The Hulk is Green, but is he Organic?

Scotland is to ban GMOs, because there’s more to GMOs than Science. It might sound good, but is it really a way to a more ‘natural’ method of farming? What mutants can you grow in Scotland?

The Hulk
Photo: rorem / 123RF.

Imagine you are with your friends at a fantasy and sci-fi convention. You’re all in your costumes and everyone is impressed. You could pass for the real (?) thing. You’re having a great time, but around lunch you get hungry and food inside the convention is hugely overpriced. Fortunately there’s an organic food shop on the same street as the convention, so you and your friends decide to go there. However, as you try to enter you find the costumes are a problem. The shopkeeper refuses to allow anything inside that might be a GMO, even if it’s a fictional character. So which person would be allowed into the shop?

The question itself is silly, but in some ways so too is how we divide GMOs from conventional crops. How many of the characters above would count as a GMO? Are the reason for allowing some but not others justifiable?

It’s not just a matter for Scotland. Recently restaurant chain Chipotle removed GMOs from their menu without making it clear what they are still permitting. There is confusion, with some parties arguing that the position against GMOs is based on science, without making it clear that methods they favour have equal impact on the environment and health.

So what are the other methods of creating new crop varieties that end up on your plate? Here are four fictional characters that we’ll use as proxies for crop breeding methods.

Mr Spock

The easiest choice is Mr Spock. As any Trekker can tell you, Spock is not a Vulcan. He’s half-Vulcan and half-Human, a hybrid. Hybrids are key to agriculture. Many popular fruits are hybrids created accidentally. Some were chosen more deliberately like wheat. This was a hybrid of wild grasses that is unknown in the wild, that probably developed first as a weed, but was selected so early farmers could process it more easily.

Selection can be important in making a useful hybrid. A hybrid itself is rarely as productive as a domesticated variety, but its genes can give a plant an important characteristic, such as better defences against disease. So what you want is to take that characteristic and get it into your domesticated variety. The common way to this is through backcrossing.

Backcrossing takes the hybrid and breeds it with it’s domesticated parent crop. Then you look at the offspring, and you breed the ones with the genes you want back with the domesticated parent. You keep repeating that until most of the genes from the hybrid are gone and what you have is mainly your original crop with the novel characteristic in it. It’s far from natural, but it is comfortably organic, and a common technique used today, even when the new genes are not from wild relatives of a crop, but from manipulated sources. It’s a lot of work, which is why in the 1930s plant ‘patents’ were invented to protect crop varieties.

The Joker

The Joker certainly isn’t natural. He was created when he fell into a vat of toxic chemicals after Batman tried to catch him. He emerged mutated and pallid, his white skin contrasting with his green hair. Falling into toxic waste is bad for your health and it can be bad for seeds too. Sometimes plants exposed to carcinogenic chemicals mutate to become unusable, but very occasionally a useful character trait emerges and can be selected. Backcrossing the mutant plant with a more productive plant can bring the selected or silenced gene into the DNA of the crop you want.

Chemical mutagenesis might not sound attractive, but it does qualify as organic. It’s a popular way to make crop varieties and some European seed companies use this method. So the Joker could enter the shop, but chemicals are not the only way to mutate DNA.

The Invisible Woman

Susan Storm became the Invisible Woman after encountering radiation, along with the rest of the Fantastic Four, during a test flight of an interstellar rocket. There is a long history of mutating plants with radiation. Experiments started before the second world war with X-rays, After the war atoms became the tool of choice. The method usually had Cobalt-60 as a source of radiation but now Caesium-137 is more commonly used (the radiation is gamma rays, so maybe the Hulk would be a better analogy). There was a lot of enthusiasm for the potential of atomic energy after the Second World War and in 1959 there was even an Atomic Gardening Society. By now it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that if you use radiation to mutate a plant, is still counts as natural.

‘Golden Promise’ barley, produced with gamma radiation, is popular in the UK. It’s become central to whisky production and recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday. But this isn’t just a historical method, it’s still in use today. The International Atomic Energy Authority have an agriculture programme that recently released Centenario barley, that allows grain to grow at 4000 metres in Andes. It has been a key tool in breeding new varieties of wheat, rice, cassava and other staples.

Sue Storm won’t have to be invisible to enter the organic food shop.

Captain America

That just leaves Captain America. Captain America was created by a serum. It was specifically designed to make super-soldiers by the scientist Abraham Erskine, who was shot by a Nazi spy before he wrote down how to make it. Unlike the other characters, the powers of Captain America are an intended result, and this marks them out as different, like GMOs.

Maybe the easiest way to make a GMO plant is to get something else to do it. Agrobacterium has been modifying the genes of plants for its own ends for as long as anyone knows. If you give the Agrobacterium the target DNA, it can insert that into the host plant. Alternatively you shoot a plant with a gene gun, firing gold particles coated with DNA to get the new genes in. In both circumstances, the plants have new genes, like the other methods, but with fewer random genes tagging along. These get cross-bred with the leading varieties of crops, just like the other methods.

So while we might have fewer unknown genes in Captain America than the others, he’s the one who is considered risky and so, following the precautionary principle, is barred from the shop.

You might think it odd that a psychopath like the Joker could be safer than Captain America, but in real life organic foods have killed people, while GMOs have not. David Mastio made the point (in a not entirely serious column) that more people have died from one incident involving untested organic beansprouts from Germany than from the Fukushima meltdown. That doesn’t seem to have had any effect on public perception of risk.

Food safety is a sensible thing to be worried about, but it’s a bit odd to only be worried about food safety when it’s labelled a GMO. Likewise, it’s puzzling that patents on plants worry so many people when it comes to GMOs, yet there isn’t the same concern about patents on conventional crops.

If you think GMOs should be tested or labelled for reasons of safety, that’s certainly a plausible opinion. If, however, you think other crops should be exempt from the same testing, safety standards and labelling laws, you might want to look more closely at your food.