September’s issue of Scientific American is all about food; food and food science, that is. In it, there are a couple of articles on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and there is also this blog post in their website being in favor of GMO’s, and I for one, stand by them. There is a global science illiteracy problem going on which accounts for the fear and misinformation most people get on important issues and the fear against GMO’s is one of them and a particularly disturbing one since it deals with a primal necessity of mankind, one that cannot be disregard at any time: Food.
I think when lay people hear GMO immediately think of some sort of Frankenstein plant or some other horror movie monster. For some reason people think technology=good and food=good but food-through-technology=really-bad. Of course we should be weary of what we put on our tables but in order to be weary we first must be thoroughly informed. Us people in favor of controlled GMO technology tend to give these boring arguments on DNA and vectors and so on while the opponents gather more fans with the more alluring image of the Franken-corn! Let me use a real life example to start this discussion
Let me use a human example: My wife has an amazing health. She gets the flu once every year (if at all!); gets knocked down for a couple of days and that’s it! she is back on her feet working and partying the following 363 days of the year. I, on the other hand, am not that lucky. I’get congested very easily with changes in temperature, so every time we go swimming (twice a week, if at all) I end up sneezing my lungs out afterwards. My gastrointestinal system is also very faulty, I easily get… well, you get the picture. Whenever we have kids, it would be easy to presume that they will be not as healthy as their mother but not as sickly as their old man, but something rather in the middle. It could also be the case they were entirely like one of us in the health department, who knows! Lets say they are in the middle. We have now performed a genetic modification which improves my genetic traits. My hypothetical kid is now an improved version of myself but not so much of their mom’s, but definitely not a clone of neither! These hypothetical kids will be humans, just like their mom and I. The key in the above hypothetical procedure is the statistical variability in it. We should have many kids so around half of them had an intermediate health (assuming no genetic trait is more dominant than the other). With plants is the same thing: You might have some corn species with huge grains but low resistance to droughts while other species might need less water to fully grow although the product is not as good as the former. When combined, both species will yield, hopefully, an intermediate species which can be iteratively improved until we achieve corn with big grains and low water demands.
What we cannot do now, is to have these hypothetical kids reproduce with one of their parents as to yield an even healthier human! But when it comes to plants, such as corn or wheat, incest is not an issue. Pollination, cross pollination and plant grafting do exactly this by combining the traits of some species with another’s. Almost no food found in any market has not gone through this process through the last couple hundred years. But this Higher Power (I mean of course farmers and botanists) that has yield this delicious and nutritious vegetables available to us, have worked on a trial and error fashion. Nowadays we can be more precise on what traits we want our vegetables to have from one generation to the next by using genetic engineering techniques. With GMO’s we can create more food resources with a lower energy investment, a key issue in sustainable development of any nation; we can also address some nutrition deficiencies just like it was done in The Phillipines where beta-carotene (the yellow pigment in oranges and carrots) was introduced into rice in order to attack a Vitamin-A deficiency in kids that was rendering them blind.
Europe doesn’t allow the sale of any processed food containing GMO’s while in the US almost no processed food doesn’t include, at any level of their production, a GMO ingredient, but the reason behind this is because in Europe the debate ended before it began while in the US there is still debate on whether to add a label specifying the presence of GMO’s on every food product. The inclusion of such label, at this stage, would only add up to people’s fear of GMO’s because it would be perceived as a ‘warning‘ instead of just as ‘information‘. Scientific literacy is urgent not just so a good decision is taken but to start the debate! At this point the only thing keeping those labels away from supermarket products is the billions of dollars in lobbying by big companies such as Monsanto (which is not the devil, please put away your crucifixes) and DuPont. But the issue shouldn’t be about money, it should be about the way scientific reasoning should steer the decision making process in this and any other controversial issue.
The potential benefits of GMO are central to the sustainable life and development of our nations, so instead of fearing them lets understand them first.
I admire your guts to speak ouvertly that you do not condemn GMO. There is most definitely a problem of misinformation and non-consensus about the ‘modified’ part in GMO.
I for one, think the GMO term is misleading and that its use should be abandoned for more nuanced descriptors.
But, to speak of the porridge today on the table, I do not think it is wise, in a pro public information argument, not to include that many life scientists (myself included) are deeply concerned about the way our techniques of modulating an organisms genome and its expression, is used in say, Monsanto-style opressive capitalism. I am specifically talking about life expectancy and supplement requirements in the agricultural context. This is an especially relevant topic in developing countries, as well as quickly growing countries, with profound socially ramifications, in terms of class division and its preservation.
I would also find it prudent to point out that, at least I, am not aware of any systematic studies performed, that show that the genome of most feedstock is today optimized on other parameters than size, yield, turnover or disease resistance. Save disease resistance, it is my opinion that these parameters are ill-defined terms of “fitness” and do not adequately assure the preservation of nutrition value in our food. Going beyond the calories, when it comes to disease resistance, one could turn the argument around and say that much of what the organisms we eat produce to protect themselves, also display beneficial effects in humans. The dependence on supplements for optimal growth of many commercial seed strains, do however not assure me, that this perspective is adequately nurtured. If we assume that todays supplemented plants are more stressed than what they, perhaps could have been, one could speculate in a development in their tendency towards allergenicity.
It is indeed a complicated subject.
Quality content is the key to attract viewers/readers. And you provide just that. Good work. You can also check about ecological alternatives to genetic engineering from elstel.org