollination: Fertilization of a plant with pollen from another plant. Pollen may be transferred by wind, insects, other organisms, or humans.
  • DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid): The chemical substance from which genes are made. DNA is a long, double-stranded helical molecule made up of nucleotides, which are themselves composed of sugars, phosphates, and derivatives of the four bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). The sequence order of the four bases in the DNA strands determines the genetic information contained.
  • Gene: The fundamental physical and functional unit of heredity. A gene is typically a specific segment of a chromosome and encodes a specific functional product (such as a protein or RNA molecule).
  • Genetic engineering (GE): Manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.
  • Genetic modification (GM): The production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. Some countries other than the United States use this term to refer specifically to genetic engineering.
  • Genetically modified organism (GMO): An organism produced through genetic modification.
  • Recombinant DNA technology: Procedures used to join DNA segments in a cell-free system (e.g. in a test tube outside living cells or organisms). Under appropriate conditions, a recombinant DNA molecule can be introduced into a cell and copy itself (replicate), either as an independent entity (autonomously) or as an integral part of a cellular chromosome.
  • Selective breeding: Making deliberate crosses or matings of organisms so the offspring will have particular desired characteristics derived from one or both of the parents.
  • Transgenic organism: An organism resulting from the insertion of genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA techniques.

Approved Transgenic Plant Events, 1992-2016

Traditional Breeding and Genetic Engineering Differences

Humans have been tinkering with plant and animal genetics for thousands of years.

Many of the plants and animals you are familiar with today are the result of selective breeding. For instance, man’s best friend, the dog, is the result of selectively breeding wolves until they were tame enough to live with safely. Corn is another example. The large ears of yellow corn you find in the grocery market today were created by selectively breeding small grass-like plants to be bigger and bigger.

Traditionally, selective breeding could only be accomplished by mating plants or animals with other similar plants or animals. For example, a sweet orange and a pomelo were crossbred to create the grapefruit and a mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse.

Genetic engineering has crossed the mating barrier. Now scientists can select specific DNA molecules from one organism (plant, animal, fungi, protists, bacteria, and archaea) and directly insert them into the DNA of another organism or even create a new organism. You may have heard of Bt corn, which was genetically engineered from corn and a soil bacterium so the Bt corn can make its own pesticide to kill the pests that like to eat it.

Genetic Traits Expressed in GMO Crops Grown in the United States
GMOAnswers.com

A Glimpse into GMOs and Genetic Engineering

On your behalf and mine, I have read umpteen articles and several books and watched two full-length films and countless videos. My goal was to find articles, books, web pages, films, or videos that explain GMOs and genetic engineering in “regular” people language without being too pro or anti-GMO.

Below are four of my favorites that will give you a glimpse into GMOs and genetic engineering in anywhere from a minute to a half an hour (this does not include time to buy the book or check it out of the library).

  1. Creation of an Insect Resistant Tomato Plant – this infographic is simple and clear making it easy to grasp the concept quickly (scroll down after you open the web page).
  2. What is genetic engineering and how does it work? – I like this web page because it explains genetic engineering in terms of recipes and cookbooks accompanied by simple illustrations.
  3. Are GMOs Good or Bad? Genetic Engineering & Our Food – this 9-minute animated video conveys information with colorful illustrations and basic language. The video skims over issues and seems pro-GMO to me.
  4. Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet, by McKay Jenkins. Chapter 3 of this book provides a user-friendly guide to genetic engineering. Jenkins combines scientific terms with familiar language to create descriptions of complex concepts that are easy to understand. The whole book is worth reading.

After reading this post, I hope you feel like you have at least become acquainted with GMOs and genetic engineering and are interested in learning more about this subject.

In the next post in this series, we will endeavor to learn about some of the major milestones that led us to where we are today with GMOs and genetic engineering.

Featured Image at Top: Circular Maze with a Tiny Ladder in Center – Photo Credit iStock/filo

Related Posts

References

  1. Brief 53: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), 06/26/18
  2. The measure of Things – California
  3. Do you know where biotech crops are grown? (infographic) – ISAAA, 2015
  4. National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Proposed Rule – U.S. Federal Register/Vol. 83, No. 87/Friday, May 4, 2018

Resources

Find it in the Federal Register – Government Transparency

Information is available at your fingertips.

The Federal Register enables you to learn about proposed regulations and participate in the decision-making process of the U.S. federal government. I like that.

The purpose of the Federal Register is to be a source for and a record of the official actions of the executive branch of the U.S. government. Information is compiled into a consistent format that is published and made available to the public, in print and online, each business day (except federal holidays).

The Federal Register contains executive orders and proclamations issued by the president, rules and regulations that federal agencies are proposing, implementing, or repealing, and public notices about hearings, meetings, and federal grant applications.

After browsing a few issues of the Federal Register, I realized that it offers an early warning system of sorts by providing a heads up on what federal agencies are considering doing before they actually do it (and afterward, too.)

This empowers you and me to get involved early in issues that we care about by writing, calling, or emailing our elected officials, attending public meetings, and/or making public comments on specific items (anonymously if preferred).

Now, I subscribe to the Federal Register and receive a daily summary in my email inbox and you can, too.

In this post, you will have an opportunity to learn a little about the history of the Federal Register and then look at an example from the Friday, April 20, 2018 issue, which prompted this post. Here is a hint. What does the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 have to do with opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas exploration?

A Brief History of the Federal Register

The Federal Register got its start during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became the 32nd president of the United States in 1933, he immediately set about trying to fulfill his campaign promise of creating a New Deal for Americans who were suffering from the worst economic crisis in the country’s history. Between his executive orders and legislation from Congress, there was an onslaught of new programs, rules, and regulations resulting in a mountain of documents.

Back then, everything was printed on paper with little consistency in format and there were limited ways to make the information available to the public and other government agencies leaving many people in the dark. For instance, federal agencies found it difficult to keep track of their own documents and companies complained that they could not comply with regulations that they did not know existed.

Two pieces of legislation made substantial inroads into taming the document chaos and making information more accessible.

The National Archives Act of 1934 created a new agency responsible for taking custody of original federal government documents, archiving them, and making them available for public inspection. Later they were put in charge of publishing the Federal Register in conjunction with the Government Printing Office.

The Federal Register Act of 1935 required that certain documents be printed and distributed in a uniform and timely manner in a new publication called the Federal Register. The documents were to include: presidential proclamations and executive orders; documents the president determined to have general applicability and legal effect; documents required to be published by Act of Congress; and documents authorized to be published by regulations.

Federal Register, Volume 1, No. 1, March 14, 1936
Federal Register, Volume 1, No. 1, March 14, 1936

A feature of the law was that no document could be used against any person unless it had been published in the Federal Register first. That also meant that people could not claim ignorance of rules and regulations anymore.

One way for people to keep current was to pay $10.00 a year for a Federal Register by mail subscription.

The first Federal Register rolled off the printing press on March 14, 1936.

This 16-page publication was mostly taken up by regulations from the Treasury Department pertaining to the newly passed Social Security Act. It also included a presidential executive order with extensive directions about enlarging the Cape Romain Migratory Bird Refuge in South Carolina and a cryptic notice from the Department of Agriculture about a public hearing scheduled to address the regulation of milk handling in St. Louis, Missouri.

Since its inception in 1936, the Federal Register system has expanded and evolved.

In 1937, Congress passed an amendment to the Federal Register Act providing for a codification of regulatory documents resulting in the Code of Federal Regulations that exists today. Regulations in the Code are organized into fifty subject areas called Titles, such as Title 7 – Agriculture, Title 21 – Food and Drugs, and Title 40 – Protection of Environment.

The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 was important because it made the rulemaking process (creating regulations) more transparent to the public. This law requires federal agencies to publish notices and information in the Federal Register about proposed rulemaking and provide an opportunity for the public to comment before the final rules can be put into effect.

The Federal Register system entered the Internet age in 1992 when the Federal Register became available via an electronic bulletin board. Nowadays, the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations have their own websites and everything is available online as well as in print.

These are just a few of the highlights of the history of the Federal Register. If you are interested in more in-depth information, there are links in the resource section below.

Next is a current example of the Federal Register.

Federal Register, Volume 83, No. 77, April 20, 2018

Earlier in the post, I posed the question, “What does the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 have to do with opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas exploration?” You may already know the answer. If not, read on.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Looking Toward Brooks Range Mountains - Photo Credit USFWS
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Looking Toward Brooks Range Mountains in Alaska – Photo Credit USFWS

You are probably familiar with President Trump’s promise to reduce corporate tax rates in hopes that with more money in their pockets companies will create jobs for Americans. Congress pushed through and passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 on December 22, 2017, so the president could sign it before Christmas.

Buried on page 182 of the 185-page Tax Act is a prime example of pork barrel politics in action, which is when a completely unrelated item is tacked onto a bill because it would not have had enough support in Congress to pass on its own.

This add-on to the Tax Act makes a small but significant amendment to the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which specifically prohibits the production of oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) unless authorized by an Act of Congress.

The Tax Act provided the necessary Act of Congress and directed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to open up the 1.6 million acres of the ANWR known as the Coastal Plain for an oil and natural gas leasing program.

By law, the BLM is required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (a report) before they can implement a new oil and gas leasing program. They are also required to inform the public of their intention to do so via the Federal Register and to provide an opportunity for public comment.

Thanks to the early warning provided by the Federal Register, this issue is now on my radar screen. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to get in on the ground floor so to speak by making a public comment on the website where the BLM is accepting comments. Please consider joining me and making your own comment.

BLM ANWR Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Program EIS Notice Public Comment

After reading this post, I hope you have gained an appreciation for the value of the Federal Register and will take a few minutes to create your own account and subscription. The sign-up link is in the upper right-hand corner of the Federal Register website.

Featured Image at Top: Little Kid Wearing a Pith Helmet Lying in the Grass Looking through Binoculars – Photo Credit iStock/Maartje van Caspel

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Resources