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

Minimalism for Couples – Buying Less Stuff

You have the power to change your shopping and buying habits.

Your spouse or partner returns from getting the mail carrying a cardboard box and says, “Delivery for the minimalist.”

No, you are not a failure as a minimalist. Acquiring less stuff in our consumerist society can be challenging but you can do it and so can your significant other (if he or she chooses to).

At some point, months or years from now, you will have divested yourself of the things that do not fit in your life as a minimalist and hopefully your spouse or partner will have participated. If you do not want to end up back where you started, you need to plug the incoming stuff pipeline into your home or at least reduce its diameter.

The two main sources of incoming material goods are things that you and your spouse or partner buy, those that you give each other, and gifts from other people.

Unless you and your spouse or partner were able to immediately cease acquiring stuff once you decided to minimize you will likely need to change your shopping and buying habits and at least evaluate your gift exchanging philosophy.

This is the second post of a two-part post. The first post Minimalism for Couples – Getting Rid of Stuff dealt with minimizing even in the face of apathy from your spouse or partner while attempting to engage him or her in the process. This post addresses acquiring fewer possessions now and forever after, a formidable yet rewarding undertaking.

I hope these two posts will help you feel empowered to be a minimalist making your own choices and changing your own behavior even if your spouse or partner is not on board, yet.

Consumerism Takes a Holiday

Even though I did not recognize it at the time, our minimalist journey got a jump-start in 2013 just as the Christmas shopping season was getting underway. Any enjoyment I used to get from shopping and wrapping gifts was crushed under the rampant display of consumerism everywhere and my concern about the enormous environmental impact that our society’s constant quest for more stuff is having on Earth.

Little Blue Car Overloaded with Christmas Gifts on Top
Photo Credit iStock/Sergey Peterman

My spouse was feeling the same way so we agreed to opt out of exchanging gifts. We told our family and friends that we loved them but we did not intend to give gifts and did not wish to receive gifts either. We do still give to Toys for Tots and occasionally give or receive gifts. This feels right for us.

I am not saying that minimalists do not exchange gifts. What I am suggesting, is that you and your spouse or partner at least discuss your views about exchanging gifts and perhaps consider making a change.

If this seems like a draconic approach to minimalism, consider asking yourself the ten questions I raised in the Free Yourself from Christmas Consumerism post. If you still do not want to address gift giving and receiving or if talking about it is distressing your spouse or partner, then do not do it, at least not now.

Repair Instead of Replace

Repairing things to extend their useful life used to be routine until inexpensive and often low-quality consumer goods became ubiquitous encouraging you to buy new things instead of fixing them. For instance, why take the time to stitch up a fallen hemline on your t-shirt when you can toss it in the trash and buy a new for under $10.

Everything you use in your daily life has an environmental footprint. When you treat material goods as disposable, you end up wasting a lot of the energy, water, resources and people power that went into making and transporting it. The cost of harming people and the planet is not included in the purchase price of the products you buy.

Focusing on the environmental consequences of acquiring new things changed the way my spouse and I evaluate damaged or broken items. Now, we determine if we can repair it ourselves, pay someone else to fix it, live without it, or if we want to buy a replacement for it.

For example, after at least two decades of use, our card table with four matching folding chairs was pretty beat up. When the foam in the seats started deteriorating, we decided to have the tabletop and chairs reupholstered and my spouse painted the frames.

From the narrow perspective of dollars and cents, this solution was more expensive than buying a new table and chairs. However, we felt good about refurbishing our table and chairs instead of buying a new set because a lot of the original materials were reused and we supported a local craftsman who owns the upholstery shop about a mile from our house.

Fortunately, for you and us, repair is making a comeback. Organizations like iFixit empower people to repair their own stuff (especially electronic devices) and repair cafes are popping up where you can go to get help repairing things.

To Buy or Not to Buy

Overcoming the gravitational force of consumerism has been difficult for both me and my spouse but we are making progress on buying less stuff. You can only change yourself so that is what I have been working on.

In 2017, to get a grip on my own shopping and buying habits, I thought it would be fun and informative to track my purchases for a year. I shared how I did it and some insights I gained about my own behavior in the post entitled Living Happily with Less Stuff – To Buy or Not to Buy.

Below are a few examples of things my spouse and I have bought or did not buy recently and why we made the choices we did. Minimalists are not immune to advertising and the desire to buy stuff.

Waterpik

Last year just before going on a trip, I saw a Waterpik that came with a mini travel-size unit on a store shelf and stood there for several minutes considering buying it even though I had a Waterpik sitting on my bathroom counter at home. I felt very virtuous when I did not buy it. However, the story did not end there.

Standard and Travel-Size Waterpik with Carrying Case

A month or so ago, when the water tube broke inside the wand of my Waterpik, the travel-size version flashed through my mind but my spouse fixed the old one so I still did not buy a new one.

A week later, the repaired tube broke spraying water all over my face and the bathroom. I had had enough. I went online and bought the Waterpik model that came with the travel-size unit I had been coveting. Hmm, it is small but I might have to leave something else out to fit it in my luggage. Oh, why did I buy an extra thing I do not need?

My spouse repaired the old one and is now using it.

Olive Oil Dispenser

A couple of days ago, my spouse accidentally knocked over the ceramic olive oil dispenser we kept next to the stove and the top broke off in a way that was not repairable. We discussed buying a replacement but fortunately, our inner minimalists whispered that we could just pour olive oil out of the bottle (duh).

Today, our minimalist selves would not have bought this item in the first place.

Compost Pail

Eight years ago, when I began composting fruit and vegetable scraps, I bought a 1-gallon stainless steel pail that we keep on our kitchen counter and empty into the composter bin outside every day or so. I did not realize that stainless steel is not an ideal choice for a compost pail because it eventually gets little rust pits and starts leaking.

My spouse prolonged its life with some epoxy on the bottom but eventually smells began to adhere to the pail. Strictly speaking, the compost pail still works and making stainless steel has a significant environmental impact so it seemed wasteful to buy a new one.

The thing is that the pail smells mostly of bananas, which I ate a lot of when I was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Now I cannot stand to eat bananas. Every time I lift the compost pail lid the smell reminds me of that terrible time in my life. A few days ago, I decided that the old pail had served us well but it was time for a new one. My spouse agreed.

After doing some research, I selected a ceramic model with a removable plastic liner and ordered it online. When the new compost pail arrives, I am putting the old one in the recycle bin.

The above examples may seem minor to you. But chances are these kinds of day-to-day buy or no buy decisions will help you and your spouse or partner live happily, with fewer possessions that add value to your life, or will lead, you right back to where you started.

If there is one thing I hope you take away from this post, it is that reflecting on why you are trying to live happily with less stuff is the greatest deterrent to acquiring more stuff and later regretting it.

I leave you with this final thought.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” —Mahatma Gandhi

(I used to have a wall hanging with that quote on it, sigh.)

Featured Image at Top: Internet Shopping – Keyboard, Miniature Truck Filled with Boxes, Earth Globe – Photo Credit iStock/cybrain

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