You probably already know this (unless you have been living under a rock for the past fifty years or so) but GMO stands for “genetically modified organism” and its first appearance was in the 1970s. Ever since the first genetically modified organism was created in the year 1973, GMO had spurred countless debates and controversies across the globe.
In today’s article we will try to tackle with what we consider to be an enormous topic – non-GMO food and the impact it has on the biscuit industry and the food industry as a whole. In fact, we ourselves were not one-hundred percent sure where to begin from…
But we decided to begin with a general overview of just what GMO exactly is, how it came to be and its history. You have most likely heard about GMO already, you had to… in the past few decades it has been mentioned everywhere, from tabloids to television, from chit-chat to academic circles. But even so, you might not be familiar with what it actually is and how it affects our daily lives.
That is where we come in. We will try to present you with a basic definition of what GMO is, although no single definition is one-hundred percent adequate and cannot encompass all forms of genetic modification. That is why several possible definitions will be required. Besides this, we will also talk about how genetic modification is achieved, and how such genetic modifications are used for commercial purposes.
As you might expect from a topic such as this, the use of GMO for commercial purposes has spawned a lot of debate and criticism. From scientific to ethical to religious standpoints, there are many in the world who consider GMO to be harmful, although the consensus amongst the scientific society is that GMO food is no more harmful than the products that we already consume.
Numerous organisations have sprung up around the world which monitor the progress of GMO technology. There are many who fear that GMO commercialised food might be harmful, and thus they seek to certify those products who are GMO-free.
Not only do these organisations monitor the progress of genetic modification, but they also monitor commercial GMO food for any negative side-effects it might have on the human organism. We will take a look at the most prominent non-GMO certifying organization today, how they came to be and what their goals are.
We will also talk about the aforementioned concerns and why GMO is viewed with such mistrust. So sit-down, relax, and read-on to find out more about genetic modification and how it affects the biscuit industry, starting with the definitions of GMO!
To answer the question straight away… no. There is no single definition of what genetically modified organisms are that is adequate enough to encompass all forms of genetic modifications. Several have been proposed by numerous states, unions and scientific circles, but in such a varied field of biology, no single definition can do.
In its broadest terms, a genetically modified organism can be anything that has had its genome modified in any way, even by nature. As such, the term “GMO” would encompass a large number of wildlife and plants, as many species adapt to their environment and exchange positive genes through breeding and gene flow. A more specific definition is therefore required.
This definition could be that a genetically modified organism is anything that has been modified or altered by humans through scientific means. All of the existing commercial GMO food and strains of plants and animals could then be considered GMO, while at the same time ruling-out any species that have had its genes altered by natural processes.
Many world organizations have already come up with their own variations of the aforementioned definitions. For example, the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 1993 edition stated that genetic modification was anything that used the wide range of gene-modifying techniques, such as artificial insemination, sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, gene manipulation or cloning.
The European Union also used a similar definition. The EU decided that anything that was either selectively breed or artificially selected could be considered GMO. They latter made some amendments to the original definition and ruled-out traditional breeding, in vitro fertilization, cell fusion techniques, induction of polyploidy and mutagenesis, as these were not genetic modifications, but rather, natural processes “jump-started” by artificial means.
What is probably the best definition of what GMO is was put forth by the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation and the European Commission. These organisations argue that for an organism to be considered genetically modified, its modification must not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.
Figure 1 - You can achieve a look like this by infesting the plants with a virus. This would be considered GMO, as it does not occur naturally.
In this way, even the natural processes (such as fertilisation) which occur through artificial means are not considered GMO. This was a necessary change to the long-used definition put forth by the European Union and scientific publishers before them. It made the definition less broad and more concise, and removed the stigma attached with “test-tube” babies.
But, as with anything in life, we can expect this definition to change in the near future as the line between actual science and science-fiction becomes more and more thin. As we could see from the paragraphs above, no single definition of GMO can do, although the latest one set forth by the European Commission is the most adequate thus far.
But even this definition has its variations which are in use by health organisations in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Russian Federation, China etc. Moving on from the definitions of GMO, we will now deal with the development of genetic modification and its history.
The next fact might surprise you, but humanity has been using genetic modification ever since 12.000 BC. Well… at least if you are going by the broadest definitions of what GMO is.
The truth is that humanity has been using selective breeding to domesticate animals for millennia. And not just to domesticate animals, but also for these animals to have the best traits possible. How do you think we got dogs and cat as pets?
These animals did not appear out of nowhere. Dogs were once wild wolves who were domesticated through select breeding for the purpose of acting as hunting companions. Through the ages, the best males or “alpha males” were used for breeding new pups, who would, hopefully, inherit their progenitor’s best traits. It was this use of selective breeding that helped the ancient hunter/gatherer tribes to thrive, as they were then able to hunt for wildlife more efficiently.
The same goes for cats. Cats were once wild creatures which were domesticated at some point in pre-historic or historic times to serve as mice catchers. But this genetic modifying by our ancient predecessors did not stop there. Cows, sheep, horses… all of these animals were domesticated, and only the aforementioned “alpha males” were given the privilege of reproduction.
But these selective breeding practices are not exclusive to humans. Our predecessors learned much from observing animals, and it was through wolves and other similar predators that they learned of genetic modification. Wolves hunt in packs, but there is always the “top dog” which gets to mate first. This is done out of necessity as the accumulated traits of the strongest wolf in the pack could help the collective survive the harsh wilderness.
Figure 2 - Wolves are just one of the many species of animals that have been domesticated
The modern genetic modification, however, which changes an organism in a non-natural occurring way, started not so long ago. Fifty years earlier, in 1973, two researchers by the names of Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen made the very first GMO. They took a gene from a bacterium that was resistant to an antibiotic called kanamycin and inserted the gene through a plasmid into other, non-resistant bacteria.
The experiment was a success, as the bacteria that were able to successfully incorporate the new kanamycin-resistant gene were in-fact resistant to it. These bacteria would never be able to develop a natural resistance to the antibiotic, so this can indeed be considered as the first time that a GMO was created.
Figure 3 - The bananas you've grown accustomed to are actually a product of genetic modification. They do not look like this in their natural state
One year later, another researcher by the name of Rudolf Jaenisch would create the first GMO animal, a transgenic mouse. He achieved this feat by introducing foreign DNA into its embryo. Soon enough, the first GMO plants were being made, and this would lead to the commercialisation of GMO products.
But not without backlash from the society… In the next section, we are going to discuss the controversies connected with GMO and the organisations that monitors its development.
As with any new scientific or technological development, it is always closely monitored by different organizations and groups for any ethical or harmful side-effects that might arise. While such scientific endeavours are generally beneficial to the advancement of mankind, some can have serious repercussions.
Figure 4 - Tomatoes are a big part of the GMO controversies, as there was a rumour circulating that tomatoes were crossed with fish genes in order to have a longer expiration date
The problems with genetic modification arise from ethical, environmental and religious standpoints. Why these specific standpoints, you ask? Well… for multiple reasons. Ethical issues arise from bio-patenting. What this entails is that scientists, researchers or entrepreneurs can patent certain genetically-modified strains of plants and animals.
It should be pretty self-explanatory why bio-patenting is considered negative or unethical. By patenting GMO, individuals can gain a monopoly on possible genetic modifications that could be of great use to the entirety of mankind. Imagine if a new DNA strain was discovered that could completely eradicate cancer, and someone forbade others from trying to reproduce the same effect.
The next GMO controversy is connected with the environment, primarily with agriculture. There are certain strains of grain/wheat that yield more produce, but at the same time are more resistant to herbicides and pesticides. Due to this, these plants have to be sprayed with specific herbicide formulas.
At first glance, this does not sound negative, but these strains constantly mutate and grow herbicide-resistant weed. This weed makes the crops unusable, so scientists have to create ever-stronger versions of the GMO herbicide formula in order for it to be effective. This has a negative impact on the soil as it becomes more and more unfertile.
To make matter worse, these altered genes can spread to nearby non-modified plants via gene flow. So healthy, non-altered plants start growing the same herbicide-resistant weed which makes them completely unusable. No wonder then, that certain regulations had to be put into place and organisations formed which would monitor these GMO strains. This does not mean that GMO is bad! Far from it. It just has to be monitored, so as to not have a negative impact on human health and environment.
Figure 5 - Herbicide-resistant weeds can pass to non-modified crops, which makes them unusable
The last of the GMO controversies is connected to religion. Many religious activists have protested against the development of genetic modification. To these activists, the scientists who work on genetic manipulation are playing “God” in a destructive way. The consider such research dangerous, as tampering with God’s creation is considered blasphemous to them.
When you consider all of the concerns that have sprung up around GMO food, it is no surprise that people got worried. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what they were consuming. This ties in with how GMO affected the industry, but more on that soon.
The Non-GMO Project organisation is one of the many groups that monitor genetically modified food that has been commercialised. They are a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to “building and protecting a non-GMO food supply”. They do this by educating the masses on the importance of non-GMO products and through advertising campaigns and civil demonstrations.
The Non-GMO Project organisation was established back in 2007, and it has grown to become one of the largest organisations of its kind. The Non-GMO Project gives out stamps of approval to non-GMO products, so the consumers can easily identify which products are safe for consumption. You can check out their website here, in case you wish to check out your favourite biscuits.
We have made this statement several times over in our most recent articles – that biscuit companies, and companies in general, need to cater their products to the needs of the consumers. More and more people wish to know what they are eating. They wish to be able to simply glance at a product and know if it safe for consumption or for their dietary lifestyle.
Any why even tie oneself in with GMO ingredients? Well, genetically modified crops can yield more gain which in turn could lead to more profit, but the modifications need to be monitored. A lot of stigma is associated with GMO and people want to eat healthy. This is how the food industry is affected by GMO.
Not in an industrial or revolutionary way as one might think. GMO products are actually reverting the food industry to its roots. More and more companies are baking organic biscuits, and they pride themselves on this fact. They gain an upper hand on their competitors by proudly displaying that their products are non-GMO, as consumers are more likely to purchase these products.
So, when you think about, ultimately, GMO products are affecting the industry in a positive way, as biscuits and snacks are becoming healthier and more nutritional as a side-effect of the GMO scare.
However, this does not mean that GMO is inherently bad. There are many snacks and biscuits that are GMO which are healthy and nutritious. This just means that, as with all things in life, we have to be patient and careful when developing new GMO food.
In the end, we can conclude that the general public is somewhat ready for genetic modification. This branch of biology is still in its developmental phase, and while it might have a profound and beneficial impact on humanity as a whole, it should remain just that for now… experimental research.
We hope you have enjoyed our article. We can certainly say that we enjoyed writing about this topic, as there are so many things to mention and discuss. Be sure to check out the Non-GMO Project’s website in case you wish to see if your favourite biscuits are non-GMO. If you are searching for a local product, chances are that your country has its own equivalent organisation. Until next time, cheers!
Figure 6 - Organic biscuits are the best biscuits!