What is a GMO? My Tour of Monsanto

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

Most consumers can’t explain what a GMO is, how it is made, or even what the letters stand for.  Even for people with strong opinions on the topic there is a lot of confusion.

Since understanding agriculture is the goal of my Ag Leadership of Tomorrow class, we toured the Monsanto Research facility near St. Louis a few weeks ago.  I was able to take a fair number of photographs and I’ll be writing three posts this week to share what we saw.  Since there’s a lot of confusion let’s start with the basics.  What is a GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism.  A GMO starts as a seed whose DNA has been mapped and whose traits have been carefully chosen in a laboratory.

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

You might remember that double helix DNA strand (on the table behind the guide).  DNA is made of four nucleotides, A, T, C, and G.  Each letter may only pair with one partner and the order of the pairs determines what protein is made.

The idea of a GMO is that proteins do all the jobs that allow us to be living, growing organisms: some make your eyes blue, some give plants the ability to photosynthesize, some are resistant to a specific disease or insect.  In the past we counted on the process of reproduction to randomly select the DNA (importantly- proteins) that would be passed on to the offspring.  Since we can now read the DNA of many plants we can be more specific about putting just the right protein into the offspring.   

A look inside Monsanto to see what a GMO really is

This chart shows the map of a corn plant.  You can see the rows of genetic information– our guide called them “streets.”  Each street has “houses” which is where the code for one protein lives.  The “address” for that protein is important, as sometimes the code is turned on and sometimes it’s off.  Remember that every cell in your body (or a corn plant) has the DNA for your entire body, but not all of it is being used the same way.  Cells in your fingertips produce nails, cells in your eyes show a different color than cells in your skin, cells internally produce different proteins than cells in your skin.

Through the wonder of science we can now “turn on” proteins that increase yield, or move proteins to new houses to use water more efficently.  There are some kinds of modifications that take proteins from an organism that is attacking a plant and put the DNA code into the plant to make it resistant to the disease.  This tends to worry people, but keep in mind, the genetic modification for root worms is only “turned on” in the roots.  The genetic modification for Round Up is in the leaf.  It changes nothing in the corn kernel or soybean.

Also, despite what you may hear, GMOs are the most tested product available.  They must be approved by the FDA, EPA, and USDA.  (And I didn’t just link to those agencies, each click will take you to the page that describes their role in testing.)  And here’s a quick article linking you to all kinds of long-term studies of GMO safety.

This video What is a GMO? An introduction from GMO Answers is a great start to understanding GMOs.  Actually, the whole website is rather useful.

The awesome thing about proteins is they are responsible for all functions of life.  The same research that leads to plant resistance to glyphosate may also lead us to proteins responsible for Autism and the process for Bt resistant corn may lead us to the process that ends Alzheimer’s.

I, for one, will be cheering that on.

Categories: Science | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “What is a GMO? My Tour of Monsanto

  1. I’ve always been split on GMOs. I agree with all your points on why they’re no better or worse than any other source of seed (especially since Mendel would agree on how he was happily modifying the genetics of his pea plants).

    But on the other hand, I do not like that Monsanto has a near monopoly on soybean seeds. I watched a documentary once where they kept attacking a guy who’s business was to sort soybean seed for farmers who weren’t using Monsanto’s seed (Monsanto insists that their farmers buy their seed from Monsanto year after year whereas “traditional” farmers can use some of last years’s crop for this year’s seed). What was happening was that through natural processes (like wind and animals), some of Monsanto’s seed was ending up in the non-Monsanto’s farmer’s field and Monsanto didn’t like that.

    Heck, it might even have been that Monsanto’s soybeans aren’t sterile, so it was the POLLEN that was crossing fence lines and making Monsanto claim ownership to that field’s seed. It’s been awhile since I watched that documentary.

    I also worry about the problems that naturally arise when organisms are too uniform in genetic identity. Should something unforeseen happen that is able to kill one plant, it has a better possibility of killing all the plants. We like to think of these plants as being heartier now, but evolution is a never ending process and I can guarantee that some insect or disease variety that these GMOs are supposed to be protected against will evolve to where they are no longer affected by the GMOs properties. It’s the same way that antibiotics have to become stronger and stronger because they’re killing off all the “weak” bacteria and making room for the “stronger” to thrive (weak and strong being used relatively here). See MRSA.

    Hearty varieties are also not necessarily very tasty. Look at Chocolate right now. The plants that taste the best are suffering from disease, while few folks like the taste of the varieties that are surviving better. Scientists are trying to combine the best parts into a new variety, but in the meantime the price is increasing for consumers and there’s no guarantee that the marketable product will be as delicious as the “heirloom varieties”. See tomatoes.

    There are pros and cons to everything and there is no such thing as a magic bullet.

    • Catherine, thanks so much for your comment– I can tell you’ve given this a lot of consideration. I’ll just add a little more “food for thought.”

      Monsanto is a big company, and they do sell a lot of seed, but they are not the only large seed company. There are several other major players- Pioneer, Bayer, Dow, Syngenta, as well as a few smaller options as well. Monsanto is the most well-known.

      Secondly, Monsanto has never sued a non-GMO farmer for finding Monsanto varieties in their field. You can find many sources accusing this, but you’ll never find the court documents. Since GMO and non-GMO soybeans are identical you wouldn’t be able to tell anyway, unless you tested the DNA of every single seed.

      And none of Monsanto’s seeds are sterile. They grow in my yard when they fall off my husband’s boots or pockets. They even grow in the seal of my doorway…

      Also, most farmers don’t want to save seed. We get a better, more predictable product buying a specific variety for a specific field. When Monsanto first patented their seeds there were many farmers who wouldn’t try it because of the seed saving issue, but results have shown that even with the extra cost of seed you come out ahead because it’s better seed.

      As for varieties, understanding the genetic code of a plant actually helps ensure its survival. There are literally hundreds of varieties of soybeans we choose between each spring. And GMOs are the reason the papaya is still available in Hawaii. https://gmoanswers.com/explore Click through the slide presentation to the video.

      As for taste, field corn (different from sweet corn) and soybeans aren’t eaten plain, they’re ground into corn starch or corn meal etc., so I’ve never heard any research on taste. When they created the papaya taste was part of the process, and I believe the same is true of potatoes. I’m not very familiar with that issue.

      There are pros and cons to GMOs. I really enjoy discussing these and welcome the “con” arguments. For many people, however, the cons are not cons but rather misconceptions.

      I’d love to hear any of your other questions or concerns.

      And I’d love to know of any magic bullet if you find one. 😉

    • Kristie Swenson

      Hi Catherine! I’m Kristie Swenson, a farmer in Minnesota, and a volunteer for CommonGround (http://findourcommonground.com/). I came across this blog post and I think a lot of people have the same questions and comments as you do! We raise field corn (not sweet corn / corn on the cob that you get from the grocery store or farmers market) and soybeans.
      I specifically want to address your comment about “Monsanto insists that their farmers buy their seed from Monsanto year after year whereas “traditional” farmers can use some of last years’s crop for this year’s seed”. We can buy seed from any company we want to buy from. It’s like car shopping – we can buy whatever brand and whatever model (hybrid or variety of seed) from whatever dealership or person (company or seed salesman) that we choose.
      While my grandpa saved seeds when he was farming 60 years ago, saving seeds is a practice that our family has not done for several years (even before GMO crops became available) as seeds have to preserved over the winter months. There’s no guarantee that the saved seeds will germinate when planted (and yes, that’s a risk that my grandpa took). We choose to buy seed from a seed salesman (usually a neighbor) and if the seeds don’t germinate, our seed salesman is very willing to work with us to get new seeds to plant.

  2. Love the post. I talk a lot with people about the bad information they get about GMO’s and try to get them to see they are positive uses for GMO’s and can actually help people. The bad information just seems to overrun the good these days. Thanks for the links and good post. 🙂 Hope you had a happy 4th. 🙂

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