Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
How to Talk to Your Kids about Genetic Modification


A few months ago, I read a newspaper article to my third and fourth grade sons about cloning a woolly mammoth. They were enthralled. Who wouldn't be? An ancient mammoth had been pulled from the ice in Siberia with muscles and blood vessels so well preserved that researchers immediately thought to bring the 43,000-year-old creature back to life.

Cloning an extinct and long-dead animal is tricky, but we've laid the groundwork: cats, Pashmina goats, water buffaloes and many other mammals have been cloned before and after the famous cloning of “Dolly the Sheep" in 1996. To revive a mammoth, you simply need a good-sized chunk of its genetic material, cells to reproduce those genes in the laboratory, and a mother, likely an elephant, to gestate the mammoth fetus.

Oh, a fair amount of technical skill.

Not to mention a ton of cash.

And a damn good reason, too.

My kids were split on whether cloning a mammoth is a smart move. The “awesome” factor weighed heavily, as I suspect it does with genetic engineers. Imagine mammoths roaming the earth! But wait. Imagine mammoths roaming the earth. What would they eat? What would eat them? Where would they live? Does the world really need mammoths right now?

We had an earnest, if somewhat abstract, conversation: no one expects a woolly mammoth to galumph through Nova Scotia any time soon. Yet there is a genetic technology we reckon with every day—every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in fact. About 70% of processed foods in North America contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients. If you buy non-organic granola bars, corn flakes, canola oil, or Hawaiian papayas, you're likely eating and serving your kids GM food.

I'm familiar with the process of genetic modification. I've done it. As my children proudly say, “Mom's a scientist! Well, she used to be a scientist.... Now she's an editor.”

It seems messing around with test tubes and Bunsen burners is cooler than messing around with words, but they're right. I once worked in a lab where my job was to create GM potatoes, so I know how it's done: a gene from one being is extracted and (after many vain attempts) is spliced into the genetic material of completely different being. The term “Frankenfood,” while inaccurate from both a scientific and literary point of view, attempts to portray the unearthly quality of genetic modification. Almost all GM foods on the market have been modified with genes from bacteria or viruses—not human, cow or (with one exception) fish genes. Still, GM organisms are brand new genetic combinations never before seen in nature—not even possible in nature.

Think of sex. Okay, think of talking to your kids about sex. We tell them, in age-appropriate detail, how the egg and sperm rendezvous to make a baby, and how the egg carries some traits (for being tall, say) and the sperm carries other traits (like olive-toned skin). The genes get mixed up and re-sorted in the baby and voilà: a tall, olive-skinned child. It's not that simple of course, but the point is that members of the same species reproduce to create new combinations of characteristics within certain limits. Genetic modification doesn't follow such rules; there's no natural way for melons to express genes from a virus that normally infects E. coli, which GM cantaloupes now do.

And like that first conversation with your kids about sex, talk of GM food tends to elicit both intrigue and disgust. Some folks, mostly from the enthusiastic industry camp, insist GM food is safe, eco-friendly, and fantastically profitable. Others, mostly from the abstemious activist camp, say GM food is toxic and the manufacturers greedy and deceitful. But life on earth has reproduced sexually for about a billion years. We've been cloning animals in the lab for thirty. We've been growing GM food for just over twenty. Two decades isn't long enough for conclusive ecological or epidemiological studies—even though it's twice as long as my sons have been alive. Our kids have grown up with GM food. The products are commonplace; the technology is becoming so too. Genetic experiments that took days and a Master's degree in the '90s are now taught in undergraduate courses and available in DIY kits. My boys will probably see them in middle school science fairs.

Every couple of months, however, new research suggests we rethink GM food, that maybe it was wrong to plant the entire US corn belt with GM varieties, that maybe those GM granola bars ought to be labeled, that it might be wise to slow down long enough to discern “can” from “should.”

In relating mom's career path from scientist to editor, my kids omit a key stage. Between the test tubes and the pen, I spent years working in ethics and policy. I thought a lot about “should,” especially—as in the case of GM food—when we don't know what will happen if we do. How can we make good choices under such uncertainty? How can we teach our kids to think critically and make reasoned decisions, especially kids raised on a blend of high-tech fixes and portents of environmental doom?

As with most parent-to-kid talks, general principles stick better than hard-and-fast rules. The following might help when considering mammoth clones, GM food, or the many other technologies our kids will face over the next few decades. (They might help with those first conversations about human reproduction, too.)

1. Get your facts straight. The wildly-enthusiastic and strictly-abstemious camps may have valid points, but if you really want to understand genetic modification and other technological feats, study your science. Even if you don't intend to be a scientist (although we need more scientists, especially women scientists), take enough grade school or college-level classes to decipher the research first hand and weigh the findings yourself.

2. It's okay to wait. After reading those research papers, you'll still have questions. The scientists who wrote them have questions, too. We don't fully understand how genes work in the confines of a laboratory, much less in the super-complicated world. The study of science should yield respect, even humility, not final answers. So it's okay to say, I don't know yet. It's okay to say, I'm going to think about this before making a decision. It's even okay to say, No.

3. Take the long view. We'll likely bicker over specific benefits or harms caused by GM food for some time. We've bickered for over twenty years already. Often, the bigger picture tells a better story, and bigger questions yield better answers. It's too late to ask some big questions about GM food—if it's a path we want to explore at all, for instance—we can ask where this path is taking us, and what we might miss by following it so fervently. If we zoom out, take the long view, will alternative and perhaps more appealing routes become clear?

4. The pen is still mightier. No one can blame an eight-year-old for thinking mom in lab goggles swirling flasks is way cooler than mom on the couch with her dictionaries. Unless your parents are JK Rowling or Rick Riordin, the writing life must seem pretty dull. But in our age of rapid-fire technology, the wherewithal to sift through reams of conflicting information, to pause, reflect, and describe your findings to others is a powerful skill. Whether you plan to become an editor, scientist, activist, and/or CEO, the ability to explain complex technologies and controversial decisions—to express yourself clearly and convincingly—will take you far. Someday, you might even sit your parents down for a little chat....

Katherine J. Barrett is a former senior editor for Literary Mama and  current editor-in-chief for Understorey Magazine. A mother to three young boys, Katherine recently returned to Canada after four years in South Africa. She is the author of the Literary Mama columns Mother City Mama and Of This Fantastic Peach. Katherine holds a PhD in Botany and Ethics and has previously taught at the University of British Columbia.

Katherine lives in Nova Scotia with her family.

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It is great to read a balanced account of this issue. However Katherine does not discuss the use of genetic modification for medical purposes, which seems to be accepted. For example genetically modified bacteria are used to produce insulin - a big improvement over using pig insulin. I just found the following on the internet "Synthetic human insulin was the first golden molecule of the biotech industry and the direct result of recombinant DNA technology. Currently, millions of diabetics worldwide use synthetic insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels. Synthetic insulin is made in both bacteria and yeast"
Now that is a very informative article that makes sense of GM practices. The bottom line is it is much too soon to judge the merits of GMOs. Maybe they will save the world with superior yields when climate change reduces the arable land mass to high altitudes or latitudes. Maybe they will also eliminate bio- diversity and wipe out the world’s food supply. What possible reason can you present for failing to label GMO products?
Just love your writing as usual!!!
Very proud of you Katherine - you make important stuff so easy to read AND understand - and thanks to your Uncle for reminding us to read you!
I've always been somewhat skeptical GM foods. Not that we know which ones are. Loved you article--we need more info on the subject. Thanks....
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