A Scientific Look at Genetically Modified Organisms

Rafael RiveroTwo weeks ago, I tackled the subject of “natural” in reference to foods and chemical. Soon thereafter, I had someone come up to me and say, “Chemicals might be natural, but genetically modifying food is not.”

At that moment, I realized that I hadn’t even mentioned one of the biggest debates going on in modern politics. In response to this, the following column will discuss the science everyone should know about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

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Even though it might seem like genetically modifying living things is a new concept, the fact of the matter is that humans have been doing it for approximately 10,000 years. Ever since the dawn of agriculture (and the keeping of livestock), humans have been picking and choosing which types they like better than the others.

In a process called “artificial selection,” humans essentially cross the organisms that possess traits they want to keep together over and over until that trait is exaggerated. That green lump on the plant doesn’t look or taste any good? Cross it over and over again with others that are bigger and ripen into a sweet-tasting fruit. Voilà: you have created a banana! True story.

The list of plants and animals that we as a species have done this with is staggering. Some plant species have even been selected to the point where they turned into many varieties that we consider distinct today.

A prime example is the Wild Mustard. This plant has been selected time and time again to suppress or exaggerate different attributes. This group of plants has given rise to broccoli (by the suppression of flower development), cabbage (by the suppression of internode length, and kohlrabi (by the enhancement of lateral meristems). And that’s just three examples of the plants the Wild Mustard has produced; indeed, there are more.

All of this is to say that genetic modification has and continues to be a part of farming and agriculture. Nowadays, though, it seems as though genetic modification is on steroids. Instead of needing to cross and cross and cross different organisms together to get the desired traits, we can pinpoint the gene of interest, and stick it wherever we need it. We’ve essentially cut out the middleman, so to speak.

After learning all of this, you might be wondering, “Why is there a problem over this type of modification even though we’ve been doing it for so long?”

In short, there’s a lot of uncertainty in this type of modification. It can still be considered quite a new technology and we haven’t had much time to test it out. Many people are afraid that if humans ingest these there will be some serious health defects that follow.

Even though the science is somewhat inconclusive because of the short time periods involved, the US National Academies of Science, World Health Organization, Royal Society of Medicine, European Food Safety Authority and German Academies of Sciences (among others) have stated in one way or another that GMOs aren’t likely to cause adverse health effects. In fact, there haven’t been recorded cases of ill effects that can be confirmed as arising from GMO ingestion.

In fact, in over 400 studies of GMOs (at least one third of which are independent scientific studies), not one has shown robust evidence in reference to ill effects from ingestion.

On the business side, however, there does seem to be issues arising from GMO distributors and manufacturers. This is what appears to be the true crux of society’s displeasure with GMOs.

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Frequently, you’ll hear people upset about Monsanto or some other large company and their illicit practices. Monsanto is well known for taking farmers to court for possession of their patented GMOs. Now, I won’t touch upon patented GMOs, as it’s too broad a topic, but please note that the rate at which Monsanto sued farmers was recently taken to court and no evidence could be found of it actually happening.

Please also bear in mind that I’m not condoning elicit business or governmental practices when it comes to GMOs either. There are definitely certain processes, including the FDA regulations on GMOs, which need to be updated in light of recent advancements.

GMOs may have cons (like anything else), but one pro is worth considering: feeding millions in the developing world. This should be enough to give people pause before jumping too quickly to conclusions.

One thing’s for sure: GMOs are here to stay, whether we like it or not.