Genetic engineering promises to boost crop yields, enhance the nutritional value of foods, provide new medicines and many other benefits. It also entails potential risks that have attracted opposition on numerous fronts.
Some of the opposition, unfortunately, takes the form of ideological rants, innuendo, or scare tactics. Separating responsible from irresponsible criticism can be difficult.
About a year ago, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the sale of two genetically engineered varieties of apple for human food. The new apples don’t brown when cut. It won’t be necessary to dip them in lemon juice to use them for a fruit salad.
The very first comment on a blog post about the decision ended, “Considering the FDA/USDA’s cozy spot in Monsanto, et al’s pocket, those approvals literally mean nothing at all.”
But this announcement had nothing to do with Monsanto. The company is a favorite whipping boy of the kind of environmentalist who cares more about demonizing large corporations than taking the effort to study and learn some facts.
What are GMOs? What benefits do they offer? What problems are they likely to cause?
Farmers have probably always practiced selective breeding of both plants and animals. It is a slow process. Because of recent advances in our understanding of genetics, scientists can identify the genes that control certain traits. Recent technological advances include genetic engineering. Scientists can alter the genome directly.
The first step in genetic engineering is to identify a trait to change. Let’s suppose a plant resistant to a particular disease. The second step is to isolate the genes responsible for the trait by comparing plants with the desired trait to plants of the same species without it.
Once the desired genetic change and the gene that controls it are identified, the third step is to insert the desired gene into the organism. The new gene can come from an organism of the same species or a completely different species.
Altering plants is especially difficult. The earliest method involved “gene guns.” They shot DNA-coated metal particles into the plant tissue. A more recent technique involves inserting the gene into bacteria that naturally invades seeds. The altered bacteria alter the plant tissue’s DNA. Newer procedures are sure to follow.
Once a trait has been introduced to the tissue, the final step involves growing acceptable organisms. They have to have the trait, and no other introduced trait. They must be able to reproduce their own kind.
Promise of GMOs
Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for developing high yield seeds that prevented mass starvation in India and Pakistan. Genetic engineering can potentially develop new seeds more quickly and efficiently than his more traditional methods. Among other benefits, high yield seeds will grow more food on less land.
GMOs can boost nutrition. Vitamin A deficiency, for example, is still a serious problem in many parts of the world.
It is being reduced by growing “golden rice.” This GMO contains three genes not found in regular white rice that produce beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, into the edible parts of the plant.
Similarly, genetic engineering can make farm animals more productive.
If plants have a built-in resistance to pests and diseases, farmers will be less dependent on spraying chemicals.
Genetically modified trees with lower lignin content could reduce the necessity for hazardous chemicals in manufacturing paper, which would benefit both the environment and workers’ health.
Unsustainable irrigation practices in developing countries have degraded the land. It has become less able to grow crops. Salt-resistant or drought-resistant crops could rehabilitate it. Plants modified to restore nutrients to the soil may also help rehabilitate damaged farmland.
Fruits and vegetables modified to spoil less quickly could be part of the solution to food waste.
Genetic engineering can also be used to diagnose diseases, produce vaccines and medicines, remove allergens from foods, or produce biofuel.
Problems with GMOs
Monsanto makes a potent herbicide and then developed crop seeds that are resistant to it. What is gained if the modified genes get passed on to weeds?
Scientists are bitterly divided on the likelihood of such problems. There is, however, a general consensus that it will be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle if it happens.
Genes can also mutate. Natural mutation causes problems science more or less understands. What may happen with a mutated genetically modified gene is anyone’s guess. There is no conclusive data as to how stable inserted genes will be over multiple generations.
Organisms have some genes that are switched on and off under certain conditions. Will an inserted gene turn others on or off? What effect will that have on the health of the organism? Or who or whatever eats it?
GMOs can compete or even breed with wild species or cultivated non-GMO species. They could pose additional threats to biodiversity. They also pose potential threats to the health of birds, beneficial insects, or even humans.
The new variety of apples mentioned at the beginning of this article was developed by a small company. Larger, wealthier companies carry out most research in biotechnology. Many people love to hate Monsanto because of over how much power it exerts in both agribusiness and politics.
The proprietary nature of research—any research—has implications for intellectual property rights, specifically patents. When it comes to GMOs, the rights of corporations, farmers, consumers, developed nations, developing nations, etc. are bound to conflict in ways that are not clear now. Clarification of legal issues inevitably involves messy legislative, judicial, and diplomatic processes.
So far, the US has no legal requirement that food labels disclose GMOs. It should. According to clinical trials, GMOs on the market appear to be safe. Unfortunately, humans haven’t invented anything yet that doesn’t cause problems down the road. Consider just two examples:
The Industrial Revolution depended on using coal for fuel rather than cutting down trees. It was a boon to mankind in part because it freed most people from dependence on agriculture and enhanced most people’s standard of living. Unfortunately, air and water pollution came as an unintended consequence. We’re still trying to figure out how to have our stuff and live in a clean environment.
Antibiotics are a boon to mankind because they make it possible to cure diseases that formerly led to slow and painful death. Unfortunately, overuse of them has led to drug resistant germs, and hospitals have become a place to go to solve one health problem only to get sick from superbugs.
It would be nice to think that humans can learn from the mistakes of previous generations. We tend to make the same mistakes over and over. But when it comes to GMOs, perhaps we can proceed with more caution to maximize benefits and minimize damage. At least we can label them.