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

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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

The Resilient Investor – Book Review

Invest in your best life.

You will never look at the word investment in the same way after reading The Resilient Investor. Investing is about more than money, it is about your life.

The full title of the book by financial advisors Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck is The Resilient Investor: A Plan for Your Life, Not Just Your Money. That should give you a clue this is not your typical investment 101 book and you will not be learning how to get rich by investing in the stock market. What you will gain is a broader perspective about investing and a toolkit to help you create your own resilient investment plan.

The Resilient Investor Book CoverI was interested in reading this book for two reasons. First, I was curious. I wondered if it was possible for three money guys to speak about non-financial matters in an understandable and useful way? Second, I wanted to learn more about investing in people, communities, and companies that are taking the long view and working towards keeping Earth habitable now and in the future.

Book Review

“Does the challenge of making informed decisions about your life seem far more complex today than it did even a short time ago? Does the future—your own and that of the world—feel highly uncertain, perhaps even precarious? We can sense you there, nodding in agreement.”

When I read the first few sentences of The Resilient Investor (above), I thought, “Yes that is exactly how I feel.”

Before reading this book, I would have automatically associated money with the word investment but I think the authors’ expanded version is much more useful because it encompasses your whole life and that is what is important.

“…try this on for size: investing is something that we all do by directing our time, attention, energy, or money in ways that move us toward our future dreams, using a diverse range of strategies.”

Readers as you move through the book you will learn about the Resilient Investing Map (RIM), a handy tool for making notes and organizing your thoughts about what you want to keep doing, stop doing, or start doing when it comes to investing in your life. You can work on your own RIM as you read the book, read the whole book and then use the RIM, or skip the RIM entirely and use your own method. I am taking the middle approach. I have read the book and now I am doing my RIM.

You will learn how to recognize your real net worth and about close to home, global, and evolutionary investment strategies (remember it is not just about money). A discussion of possible future scenarios encompasses a full spectrum of outcomes from doom and gloom to a bright new world. These scenarios combined with various investor profiles will help you identify your own worldview, where you stand, and what is important to you.

To help you evaluate your own situation and create a resilient investing plan the authors provide a step-by-step guide and examples from their own lives.

The book wraps up with a review of sustainable and responsible investing (SRI) an approach that screens investments for environmental, social, and governance factors as well as traditional return on investment financial measures.

The Bottom Line

Not surprisingly, tax season is what led me to read The Resilient Investor and write a review about it this April. I do not know about you, but money is usually on my mind when I am collecting and organizing information for our income tax returns. To me, this seems like the ideal time to expand my thinking about investing and to create my own resilient investing plan. I hope you think so, too.

The authors of The Resilient Investor, Hal Brill, Michael Kramer, and Christopher Peck are managing partners of Natural Investments, a B Corporation specializing in sustainable, responsible investments. Jim Cummings is a writer who works with Natural Investments and is the editor of the book.

Admittedly, Brill, Kramer, and Peck are not a diverse trio. They describe themselves as “three college-educated white guys who all co-own a specialty investment company.” However, they do have decades of resilient living and investing experience and a compelling vision for a resilient future.

The book is short (less than 200 pages) making it easy to read and carry around. The writing style is conversational and straightforward. A companion website offers more information and downloadable blank and example RIMs.

“In the end, despite our continued positing that the idea of investing needs to be expanded, there comes a time to drop the distinctions that divide our daily lives into categories. There is only one activity that we are all engaged with all the time: we are simply trying to live our lives the best we can.”

Reader Note: I first learned about The Resilient Investor while reading a newsletter from Natural Investments. Our financial advisor is a member of the Natural Investments team. When I asked him about the book, he offered to give me a copy. I chose to invest my time in writing this review because I think readers may find the book informative and useful.

Featured Image at Top: Purple Flower in a Metal Spring with Loose Petals on a Wood Surface – Photo Credit Shutterstock/Alta Oosthuizen

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