Defining "Natural" — How GM Technology Compares With Other Breeding Techniques


The idea that GMO-free foods are more “natural” than those with genetically modified ingredients is a misconception, says a plant biologist and advocate for genetic modification from the University of Florida.

Dr. Kevin Folta
Dr. Kevin Folta

Speaking at the University of Manitoba last week, Kevin Folta discussed how transgenic (or GM) technology works and misunderstandings about genetically modified organisms. He said by definition, no plants commonly used for food are “natural,” whether they were bred using transgenics or not.

A chart comparing plant breeding techniques (from
A chart comparing plant breeding techniques (from

“The process of crop domestication was a human-mediated process,” he says in the video interview below. “Only through agriculture, and breeding and selection, selecting elite plants from those that weren’t as good, were humans able to improve crops. This underlines everything we eat. Nothing is in its original form.”

When compared to older breeding techniques, the transgenic method is much more precise and controlled, notes Folta (see chart at right.)

“Breeding has always been more of an art than a science. Any plant breeder will tell you that. It has been based on very careful observations, good statistics, and large populations, but it still has a certain degree of randomness and weirdness to it,” he says. “GM technology is quite different in that we know precisely which gene is being used, what that gene does and where it lands in the genome. It’s a precise extension of regular plant breeding.”

As part of the event hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers at the U of M, Folta explained how transgenic plants are created using naturally occurring agrobacterium to insert a gene into an organism. He also described what he calls the “Frankenfood paradox”; on one hand, the public accepts mutation breeding, where radiation or chemicals are used to affect an unknown number of genes, but on the other hand, there’s opposition to transgenics, where only one to three genes are impacted.

Folta said the public discussion surrounding GMOs is “not a scientific debate, nor a farming debate, but a social debate.” He noted that’s a challenge when advocating about the safety of GM technology, as scientists prefer using evidence rather than emotions, such as fear, to influence people’s conclusions.

More with Kevin Folta:

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