Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose DNA are altered, usually by the insertion of genes from another organism. Reasons for their modifying organisms include increasing their shelf life and resistance to pests. Unsurprisingly, public resistance to these so-called ‘frankenfoods’ have been immense. Other parties, meanwhile, contend that genetically modified plants and seeds are perfectly safe to consume. Let’s disregard all prejudices and look upon the matter objectively.
A gene coding for herbicide resistance has been inserted into major crop plants, so that weed species may be eradicated without causing any damage to the plants. Such a measure has undoubtedly proved useful to farmers worldwide, but there has been rising concerns of the spread of superweeds, i.e. weeds resistant to this herbicide.
Such concerns were confirmed by a study in Shanghai which reports that a gene encoding herbicide resistance in rice can be transferred to a weedy relative, causing it to possibly flourish in the wild. That is a theoretical example of what could happen but the horrors has already sowed its seeds in real life. Since 1996, a type of weed, called Palmer amaranth, has outcompeted cotton for nutrients in the United States. In the state of Georgia alone, this pest has infested 76 counties. One of the counter-measures proposed by biotech companies is to develop crops resistant to different types of herbicide. But this will only be a temporary measure. The question remains: how long will it last this time?
Crops that are naturally resistant to pests. A dream come true to farmers. Or is it? You’ve probably heard of B.t. crops, types of crops which are genetically engineered to produce a certain protein that are toxic to pests. One of the largest issues surrounding Bt. crops is that consumption of the toxin may endanger human health, but a recent study by America’s Environmental Protection Agency has dispelled such concerns.
According to the report, B.t. toxins behave like regular dietary proteins in the human body and pose no threat to our health. Also, since the inception of B.t. crops in 1996, there has been no reports on the adverse effects of such crop on human health. Therefore, it would be wise to conclude that these crops are safe to consume.
Anti-GMO activists have declared GMOs unsafe for consumption, simply because they may trigger allergic reactions. Their declarations may have been based upon this study which shows that soybeans may become allergenic when a gene from the Brazil nut is inserted into the soybean. However, such soybeans has never been released into the market for public consumption. In fact, there has been no known cases of GM plants triggering allergic reactions simply because they are genetically modified. The process of inserting a gene into a plant does not make it trigger allergies. As such, their concerns could be put to rest.
Environmentalists have advocated that GM crops are the main reason for the gradual decline in the numbers of monarch butterflies in the wild. Monarch butterflies usually feed on milkweed leaves that are in close proximity to B.t. corn. Therefore, there are concerns that the B.t. toxin in corn may spread to milkweed leaves through pollen transfer and thus endanger monarch butterflies.
Leading scientists have shown that there is a danger of that happening, i.e. that monarch butterflies may be harmed by contaminated pollen, but the study conducted does not show how badly milkweed leaves are contaminated by the B.t. pollen in nature. Other similar studies have also proved inconclusive. Thus, further studies would have to be carried out to determine whether or not the introduction of GM crops decreases the numbers of monarch butterflies in the wild.
Also, when first introduced, Gm crops were touted as the magic solution to decreasing herbicide and pesticide use. Indeed, for the first few years, there was an immediate decrease of commercial pesticide use, but since then, there had been an upward trend in the use of pesticides and herbicides. In fact, each acre of GE crop used 20% more pesticide than non GE crops. (Source: Environmental Sciences Europe)
When genes from one species are transferred to another species, there will undoubtedly be a public outcry. I shall draw upon an analogy to illustrate this fact. Say, for example, genes from a fish was inserted into a tomato. Common questions would be whether the tomato would look like a fish or whether the tomato would taste fishy. Such questions are founded on ignorance, to say the least. The DNA code is common among all organisms on earth, and a tomato wouldn’t magically transform into a fish simply because it has some fish genes. The boundary between species is undoubtedly more complex than that. In fact, different plant species have been hybridising and sharing genes for decades, without any detrimental effects.
If you’re worried that modifying an organism’s DNA is a dangerous thing to do as the effects may eventually snowball, humans have started such a process decades ago. Notable examples include selectively breeding wild wolves to yield tame dogs that can be kept as pets and cross-breeding plant species to yield hybrid species. You may argue that these examples are perfectly natural and doesn’t involve actual tampering in the laboratory.
Well, let’s look at a technique called mutation breeding then. It’s a technique in which an organism is exposed to radiation and other substances that cause mutation to induce mutation, in the hopes that a mutation that encodes a trait such as longer shelf life will arise. It is to be noted that this method would inevitably result in dozens of mutations besides the one that you wanted, and as such its potential detrimental effects are unknown. Genetic engineering, meanwhile, introduces a gene into an organism only after that gene has undergone a rigorous selection and testing to ascertain its function and to eliminate possible risk factors. It is therefore surprising that while mutation breeding is accepted and labelled as organic, genetic engineering isn’t.
In a nutshell, GM plants and seeds are neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental. Weigh up the pros and cons and decide for yourself.