“GMOs” are genetically modified organisms.
Humans have been genetically modifying organisms since we stood upright and developed our big brains. We originally did it by selective breeding. That’s why my Golden Retrievers have that long, beautiful–constantly shedding–golden fur, why broccoli exists, and why that ear of corn you munch on isn’t 2 inches long. We pick the animal or vegetable with traits we want, and we breed or plant those rather than the ones with traits we do not want.
What is different now is that we can modify at the level of the organism’s DNA. We can take the gene for the trait we want and insert it into the DNA of the animal or plant to create an entirely new organism with the preferred traits.
The first genetically modified mouse was bred in 1981; the first genetically modified plant in 1983. Since then, GMOs have taken off. Between 1996 and 2013 GMO crops increased by 100%. Recent stats estimate that 10% of the worlds croplands are planted with GMOs. 94% of the soybeans, 96% of the cotton, and 93% of the corn grown today are GMOs.
Concerns about GMOs include unease about GMO’s effect on the environment and the economy of farmers, and worries about the safety of food products.
Environmental worries arise because GMOs are created to be more herbicide and insect resistant, give a higher yield, have more nutrients, and be more drought resistant. The non-GMO varieties can’t compete economically. Farmers have to grow the improved variety in order to survive. Then, if all of the wheat in an area is one variety, and something evolves that kills that variety, we have a problem. We have placed all of our eggs in one basket.
Another worry is that the GMOs are created and owned. To get them you have to buy from the company that did the work to create them. How do you compete if you can’t afford their product? If there is drift from their fields into yours (pollen travels) have you stolen something?
Will we use more poisonous herbicides because our new plants aren’t hurt by them?
Health concerns generally arise because the science behind the creation of GMOs is pretty extreme. We imagine scientists creating zombie corn that will poison our children. Corn grown on a plant that is more resistant to drought is still corn, with no difference nutritionally. Extra nutrients developed into a GMO plant are thoroughly tested and approved before they can be sold.
The one real issue when food crops are developed with new proteins is that kids with allergies may be effected. The FDA requires proof of safety when foods that are commonly allergic (milk, eggs, wheat, fish, tree nuts, and legumes) are affected. All of our safety standards still apply.
The positives of GMOs are my happy place, as a certified geek.
- GMOs can produce food in areas of the world that are less fertile or have problems with insects, so children who might otherwise starve will have food. Those foods can also be developed to resist spoilage.
- Food can be grown that is more packed with nutrients. For example, a tomato might be developed that has protein to help develop strong muscles.
- Scientists have developed bacteria that produce biofuels that are safer for the environment.
- A breed of pig now exists that can digest phosphorus, thus decreasing water pollution and overgrowth of algae.
- Bacteria can produce chemicals that do everything from clot milk to make cheese, to break down starch to make sugar.
- Bacteria have been developed that produce human proteins. Previously, insulin came from pigs, and diabetics could become allergic to the medicine they needed to stay alive. We can now treat children with hemophilia with clotting factors that do not make it likely that they will, in the end, die of AIDs. We can produce human growth factor to treat some forms of dwarfism. Research is being done that may produce treatments for kids with cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, and many forms of cancer.
- A goat exists now that produces ATryn, an anticoagulant that decreases the chance of having a blood clot during childbirth, in its milk.
- Scientists are developing animals that have organs that are compatible with human biology. This sounds questionable right up to the point where your child needs a lung transplant.
- One I find particularly elegant: Scientists produced a male mosquito with a lethal gene, and released it in the Cayman Islands in 2010. The particular breed of mosquito was one that carried Dengue fever, and they decreased the population of that mosquito by 80%. Wouldn’t it be lovely if they could do that with the mosquito that carries the Zika virus–the one that is causing babies brains to not grow in utero?
In the end, GMOs are here to stay. There is no possible way to remove them from the planet even if we chose to. We enjoy the products of GMOs every day without even knowing geeks were involved, and the future possibilities are truly amazing. Gene therapy can cure diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell, diabetes and cancer. Transplantable organs can come from pigs rather than dead children. Biofuels to help the environment–the possibilities are endless.
Opponents are pushing for products to be labeled so that consumers can choose, but even that is next to impossible to implement. A growing number of products contain one or more ingredient from a GMO. How many products have corn oil or syrup? Where do you draw the line–if a food product was grown on a farm near a field with a GMO product, and was possibly cross pollinated, might it not be considered a GMO?
Certainly we need to monitor the science to make sure what it does is ethical and safe, but we do that every day in medicine and science, under the watchful eyes of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA.
What matters is that the food is available, safe, and nutritious. Junk food, sodas, and pesticides on your fruit are a much larger problem. A GMO apple is, nutritionally, an apple.