I recently watched ‘GMO OMG‘, a documentary on genetically modified organisms on Netflix and have a few criticisms about it.
The documentary was entertaining but I wish it hadn’t taken the easy road when it comes to the science behind GMOs.
It did, and this approach was disappointing to me because I felt that the documentary maker could have done better in trying to explain the science and then let us as viewers form our opinions (why, read on).
A collection of GMO related scientific terms is shown to us viewers in the beginning of the documentary. These words include ‘Agrobacterium tumefasciens’, ‘Gene gun’ et cetera et cetera. The narrator reads these abstract words as something horrible, out of this world.
Later in the documentary there is a scene in which the father (the documentary maker) and his kids run through a corn field wearing gas masks, as the corn ‘is actually producing pesticide’ (corn=pesticide, the food we eat=pesticide). It is all very dystopian.
So here is what he didn’t tell us in the documentary. This is the story of two bacteria.
Agrobacterium tumefasciens – let’s casually call it At – is a common soil species and causes a disease in a plant. If a plant is infected by At it will quickly show symptoms of tumour like growth in its cells.
At has part of its DNA in a separate, round thing called a plasmid (this is quite remarkable, because usually all species have their DNA in chromosomes). If At manages to infect a plant, it transfers part of its plasmid DNA into that plant’s genome.
What happens then is that the plant’s infected cells start producing what the bacterial DNA tells it to produce. This phenomenon of At being able to transfer part of its DNA to a plant is utilized in gene technology and in producing GMOs.
When producing GMO varieties in a lab, the gene that is to be transferred into a plant is first transferred into At. Then the plant (or most commonly, a leaf or a stem of that plant) is infected with At.
This technology can be used for monocots (such as potato, tomato, cotton, canola and strawberry) because these plants are naturally susceptible to the disease caused by At.
For crops such as cereals other technologies have to be used if we are to alter their genomes.
This is another very common soil bacteria. Its name is Bacillus thuriengiensis. We can call it Bt.
During its lifespan Bt produces toxins that are harmful for certain insects. If an insect is infected by this bacteria, its digestion systems goes nuts and the insect dies.
For vertebrates such as human beings the toxins produced by Bt are not harmful. This is because our digestion systems lack a receptor protein needed for the Bt toxin to get going.
Ever since the 1950s Bt has been used as a biopesticide on farms.
GMO plants coined Bt-corn (such as the corn field in the documentary) or Bt-cotton are plants that have been altered in such way that a Bt gene has been added to their genomes.
This means the plant carries a gene which becomes activated if a certain insect attacks it. The insect will die if it eats the plant. Saying the whole plant is a pesticide is a bit of an overstatement and a bold thing to say to a documentary viewer.
Some say that this way pest control is much more precise – instead of spraying pesticides on the whole field, there is a specific gene in the plant that will kill the pest and not affect other organisms in the soil.
We can try and understand the science
It makes me frustrated to see how unwilling we sometimes seem to be in understanding the scientific processes behind GMOs, dismissing them all as too technical and thus too scary. Let’s at least try to understand.
If the science behind GMOs is depicted as something bizarre and unfathomable in documentaries like these (which read a massive audience through Netflix), I am afraid we are doing ourselves a disservice and missing out on the actual conversation on GMOs, a conversation I personally think is very necessary.
For me this conversation involves debating the power structures and ethics of food production, not so much the lab work behind GMOs.
I guess this is exactly the conversation the documentary maker also wanted to bring forward, but unfortunately he lost me in the beginning.
What do you think? Did you watch the documentary?
Photo by Stephen Melkisethian.