GMO vs Hybridization – Implications

A post on facebook said “Thank goodness for genetic modification!” in conjunction with this infographic about hybridization. These are my thoughts on the topic.

Here’s The Pragmatic Environmentalist’s shared post about the infographic.

Let’s create some definitions so we’re clear…

GMO is an acronym for Genetically Modified Organism. Modern genetic modification implies the splicing of genes from one genus (maybe an animal) into another genus (maybe a plant) via artificial means that could never happen without a fully-stocked science lab and a good bit of training. There are several relatively new lab-intensive processes (within the last hundred years) that come under the understanding of GMO.

Hybridization implies manipulating only the existing gene pool of a specific genus (or two closely-related genera) via successive generations of breeding alone. This is a process that has been done by humans for millennia. You can do this in your own garden.

Non-GMO generally describes any food item or crop (animal or plant) that has not had its genes changed by artificial means in a lab. It includes wild varieties and hybridized varieties.

In this context, Good means sustainable, ecologically sound and with civic intentions that benefit the ecosystem and the welfare of citizens over agribusiness profit. Evil means reducing sustainability, threatening the ecosystem and/or giving agribusiness a means to hold the keys to sustainability out of reach of the common citizen.

These terms can also be applied to non-food ventures, such as Jack Horner’s dino-chicken.

While calling hybridization a form of GMO may seem technically true, the Pragmatic Environmentalist’s statement “Thank goodness for genetic modification!” in conjunction with the infographic about hybridization comes across as intentionally conflating two terms which have come to mean different things in modern parlance.

That said, while GMO tech can be used to good purpose (golden rice) it can also be put to evil purpose (terminator cotton).

GMO’s are still life. Life should not be patented. All GMO’s should be open-source and focused on solutions that make for a more sustainable future. When large companies have the power to seize a non-GMO farmer’s crop because company scouts found DNA drift from company’s local fields in a non-GMO farmer’s crop, that’s evil. It’s equivalent to one pesticide-spraying farmer taking over a non-spraying farmer’s crop because of pesticide drift/overspray onto the non-spraying farmer’s crop. Yet this is happening today. The non-GMO farmer should be paid damages for the genetic variance caused by the drift from the GMO farmer, as is the law with pesticides.

There is also the possibility that at some point, someone is going to accidentally splice a latent virus into a tomato, or some other crop, that will end up expressing itself in humans as a dangerous pathogen in an F2 or F3 generation of the crop. It may seem unlikely, but some versions of GMO are pretty much a crap shoot as to what gets expressed. The Hollows series by Kim Harrison is a fun fictitious excursion into the aftermath of a society that had a problem with F2 GMO tomatoes.

Now lets cap that all off with some politics. Large agribusiness companies buy politicians at the state and federal level all the time like popcorn at the cinema. The only reason patents can allow big agribusiness to seize a small farmer’s crops is because big businesses hire lawyers to lobby for laws that favor large agribusiness. Politicians are easily swayed when enough money is waved in front of them. Today’s congress is a perfect example of a bought-and-paid-for, big-business-before-citizens legislature. Both major parties have succumbed and frankly no longer serve their real constituents — their voters.

As to Jack Horner and his dino-chickens, for reasons I cannot put my finger on, I find myself more comfortable manipulating plant genes than animal. Also, it’s one thing to grow animals for food with small GMO changes, where small unfavorable traits can be manipulated in or out of a gene pool. It’s another entirely to grow hundreds of thousands or millions of chicken eggs, many of which will suffer during brooding or after hatching from horrifying mutations just to satisfy the aesthetic endeavors of one man who wants to see a dino-chicken before he dies. There is no functional purpose to a dino-chicken. We’ll never be able to recreate an actual dinosaur by splicing together modern genes. It would be something new under the sun, and it will find no balance in existing ecosystems. I’m uncomfortable with millions of hatchlings suffering in the name of art.

It’s a lovely infographic. On its own merit in context with hybridization, it’s a tribute to the ingenuity of farmers over the millennia. But again, let’s not conflate Hybridization with the modern concepts of GMO and non-GMO.

The only reason I can think of to conflate the two is because we’re trying to make GMO seem better than it is. Well it’s a tool. It can be used for good or evil. The tool is already out of the bag. Are we going to let the small farmer wield it, or are we going to let agribusiness keep it locked away and keep small farmers in the existing continual cycle of farm debt?

Featured image photo credit: Food and Farm Discussion Lab

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