What are GMOs?
A GMO or Genetically Modified Organism, is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Animals, plants and microorganisms have been genetically modified in the past.
Genes can be transferred within the same species, across species and across kingdoms. Genes can be introduced, enhanced, altered or removed.
History of Gene Modification
Humans have domesticated plants and animals for thousands of years using selective breeding and artificial selection. Some may argue that this is also “gene modification”.
In this perspective, men’s best friends are the results of genetic modification. Dogs descended from the grey wolf and became dogs after centuries of selective breeding by men.
What is the difference between selective breeding and modern-day GMOs?
- GMOs are done through genetic engineering in a lab;
- modifications happen at gene level (DNA) not only at breeding / pollinisation level;
- results can be revolutionary, so we speak of a genetic revolution instead of genetic evolution.
Paul Berg made the first recombination of genetic material from different sources in 1972 to create sequences that weren’t in the genome.
The first GMO is considered to be a bacteria genetically modified by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen in 1973.
The controversy around GMOs can be summarised as follow:
- Risk to human health
There is a scientific consensus that GMO crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food. Each GM food needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.
- Lack of independent science
There has been many conflicts of interest involving governing bodies and some of those who perform and evaluate the GMO studies.
- Real Life Scenario
There’s a difference between testing GMOs and their impact in labs and in the real world.
Many GMOs are subject to intellectual property law, mostly patents. What happens when a patented GMOs mutate with other (patented or non-patented) crops?
Monsanto and Bioplastics
Who says GMO, says Monsanto. Monsanto has been active in bioplastics since the 1990s. They acquired “Biopol” from Zeneca in 1996.
The reason behind the acquisition is scientific and economic. They believed it could be cheaper to produce bioplastics from plants instead of microbes and bacteria.
In 1999, Monsanto promoted publicly that genetically modified (GM) plants could produce biodegradable plastic.
The move was criticised by NGOs calling it “a public relations stunt using what is perceived as a beneficial use of GM to repair Monsanto’s damaged image”.
Monsanto replied that they had been working on the plants since 1994, long before the GMO storm.
Monsanto genetically modified oil seed rape by adding four genes from a bacteria that naturally produced a biodegradable plastic called PHBV … and so one may say … Monsanto genetically engineered the first plant that would produce biodegradable plastic.
They should be acknowledged for this bioplastic milestone.
Are GMOs good or bad?
I used to think the following. We should look at GMOs in a pragmatic way. We need to feed billions of people and intensive agriculture is a necessary evil. GMOs are the summum of intensive agriculture. Genetic engineering should help us create the most efficient seeds and organisms to cope with our intensive agro-industrial needs. Basta!
However, I missed something.
My opinion on GMOs changed after meeting someone whose parent made a career at Monsanto. This is what I heard:
“I’m against GMOs because they sterilise the seeds….You can’t replant the seeds of your harvest, you have to buy new ones every time you want to harvest”.
How did I miss that one? Seed sterilisation! Instinctively, you feel that the seeds are sterilised for commercial and not for scientific reasons.
First Generation Bioplastics
GM feedstock are not a prerequisite for the production of bioplastics. You can make bioplastics from GMO or non-GMO crops. Some producers promote the use of non-GMO feedstock as a sales argument.
Even if GM crops are used in the production of bioplastics, the multiple-stage processing and high heat used to create the polymer removes all traces of genetic material. This means that the final bioplastic product contains no genetic traces.
It’s important to distinguish the nuance between (1) this bioplastics wasn’t produced using GM crops and (2) this bioplastics doesn’t contain GM material.
However, if there’s a moral issue with the use of GMO crops in bioplastics, we should start by looking at the first generation bioplastics. The bioplastics made from so-called “food crops”.
PLA and Bio-PE are first generation bioplastics. Their most common feedstock are corn, sugar cane and sugar beets.
The most common reasons to modify crops genetically are the following:
- herbicide resistance;
- Insect resistance;
- drought resistance;
- increase nutritional value.
Let’s look at the most famous first generation bioplastic producers and brands.
- NatureWorks – Ingeo
NatureWorks is a joint venture between Cargill and PTT. Here’s what they say on their website:
Today Ingeo is made from plant-based sugars and does not require a genetically modified (GM) feedstock. Current US corn growing practices produce a mixed stream of GM and conventional (non-GM) corn that we use for production. However, our final product, Ingeo biopolymer, does not contain any GM material due to the high heat used in the manufacturing process. Ingeo is certified to be free of any genetic material by Eurofins GeneScan, recognized by both government and NGOs as the leading authority for testing food, feed and raw materials
- Braskem – I’m Green
Braskem is a Brazilian company that uses Brazilian sugarcane to produce their (biobased) Bio-PE I’m Green. There wasn’t a specific section on their website that spoke about GMOs. However, genetically modified sugarcane is not commercially cultivated in Brazil to my knowledge and Braskem claims in some of their press releases that their Bio-PE is made from non-GMO sugarcane.
- Total-Corbion – Luminy
Total-Corbion is a joint venture between French Total and Dutch Corbion. They sell PLA under the brand Luminy. On their website they cover GMOs as follow: Luminy is made from European sugar beet and Thai sugarcane: these are always GMO-free crops.
The American Culture
The American company, NatureWorks, is the only one using GMOs. Could this be explained culturally? Probably!
Americans are more open to GMOs than the rest of the world. Why? Business and trade are more important virtues than public health. The land of Uncle Sam was initially established as a colony, a commercial outpost.
Aren’t Americans afraid to change nature irrevocably? America was founded on two genocides: the native Americans (120 million deaths) and slavery (80 millions deported). Americans are not afraid to disrupt “the order of things” for progress. “Guilt” isn’t an American particularism, “commitment” is.
GMO vs Fracking
Can we point our finger at bioplastics made from GMO crops? Yes, but to remain morally consistent you may want to have a look at fossil (biodegradable) plastics and fracking. Is your fossil-plastic fracking-free?
You can’t morally judge bioplastics on the use of GMOs if you’re not judging fossil plastics on the use of fracking.