Humans have genetically modified crops for 10,000 years — yes, it’s true


The anti-GMO movement says that nature does it better for food, ignoring the fact that humans have been genetically modified crops for over 10,000 years. In other words, some people believe that our ancestors’ foods are somehow better than modern foods. But our ancestors were selectively breeding plants and animals since the dawn of agriculture. They just didn’t know about DNA, but they knew what they were doing.

Strangely, people seem to endow “nature” with a special status that is ridiculous. As if nature was for the benefit of humans, rather than being just plain random events.

Evolution proceeds along a random process where environmental changes select for certain mutations over time (and yes, I’m oversimplifying the process), which is called natural selection. Moreover, there are random mutations that just occur that provide no benefit to the organism, although they might in the future because of some environmental change.

Nature has no goal. It has no guidance. It has no underlying value of good or evil. Unless you believe that some higher being controls it, and at that point, you’re a creationist, claiming that “nature” is better than the alternative is ridiculous.

So, we’re going to talk about how humans genetically modified crops have moved from the early days of waiting for a random, beneficial mutation to the modern world of bioengineering.

three yellow corn cobs bell pepper cucumbers and chili peppers
Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Pexels.com

The ten thousand years of GMO foods

Ten thousand years ago, when humans first started agriculture by domesticating crops and livestock, they probably observed some wild foods were tastier, larger, or easier to grow. Without foreknowledge of artificial selection, they selected the better subtypes of wild foods. And maybe after many years of growing some grain, a random mutation made it larger. Or the fruiting body is more delicious.

For example, wild wheat dropped its seeds near the plant to start the next generation of the plant. But early farmers noticed that some mutations (without knowing what a mutation was) made larger wheat. Or ones where the seeds stayed on the plant, making harvesting much easier. And the farmers then replanted seeds from the mutated plants, “selecting” for the traits that they wanted.

In other words, these early farmers were constantly looking for traits that appeared randomly but made the food better. These mutations may or may not show up for generations – these farmers had no way to make the mutations appear faster, so they just kind of waited for generation after generation of plants (and also animals).

Now, some may dispute the fact that waiting for a “natural” mutation is the same as a modern genetic modification. Using the Naturalistic Fallacy, they’ll claim that all foods “ought to be” developed in some arbitrary natural manner.

But what is the difference between how our ancestors genetically modified crops, waiting for generation after generation for the right mutation to appear, or modern biotechnology, which genetically modified crops quickly and easily? Not that much, unless, and I can’t stress this enough, you think that “nature” has some supernatural power.

Let’s say we want corn that resists some disease. We could grow thousands of different strains of corn, looking for resistance to that pathogen. We can then wait for generations of corn to develop a mutation that causes the disease resistance. This could take decades, and cost boatloads of cash. Or it might not happen at all.

There are several methods to speed up the mutation rate, like radiation exposure, but it’s still random. Maybe getting the right mutation is a one in one million chance, or it may never show up.

On the other hand, maybe there’s another species that’s resistant to that disease. It could be a closely related plant, like wheat. Or it could be a wholly unrelated organism, maybe a fish, that has the right gene, and it can be inserted into the plant genome, conferring resistance to the disease target.

You’re not going to get an ear of corn that tastes like fish. It’s not going to swim. It’s not going to grow gills and fins. It’s one gene out of millions in a fish. Instead of waiting for that mutation, we found it in another organism. And to just go along with the logical fallacies, that gene is “natural” too.

No, that fish gene in a corn genome isn’t going to infect you. Genes don’t get transferred from one organism to another without a lot of work. Besides, that fish gene has no special abilities – if genes transferred that easily each of us would be a horrific mishmash of corn, cattle, figs, apples, and everything else we ever eat. The digestive tract breaks down all DNA into simple nucleic acids that are the same in every single organism on this planet.

Moreover, the vast body of scientific evidence shows that genetically modified crops (the more recent variety) are no different than the genetically modified crops of the past – they are safe, safe, and safe. Furthermore, the scientific consensus on GMO safety, based on real overwhelming scientific evidence and the analysis of some of the brightest minds in science, is solidly on the side of GMO safety.

Unless you want to confer some special status to the genes that randomly appear in crops because they occur “naturally,” (and let’s be clear, that makes you an evolution denier), then humans have been doing genetic modifications for 10,000 years. It’s just today, we’re smarter and faster about it.

I cannot emphasize this enough – the basic chemistry of all genes in all organisms is the same — there are no fundamental differences in DNA chemistry between organisms. And there are no biologically plausible mechanisms that would convince a scientist that there is some difference, except how it was developed, between artificial selection that waits for a random mutation or artificial selection that speeds up the process with genetic modification.

One more thing. Using the Monsanto gambit, that somehow they are poisoning us or controlling world agriculture, is a lame strawman argument to instill fear of genetically modified crops. We’re just talking science here, not the tinfoil hat beliefs of conspiracists – irrespective of Monsanto’s motives, GMOs are safe, and probably necessary for the survival of humans.

Look at ten thousand years of genetically modified crops

Since a picture says a thousand words (maybe), let’s show you what humans have done over the past 10,000 years or so.

Let’s start with corn.

© John Doebley - University of Wisconsin.
© John Doebley – University of Wisconsin.

The top grain is teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn. It’s mostly inedible, and it tastes like dried potatoes. The middle one is a hybrid of teosinte and modern corn. And of course, the bottom is modern corn.

Here’s an important point about corn. Less than 20% (and frequently a lot less) of the genetic material of modern corn is related to the original teosinte species (and much of that might come from gene flow from the wild species to the cultivated ones). There were hundreds of mutations, natural and otherwise, that got us from teosinte to that delicious ear of corn we eat today.

But it’s more than just that. The modern corn plant now grows more food than the original teosinte (even if it were palatable) – and we’ve even improved the productivity with modern biotechnology. Humans have been selecting better genetic varieties of corn since the first human decided that they could make a better version of teosinte.

Yes, it was a genetically modified crop, even before anyone knew anything about genetics, DNA, or biotechnology.

While I’m talking to you about genetically modified crops, let’s look at bananas.

Ancient banana before ten thousand years of GMO foods
©Genetic Literacy Project

That photo above is the original banana that was first domesticated around 7000 years ago in southeast Asia. It contained hard inedible seeds, thick skin, and little food value. It was rather useless to humans, although it was consumed because it has some nutritional value.

modern-banana

This is a modern banana, after 7000 years of genetic manipulation, giving us a tasty fruit that is easy to peel (and of course makes for lots of funny cartoons) and no seeds.

“Nature” evolved a rather unappealing fruit. Mankind, through all kinds of genetic modification, gave us tasty, nutritious food. I’ll take the “unnatural” version of the banana.

One more, just for fun.

Ancient carrot before ten thousand years of GMO food
©Genetic Literacy Project

I bet that most of you will look at that and not have a clue what it is. Is it a beet? Potato?

It’s a wild carrot. Not sure why our ancestors in Persia (about 1000 years ago) thought that this root was nutritious and edible, because it is so small and scrawny.

genetically modified crops
Photo by K8 on Unsplash

The modern carrot is larger and has more nutrients than the pathetic ancestor.

Thanks to genetic modification over the past millennia, we get a food crop that provides us more nutrition per plant than the ancient ancestor.

TL;DR version

Almost every modern crop (and livestock) has a very little visible relationship to its ancestors that existed just before the advent of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, which on the scale of evolution is like 5 seconds ago. Using artificial selection to select for random mutations, sometimes forcing more mutations through different means like radiation, or genetic modification, humans have created objectively better foods.

We have hotter hot peppers because of natural and bioengineering genetic modification. We have juicier apples because of both types of genetic modification. We have better corn because of it. We have sugar cane because of it. We have wheat because of it. I could go on and on, but I hope you get the point.

The difference between artificial selection by waiting for a mutation or inducing a mutation is not scientifically significant. One takes generations of waiting, and the latter is relatively fast. And since genes are all made up of simple nucleic acids, that are the same across the planet, and they cannot transfer themselves to humans or other organisms, invented claims that the “natural” mutations are better is specious, and not supported by real science.

Modern foods are larger, less prone to disease and spoilage, and more nutritious (in terms of caloric and nutrient content). Maybe someone can make up some subjective difference like the taste, or use the Monsanto gambit, but growing foods that produce more edible parts per plant has been a goal of genetic modification for the past 10,000 years of agriculture.

And remember, denying the safety and productivity of GMOs, despite the huge mountain of evidence, makes you equivalent to any climate change or evolution denier. Get with the science.

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