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inFact: The Unpopular Facts about GMOs

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Published on Mar 19, 2013

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Why the big fuss about GMO crops? Are they indeed as terrible as some people say?

Are GMO crops good or bad? The question actually doesn't make sense, because direct genetic modification is a technology, not a product. It's one basic technology for creating new plant varieties. Another basic technology is hybridization, or cross-breeding.

Think of the difference between a typewriter and a computer. They're two different technologies that can be used to write a book. But it makes no sense to ask "Are books written on computers good or bad?" We all understand that it's the end product itself that's important, not the technology with which it was created. Using a computer instead of a typewriter may make the work easier, but it does not inherently result in a book that's either better or worse.

By the same token, it makes no sense to ask if GMO crops are good or bad; we have to look instead at the end product. Using genetic modification lets us, for example, "copy and paste" specific genes, just as the computer lets you copy & paste paragraphs from one document to the other. You can copy and paste a gene that makes the plant better, or a gene that makes it worse. You can copy and paste text to make an exciting book or a boring book.

One of the most common GMO crops is Bt-corn, which stands for Bacillus thuringiensis. Its purpose is to make the corn naturally resistant to caterpillars, without requiring a pesticide. To make Bt-corn, we clipped one gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, and pasted it into traditional corn. That gene makes the corn produce a protein that causes caterpillars to stop eating. Simple; we get corn that's nutritionally unchanged, and no pesticide has to be sprayed, so the corn's cleaner too.

So the next time someone tells you that GMO crops are either good or bad, ask them which variety they're talking about, just as you'd ask what book they liked. Ask them which gene conferred the trait they're concerned about, just as you might ask about a character in the book. Chances are you'll reveal that they have no idea what they're talking about. Being written on a computer doesn't make a book good or bad; and being developed with direct genetic manipulation doesn't make a plant good or bad.

Before you jump on any pop-culture bandwagon, understand the basic science, and then, make an informed jump.

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