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

Greening Your Vacation – 5 Easy Ways to Do It

Earth is the only place we have to vacation so let’s take care of it.

If you could make your vacation more eco-friendly without a lot of hassle and little or no expense, would you be willing to you try a green vacation idea or two?

Does that first line have you thinking something along the lines of, “Get real? Vacation is about having fun and indulging yourself. When I am on vacation, I do not want to worry about the environment.”

That was the reaction of my family dinner table editorial board when I broached the idea of writing a post about greening your vacation. They emphatically stated that vacation is about getting away from it all, splurging, and just enjoying yourself.

Bravely, I countered with you can do all that and do something to green your vacation. They sighed. Clearly, I was not getting the point that no one wants to think about the environment on vacation.

Actually, I do get it, but rather than being deterred, I decided to challenge myself to present you with five easy and low or no cost ideas and attempt to convince you that you can do at least one these without decreasing your enjoyment or making you feel deprived on your vacation.

Vacation and the Environment

You do not need me to tell you that we all live on a big sphere where global warming, climate change, and pollution do not stop at state or country boundaries but I feel it is worth repeating so we are on the same page.

In part, a healthy environment is what makes a vacation destination a place you want to visit. Envision your favorite vacation spot disappearing under the ocean forever, vaporizing in the flames of a mega-fire, or devastated by an unending drought. Imagine a place you have been longing to visit so damaged or polluted that you no longer want to go there and even if you did, it would not be safe.

We each have a responsibility to live more lightly on Earth safeguarding not only the communities where we live and work but also the places we go to relax, refresh, and live it up for a short time before going back to our daily lives.

The number one thing you can do to green your vacation is to avoid air travel.

That said I realize that millions of people choose to fly to and from their vacation destinations for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, regardless of your travel method, making some part of your vacation more environmentally friendly is within your power.

If millions of vacationers, including you and me, did just one thing, we could collectively make a sizable positive impact. Every drop in a bucket does indeed fill it up.

Reusable Water Bottle

On your next vacation, bring your own reusable water bottle and keep it filled. Make a point of drinking fewer bottles of water that come packaged in single-use plastic bottles or aluminum cans or better yet skip it altogether.

Besides the negative environmental and social impact of bottled water, dealing with billions of single-use plastic bottles discarded in the trash, placed in recycle bins, and tossed on the ground is a challenging and costly problem for tourist towns, national parks, beaches, amusement parks, and transportation hubs.

So much so, that municipalities, recreational areas, and airports are increasingly installing drinking fountains and water bottle refilling stations in an effort to reduce their costs. This is good for you because it makes it easier for you to refill your bottle when you are out and about.

I travel with two or three reusable BPA-free 24-ounce plastic reusable water bottles and one bottle carrier with a strap.

Three Reusable Water Bottles with a Bottle Carrier

You can buy a good quality reusable water bottle that will last indefinitely for $15-$25. Many organizations and non-profits offer reusable water bottles emblazoned with their logos for less than $10 or even free (it is good marketing for them).

Reusable Shopping Bag

A simple way to green your vacation is to stash a compact reusable shopping bag in your pocket, purse, daypack, tote bag, or rental car and then hand it to the store clerk before he or she puts the souvenir coffee mug or the makings for a picnic lunch you just bought into a disposable bag.

Unfortunately, single-use plastic bags are ubiquitous and like single-use plastic bottles, they have a large environmental footprint and generate tons of waste. Because they are lightweight, plastic bags tend to fly all over the place getting stuck on fences and trees, clogging storm drains, and ending up inside unsuspecting animals.

I travel with two or three reusable bags that roll up.

Three Roll Up Reusable Shopping Bags

You can buy a good quality and attractive reusable shopping bag for about the same price as a reusable water bottle and sometimes organizations give them away.

Provisions and Packaging

Another easy way to reduce the carbon footprint of your vacation is to cut down on using throwaway packaging.

For instance, you can be green and forgo the exorbitant prices you often find at travel departure locations like airports, train depots, and bus stations by taking food with you such as nuts and raisins, pretzels, chocolate chips cookies, a sandwich, or a salad in a reusable bag or container.

Another eco-friendly practice is to eat at least some meals in restaurants with reusable flatware, dishes, and glassware. This requires no effort on your part other than selecting a restaurant.

If you are staying in a vacation rental with any sort of a kitchen, consider making some of your own meals. Breakfast is a good choice because it is a relatively simple meal to make and you are fresh in the morning. Give yourself extra green credit for packing up snacks or lunch for the day.

Just say no thank to excess packaging. You do not need a little, waxed paper bag for the raspberry truffle you are going to eat as soon as you leave the candy store. Nor do you need a paper bag to carry one sandwich and a bag of chips on your way back to the beach for lunch.

Travel-Size Toiletries

Bringing your own toiletries from home either in full-size original containers or in travel-size reusable containers is easy and cuts down on waste. Another benefit is that if you have sensitive skin (like me), you can avoid potential allergies and rashes from using unfamiliar products.

Those tiny plastic bottles of shampoo and lotion have a similar environmental impact to single-use water bottles and plastic bags.

I travel with small reusable containers filled with my usual 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner, shower soap, lotion, and bar soap.

Four Reusable Travel-Size Toiletry Containers

You do not want toiletries leaking in your luggage so look closely at the containers before you buy them. An alternative is to buy travel-size containers of the toiletries you usually use and then refill them for future trips.

Shopping and Souvenirs

Buying souvenirs and shopping are an important part of the overall vacation experience for some people (including me) so this is probably a touchy subject. However, minimizing or eliminating shopping and buying souvenirs can free up your time for more sightseeing and other fun activities while decreasing your vacation carbon footprint.

To help you evaluate your vacation shopping habits and potential willingness to change them consider asking yourself the ten questions I raised in the post entitled Greening Your Vacation – Souvenirs and Shopping. I wrote this post past last year when I was grappling with own vacation shopping habits and trying to establish a balance for myself between buying nothing and buying too much.

Setting some limits on shopping before you leave home does not preclude you from being spontaneous or indulging yourself on vacation.

In September, I am going on vacation with friends to Omaha, Nebraska traveling by train from my home on the Central California Coast. I intend to implement my revised vacation souvenir and shopping philosophy on this trip.

After reading this post and thinking about it, I hope you can see yourself enjoying and greening your next vacation.

Featured Image at Top: Tiny Green Suitcase and Luggage Tag Made to Look like Plants on a Wood Background – Photo Credit iStock/Petmal

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Resources