The Non-GMO Project is Actually Non-Science
A trip to your local supermarket is always a fun one, with tasty snacks tempting you in every aisle. On some food products, you might notice a ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ label – complete with a benign-looking butterfly graphic – stamped onto the front of the packaging. It might be tempting to pick one up but before you hop aboard the non-GMO bandwagon, you should first understand what genetic modification means and what the whole project is all about.
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What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?
Genetic modification carries with it some negative connotations, for which we – to a certain extent – have Hollywood and Marvel to thank (think Peter Parker and the X-Men). But those misguided superhero backstories are correct in one regard, and that’s the concept that genetic modification involves mutants.
We know that the genetic code is hereditary; it is passed down from parents to their offspring in the form of DNA (also RNA for some organisms, but that’s out of the scope of this article). Within this code lies the instructions for life, giving the organism an advantage from the moment of their inception into the world.
But the genetic code isn’t foolproof, it wasn’t designed to be so. It is simply a set of instructions for little cellular machinery, telling them exactly what to do – sort of like a step-by-step LEGO guide. Most of the time, the code works. Sometimes, mistakes are made, but the cells have the machinery available to help fix these errors. But what happens when the fault is within the code itself?
Natural Genetic Modification
Once in a blue moon, there is a mistake in DNA replication as it is passed on from the parent to the offspring. If the error affects a crucial part of the organism’s function, it usually results in the death of the offspring. Other times, the offspring are born with disabilities that might lower their quality of life. On extremely rare occasions though, these genetic mutations bring about changes to the organism that actually improve its likelihood of survival.
But hang on, this isn’t evolution just yet – there’s a caveat. Mutations don’t carry over to the next generation unless they occur within the genes of an organism’s reproductive cells. In humans, sperm and egg cells – known as gametes – are the only channels for the transfer of genetic material. Through them, changes in the organism continuously occur until the trait is shared by all members of the species – this is known as evolution.
Due to the improbability of such an event, mutations are extremely slow to arise in a species; this is why natural genetic modification takes place across million-year timescales. But what if there was a way to shorten this process?
Artificial Genetic Modification
We know that DNA changes lead to new features arising in an organism, or old ones being lost. Without intervention, evolution within a species takes millions of years. But remember that genes are simply instructions passed on by parents to their offspring; if we are able to choose desirable traits and get rid of undesirable ones, we can influence the ‘survival rate’ of those genes.
In fact, this type of artificial selection has been in practice for thousands of years. While the technology for introducing mutations into DNA was a little out of reach for our ancestors, they used the simple technique of observation to pinpoint desirable traits in individuals. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that children tend to take on the features of their parents!
Selective Breeding – How Wolves Became Dogs
Dogs are a perfect example of artificial selection. The variety of dog breeds that we know today did not exist just a few thousand years ago; instead, they all arose from the same ancestor – the wolf. Twelve thousand years ago, our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settle down, farming crops and rearing cattle to survive1. This domestication of animals eventually led to the integration of wild wolves into society; the wolves received food and shelter and, in return, humans received a loyal companion.
Since then, humans have deliberately chosen traits in individual dogs to suit their needs. Those needing dogs for protection chose to crossbreed dogs with traits such as alertness and aggressiveness; these dogs eventually became the German Shepherds and Great Danes. Others who just wanted a plaything chose the smallest of each litter, and these became the Shih-Tzus and Toy Poodles of today. Through the careful selection of traits across multiple generations, we now have enormous genetic variation between different breeds of dogs.
Today, we have access to technology that can accelerate this process even further. Techniques such as CRISPR exist that can introduce mutations into DNA, directly altering gene expression. Although they are more difficult to perform than breeding across generations, these processes ensure that the correct gene is modified, removing the trial and error aspect of artificial selection.
Gene engineering allows us to make targeted changes in the traits of an organism, from making bacterial cells produce a certain protein to changing the color of a mouse’s fur. Naturally, scientists are researching ways to solve the world’s problems using this technology, such as eradicating diseases and increasing the yields of biofuels. When the only limitation is the genetic code, the possibilities of genetic engineering are virtually endless.
Genetically Modified Foods
The versatility of gene engineering extends to agriculture, in which living organisms are grown, harvested and eaten. Since living organisms follow the rules set by their genetic code, scientists can enable genes that confer useful traits. For example, many apples have been engineered so that they produce a specific enzyme, thereby preventing browning after being cut. The chemical makeup of crops can also be altered to our benefit, such as increasing their nutritional content or reducing the amount of naturally occurring toxins in certain vegetables.
Farmers and people in developing countries have benefited the most from genetically modified (GM) foods. A study conducted in 2014 showed that GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%2.
Non-GMO Project – A Marketing Ploy
As you might have realized by now, the real truth is that there is no such thing as a non-GMO organism! Just as in the case with dogs, selective breeding in agriculture is not a new concept. By taking pollen from a flower and transferring it to another, favorable traits of the parents are passed onto their offspring. All of the vegetables we find on the supermarket shelves today are the products of genetic engineering by our ancestors over several millennia.
Yet, entities out there – the largest of which is The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program – continue to feed on public fear and the necessity for manufacturers to earn consumer trust. Their main argument is that modern genetic engineering is somehow different from traditional crossbreeding techniques, even though we know that it simply isn’t true. Altering the genome involves changes to DNA base pairs, regardless of the technique. Their website states that ‘GMOs are only created through the use of genetic engineering or biotechnology, not through processes that could occur in nature’ as if there was anything ‘natural’ about farmers choosing the sweetest apples or the juiciest roots for breeding.
‘GMO’s are Unnatural!’
Indeed, the idea that GMOs are somehow ‘unnatural’ is the focus of their fearmongering. And they have been quite successful, too. A survey conducted in 2001 showed that many believed that direct gene engineering was different from previously used techniques3. A common stance taken was that we are now also creating novel life-forms that would not have existed in the past. Sentiments included the belief that we are ‘pushing Nature beyond its limits’ or ‘upsetting the equilibrium of Nature’, even to the extent of ‘playing God’. But isn’t that the case with all technology? Is medicine not ‘unnaturally’ keeping us healthy and prolonging our lives?
When it comes to modification of an organism, the genome is the only thing that governs the change; DNA doesn’t lie. The Non-GMO Project argues that GMOs are distinct from crops that have been bred using traditional crossbreeding methods, yet they do not have a method to test if an organism has been modified in the lab. Instead, they obtain evidence from the supply chain of the manufacturer to determine if their product has been ‘contaminated’.
Of course, there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding gene-editing technology. Designer babies are a hot area of debate, with professor He Jiankui in 2018 creating the world’s first genetically modified babies. Medical researchers are interested in using this technology to prevent and treat diseases, which was the main objective of the experiments performed by He, despite the ethical concerns.
Big Winners of the Non-GMO Project
The public is led to believe that GMOs are unnatural and somehow harmful, hence they spend more money on GMO-verified products. Food manufacturers pay huge sums to get ‘accredited’ by a non-GMO ‘authority’ while procuring raw ingredients that may be more expensive and less nutritious. It seems like a lose-lose situation for both sellers and consumers. In the end, the only ones who profit from this entire project are the ones who keep it running. By continually instilling fear of GMOs in public perception, they are able to maintain the illusion of being a legitimate authority as well as their fat paychecks.
A 2018 article on the Non-GMO Project’s website states that more than 3,000 brands have jumped aboard their bandwagon, verifying over 50,000 products that represent more than $26 billion in annual sales. With the cost of accreditation going for thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars per product, you can see why the Non-GMO Project is keen on keeping up the marketing ploy.
Author’s note: I have made it a point to boycott ‘Non-GMO Verified’ products for two reasons; firstly, because the only ones who benefit from this farce are the people behind the Non-GMO Project, and secondly because I’m on a strict GMO-only diet.
The Power of Genetic Modification
Everything alive in this world today is the result of genetic modification – that’s what evolution is: an adaptation for survival. But we live in a time where genetic editing at the smallest scale – the flawless swapping of a single base pair out of the 3 billion present in DNA – has become possible. Instead of living in fear of GMOs, we should embrace the technology and harness its potential for good.
Imagine plants that efficiently convert the energy from sunlight into usable food or renewable biofuel. Genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia being eradicated through gene therapy. The problems of today could well be solved tomorrow; millions of years of evolution, condensed into a single generation.
And for now, we should be encouraging the scientists who are part of the GMO revolution instead of supporting the fearmongering, money-grabbing tactics of the Non-GMO Project.
- Morey, D. F. (1994). The early evolution of the domestic dog. American Scientist, 82(4), 336-347.
- Klümper, W., & Qaim, M. (2014). A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PloS one, 9(11), e111629.
- Marris, C. (2001). Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths: Stakeholders in the GMO debate often describe public opinion as irrational. But do they really understand the public?. EMBO reports, 2(7), 545-548.