GMO's (Genetically Modified Organisms) - Are they truly "Frankenfoods" or our best hope for feeding a hungry world?

Genetically Modified Oragnisms (GMO's) have been in the news the past few years as activists in the U.S. and Europe have mounted a campaign to rid our diets of foods that have been altered using the new techniques of genetic engineering. Recently they have pushed for legislation to require labeling of all foods that contain GMO's
Opponents of GMO products believe that all foods should be labelled "GMO free"  or "Contains GMO's" so consumers will know what they are buying. They believe its only logical and right to provide consumers with more information so that they can make informed decisions. The problem with this approach is that more information is really only useful when it makes us more knowledgeable. If the information in fact misinforms us then it is worse than no information at all. Labelling products that contain GMO's creates the false impression among consumers that these products may be less safe than products which don't contain them, otherwise why would the government require such labeling? But if you look at the facts, there is no evidence that GMO's are less safe than other foods and in most ways they are no different than the foods we have all been eating for centuries.

What are GMO's?

GMO's are not new. The term Genetically Modified Organism refers to the new techniques that scientisits have developed which allows them to transfer genes from one ogranism to another but humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants and animals using cruder techniques for thousands of years.  Broccoli for example did not exist in nature before man came along and created it. Broccoli is a man made organism which was created by "genetically modifying" a member of the cabbage family over 2,000 years ago through selective breeding. Native tomatoes and corn similarly are nothing like the human modified versions we all consume today. Both of these foods existed in nature only as small barely edible versions of their current day selves before man began tinkering with them.

While the techniques our ancestors used to modify the genetic makeup of these foods are different from the techniques we are using today the end result is not much different.  In both cases we are tinkering with the organisms genes so that they express traits which make the plant more useful or desireable. By doing this the plant may produce larger fruit or different flavors. We may change it so that it produces higher amounts of important nutrients like vitamins or proteins. In other cases we may transfer a useful trait from one plant to another so that an important food crop learns how to survive with less watering, or how to make its own fertilzer, or how to defend itself from pests so less pesticides are needed.

As an example, modern corn which is the result of hundreds of years of selective breeding has much bigger kernels with far more starch and sugar than native corn. More recent strains created through modern methods of genetic science have added qualities that allow them to survive drought and pests.

So whats the difference between the way our ancestors changed the genetic makeup of their foods and the way we do it today?

How are GMO's different from organisms produced the "Old Fashioned Way" through selective breeding?

Selective Breeding and hybridization
For thousands of years our ancestors used a technique called selective breeding to artificially alter their plants and animals. They would breed organisms and then select the ones with the desired traits and discard the others. Over time this process would produce the product they wanted. On a genetic level what was happening is that undesireable genes were being extinguished and desireable genes were being selected for. Crossing one desireable organism with another would sometimes bring new genes together creating hybrids that had never before existed with unique combinations of genes that might provide even more useful traits. This approach is somehwat hap hazard as the breeder has to work with existing genes or wait for new mutations to occur sponatenously. It can take decades or centuries to improve an organism this way and some traits may never be attainable through this random process. In addition, the random somewhat blind process in which selective breeding alters the genetics of an organism means that the new breed may contain genes and traits that are undesireable.

Modern Genetic Engineering Techniques
Todays techniques build on the work of our ancestors but are more precise and rely less on luck. Scientists can now identify genes that bestow useful traits to plants and with the use of sophisticated genetic engineering techniques they can transplant these genes into other organisms so that the new organism may acquire the desired trait.

For example a scientist may find a wild grass plant that is especially drought resistant. With a lot of hard work they may identify one or two genes that are responsible for the plants natural ability to survive with less water. Scientitst have tools that allow them to isolate the gene and then transplant it into the chromosome of a useful plant like wheat for example. Often the transfered gene may not work in the new organism so this process requires a great deal of trial and error. When it does work the new organism has acquired a trait that may allow farmers to grow more food per acre and may allow food production on land that was previously barren. In parts of the world where land is not as fertile or growing seasons are shorter these new traits can be critical to feeding the local population.

Modern methods are less haphazard and more direct than the older methods of selective breeding but the outcome is not that much different. We change the genetic makeup of an organism so that it is more useful in some way.

GMO's are not new

About half of all the foods consumed today contain genetically modified organisms including fruits , vegetables, cereals, and meats. Without this technology we would scarcely be able to feed a fraction of the worlds current population and those who could afford to feed their families would probably have to pay more to do so. GMO techniques have allowed us to create food plants that can survive in dryer and colder conditions and resist pests better than older varieties.

in recent developments scientists developed a new GMO potato that may actually be safer than unaltered potatoes. As they exist now when potatoes are fried the sugars in the potato interact with an amino acid called asparagine to form a chemical called acrylamide. Acrylamide has been shown to cause cancer in animals although research in humans is still incomplete. Using modern genetic technology scientists have developed a potato that produces less asparagine and as a result less acrylamide. In theory this potato should be less likely to cause health problems than non-GMO potatoes. Unfortunately because of the current public preceptions about GMO ingredients this potato has been rejected by retailers including McDonalds. This leaves consumers with less choice rather than more.

I am concerned that GMO labeling proponents aren't really interested in in giving us choices or "educating" the public in the traditional sense.  They have a heartfelt belief that all GMO products are harmful despite a lack of evidence that this is true. Rather than trying to inform the public I believe their goal is to persuade people not to use these products. They know that if a product is labelled "GMO free" people who are unfamiliar with the term or the details of the debate will naturally begin to assume that GMO's are harmful. Why would anyone care if something were GMO free unless GMO's were harmful? The label does not simply impart information. It is an implied warning that products which use GMO's are unsafe. The proposed legislation to require GMO labeling is an effort by GMO opponents to get politicians to spread the fear for them through these new laws and end the debate before it ever gets started.

Why are some people concerned about GMO's?

GMO opponents' concerns about GMO's have taken several forms

1) Allergies - There have been claims that GMO's can cause allergic reactions in some people and while this is true, so can strawberries and mangos made the old fashioned way. Any food is capable of causing allergies in some people. GMO's are no less likely to trigger allergies but they are also no more likely to cause allergies than any other food. Introducing a new protein into our foods always presents this risk but the same is true anytime a person consumes a new food for the first time whether its a GMO food or a non-GMO food.

2) GMO's are too new and haven't been tested enough? - Yes some of these foods are new but the same could be said for any new apple or tomato that is discovered or create through old fashioned techniques and no concern has ever been raised about those food items. GMO's are tested extensively by manufacturers for safety and quality. In additon the FDA has set up a voluntary consultation process to engage with the developers of genetically engineered plants to help ensure the safety of food from these products. This is not required with foods created through the more random process of selective breeding. GMO's have only very small changes made in their DNA. 99.99% of the DNA is unchanged. New organisms should be studied carefully before being released into the wild but only to the same extent that these rules are also applied to varieties produced by selective breeding or through importation from other parts of the world.

3) GMO's may be harmful to insects and other organisms inthe environment. - Some GMO's do have modifications allowing them to produce new proteins. Some of these proteins are harmful to insects and while they may harm useful insects as well as the destructive ones these plants do not require the use of insecticidal sprays which travel over a wider area and kill more insects. It is possible that these organisms may have unintended effects on important insects so we need to study such things before putting new GMO plants into widespread use but again, this should be done in a way that is consistent with past practices. On a daily basis we use pesticides and herbicides which have the potential for causing harm to the enivronment but we do so in a way that balances the risk with the benefits. This is the approach we need to take with GMO's rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water as many GMO opponents propose.

The bottom line is that any new organism can have qualities that cause allergic reactions or which may harm other organisms, but nature introduces new organisms and changes existing organisms all the time. Although nature does this more slowly it also does it in a random fashion with no safety testing at all. GMO's are created with a great deal of thought and testing so that these food items are as safe to eat as possible and the effect on the environment is minimized. Its understandable that we should expect new food items to be tested for safety and GMO's are the most highly tested of new food items on the market, but GMO opponents seem to want a guarantee of safety that would never be attainable for any food, not even the ones they eat every day without a second thought. Instead of fighting to have these products banned a more appropriate response might be to advocate for more testing and more independant testing of all new foods by whatever means they are created or imported so that we can all feel safe about the foods we eat.

What is the harm in labeling products that contain GMO's?

If producers are required to label products containing GMO's many will find themselves forced to switch to food sources that do not contain these products because the public will believe incorrectly that GMO's are not safe. The result will be a reduction in food production, increased prices, more hunger, and no real benefit to anyone. The next time you hear a GMO activist refer to these foods as Frankenfoods look at a head of broccoli and compare it to a head of cabbage. If we're not afraid of that type of genetically modified food created 2,000 years ago by selecting completely random mutations then why are we afraid of an ear of corn that can withstand a dryer growing season because a scientist carefully added one or two genes whose properties we know well?

Where can I read more?

NOTE: By the way. That "Frankenfood" photo at the top may look like an alien vegetable but it was created the old fashioned way through selective breeding. We shouldnt judge a food by its appearance or by a meaningless label that is put on it.

Michael Melgar

No Comments