Hybrid Vegetable Vs. Genetically Modified

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Once they've reached the supermarket bins, the difference between hybrid tomatoes and genetically modified ones is difficult to assess. They made look and taste identical. However, there is a significant difference in how the two different types of tomatoes came into being, and, perhaps most importantly, how the general public views the methods that made them.

Hybrids

  • Hybrid vegetables are crossbred species of a two closely related but different parent vegetables. The purpose of hybridization is to improve the characteristics of the child plant. For example, a gardener might combine a hardy but poorly flowering rose with a frail but beautifully colored variety in an attempt to create a hardier, lovelier rosebush. Occasionally, this may produce a new vegetable. Farmers have cross-pollinated broccoli and cauliflower to create broccoflower, which resembles cauliflower but is green in color and has a sweeter taste.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

  • To create genetically modified vegetables, scientists work on a microscopic level. Taking desirable gene sequences from other plants (and even animals), scientists use special syringes or a "gene gun" to "shoot" this foreign strand at the vegetable's original DNA strand. Guide sequences present in this foreign strand help the desired gene attach to the existing DNA strand, thereby altering a vegetable's gene sequencing with the foreign DNA. Biotech companies have been working on genetically modified crops because the resultant plants may be hardier, naturally resistant to insects (requiring little or no chemical pest control) and easier to reproduce.

Misconceptions

  • Hybrids and genetically modified vegetables are not the same; the difference lies in the DNA. Hybridization happens regularly in nature when closely related species cross-pollinate. Genetic modification only happens in the laboratory because it combines DNA from organisms (plants or animals) outside of a vegetable's species.

Controversy

  • Hybrid vegetables have a favorable public opinion since they have existed naturally for centuries; when gardeners or farmers create them, they are using noninvasive methods of cross-pollination. Genetically modified vegetables, on the other hand, are the result of a new technology that may have serious drawbacks. Dr. Arpad Pusztai was a career research scientist on plant lectins, and considered an expert in his field. In 1998, he concluded that consuming genetically modified potatoes had negative effects on lab rats, and he instantly become a voice of dissent among the many scientists embracing the possibilities of GMOs. Since then, the debate has intensified because little is known about the long-term effects on the consumer of the extra gene sequences used as the guide markers in the modification process. Concerns over increased antibiotic resistance, unknown toxicity and allergen levels keep GM fruits and vegetables from being fully embraced by the general public.

Significance

  • Genetically modified crops often make the headlines. The European Union has banned genetically modified fruits and vegetables. Developing nations are receiving aid in the form of genetically modified crops like rice and corn to feed their starving populations, but activist groups cry foul, claiming the developed world is using the disadvantaged as guinea pigs. The questions regarding whether GMOs are entirely safe for human consumption, and whether they are equivalent in nutritional value to conventional vegetables, will not be definitively answered until scientists can study the long-term effects of consuming them.

References

  • Photo Credit vegetable market image by Bionic Media from Fotolia.com
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