Genetically modified organism - Food and the Environment - The Controversy!

Okot Nyormoi

*Okot Nyormoi is a leading cancer research scientist

The debate about whether to accept genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food or the environment has raged on since early nineteen eighties. Now in the age of the internet, the arguments have become louder and more persistent. It seems certain the GMO question will not be answered soon to everybody’s satisfaction. For now, it is important to understand what the various arguments are.

Ancient people knew that to have a bountiful crop or a high milk producing cow, they must use the most healthy-looking plants or animals. By so doing, they were performing what is now known as selective breeding. In the late 19th century, while studying peas, an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, discovered the principles of inheritance (Genetics).

Since then, heredity has been studied extensively. Units of heredity (traits), are determined by genes which are made of strands of four chemicals represented by the letters A, T, C and G known as DNA. More details can be found elsewhere

The remarkable thing about genes is that they can be intricately mutated spontaneously or intentionally by deleting, inserting or substituting whole segments of the DNA or any of the four individual letters that make it. Mutations can be silent or observable, and selected for or against. These processes occur naturally all the time with or without our knowledge and the natural selection process can be short or long and inefficient. Plant and animal breeders often use selection for enhancing the desired quality.

To improve the efficiency of inducing changes in the genes, scientists discovered that by using mutagens (radiation or chemicals), they can increase the frequency of mutation. However, the induction of such mutation is mostly non-specific. The resulting mutants must still be selected and amplified for the desired traits. Again, the selection process can be unbelievably long. Hence, there was still a need for targeted gene change.

In the 1970s, scientists developed novel methods for increasing the specificity of gene alteration and for reducing the period of selection by manipulating DNA directly. The technology is known by various names: gene splicing, recombinant DNA, genetic engineering, gene drive and others. CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing is the latest and most specific method developed in the 2010s.

Microorganisms, plants and animals whose hereditary materials (DNA) are deliberately altered to be different from those that occur naturally are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In agriculture, genetic modification is used for multiple purposes including the development of high yielding crops or animals, resistance to pests and pesticides, drought tolerance, esthetics, and other desirable characteristics. In view of the growing human population projected to double by 2050, genetic engineering would seem generally a welcome development, but that is not the case.

Some countries have embraced GMO, whereas others have not. For instance, in the USA, many GMO crops including soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya and zucchini are now commercially produced for human and animal consumption. Many others are waiting for approval. Also, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in America are now believed to contain genetically engineered materials. In contrast, GMO is illegal in many European countries while many developing countries are still weighing whether to accept GMO or not. Yet, Americans are not dying any more than people where GMO are illegal.

Since the positive aspects of GMO technology are obvious, only arguments for opposing GMO will be considered here. Opposition to GMO is premised on a convention dubbed the Precautionary Principle, which says that if products of modern technology pose possible risks to human health or the environment, then it is prudent to restrict them even if the magnitude or the nature of the risk is uncertain, or not yet known. While this principle means well and should be taken seriously, it gives too much latitude for rejecting GMO on even the flimsiest evidence. Likewise, its elasticity can be easily exploited by GMO advocates despite safety concerns that may exist.

Most opposition to GMO is concerned with the safety of humans and the environment. Some people worry that viruses used to create GMO may transfer themselves to non-GMO and the environment with unknown consequences. While this is a valid concern, it must be realized that lateral gene transfer occurs naturally all the time, with or without our knowledge, as noted before. For example, Epstein-Barr virus integrates its DNA into human DNA and causes cancer (Burkitt lymphoma) in association with DNA rearrangement. Unfortunately, humans cannot stop such a natural occurrence whereas scientists can stop creating specific GMOs if they detect undesirable consequences during the necessary testing before their approval for release for consumption or into the environment.

GMO is sometimes rejected on religious or personal philosophy, that genetic engineering is playing God. However, faith is faith and science is science. Moreover, there are people of faith who think that it would be immoral to let people starve if GMO food can save them.

Apart from this type of safety concerns, some people also worry whether GMO foods have equivalent nutritional content as non-GMO foods. Of course, no GMO food should be rejected on this account without the necessary supporting evidence.

Some people are concerned about herbicide-resistant GMO crops which may end up creating super weeds. The superweeds would require a high dose of herbicides to kill them, which in turn contaminate the environment with potentially carcinogenic chemicals found in herbicides such as Roundup. However, most industrial farmers of non-GMO crops also use a lot of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. Therefore, it is unrealistic to think that non-GMO crops are totally free of chemicals that may contaminate food and the environment. With or without GMO, natural organisms including humans are often exposed to all kinds of potential carcinogens. Thus, it is just a question of how much.

The shrillness of the GMO debate is, to a large extent, a matter of turf protection between the opponents and proponents of GMO. Expectedly, opponents of GMO will seize on any results suggesting bad consequences of GMO and blow it out of proportion. Likewise, proponents of GMO will seek to minimize hints of bad consequences while touting the wonders of GMOs.

Apart from legal issues concerning government approval of GMO, there is the issue of how to label food without disadvantaging one side or the other. Also, while food may be labeled non-GMO, individual consumers often do not check the label. Even if they do, they have no way of verifying the authenticity of the label. Furthermore, the high possibility of cross pollination between GMO and non-GMO crops make any claims of GMO-free foods legally and scientifically indefensible.

Because genetic engineering is technology-heavy and expensive, most GMOs are patented, giving the creators monopolies over them. As such, small-scale farmers and those from poor countries cannot afford the necessary containment facilities and technologies for growing GMO foods. Consequently, such farmers are concerned that they will be put out of business by industrial farmers. Rejection of GMO on this basis would have nothing to do with their toxicity or lack of equivalence of nutritional content but with unfair competition.

Finally, not all GMOs are the same nor are the reasons for their rejection. Therefore, anyone who swears that GMO causes cancer or that GMO is 100% safe, is not telling the whole truth. Those who oppose or promote GMO must do so with some measure of specificity. Therefore, it is prudent to seek credible information about any claim in order to make informed decisions about accepting or rejecting GMO.