What’s the deal with GMOs?

Okay… I was hoping I wouldn’t have to write about this any time soon, but with some countries within the EU deciding to ban the cultivation of genetically modified crops, I think the time has come.

A total of 17 european countries announced this ban at the beginning of October, and it exposes just how far Europe has gone in setting itself against the modern scientific consensus. In fact, the decision seems to have been made without considering the science at all, but we’ll get into that later. I think we should begin by educating ourselves on what GMOs actually are.

A GMO (genetically modified organism) can be defined as an organism that has acquired, by artificial means, one or more genes from another species or from another variety of the same species.

Humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals for thousands of years through the process of artificial selection (selective breeding), which involves selecting organisms with desirable traits and breeding them so that these characteristics are passed on. An example of this are the “Belgian Blue” cows, which have been selectively bred to have greater muscle mass.

Unfortunately this is limited to only naturally occurring variations of a gene, but genetic engineering allows for the introduction of genes from completely unrelated species. These genes could lead to resistance to certain diseases and pesticides, or to enhanced nutritional content. The list goes on; but why do we need these organisms?

Given that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN predicts that we’ll need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed the growing population, we will need to find new ways to meet food demands. There are several ways to do this, but options such as increased deforestation and giving up meat consumption to better utilise the required crops are not appealing for a number of reasons.

The more realistic options are investing more in hydroponics (growing crops indoors), which many countries are doing, or growing GM crops. This is because the central idea behind GM crops is to combat problems that threaten food security, such as pests, climate change, or disease. Modifications that remove these problems could allow certain foods to be effectively grown in locations where it was previously not possible, as well as improving the chances of the crops surviving in harsh conditions.

Despite these benefits, there are still many controversies surrounding GMOs, such as the unintended spread of modified genes, but this excellent story on iflscience.com clearly outlines many of these problems, as well as pointing out why they are really no cause for concern.

So why do so many people still have a problem with GMOs? The benefits are clearly huge and many of the legitimate concerns have already been addressed. Well, many people seem to believe that GMOs are somehow bad for their health, even poisonous, and that they can damage the environment, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Some researchers published a paper in the journal “Trends in Plant Science”, arguing that the negative representations of GMOs are popular because they are intuitively appealing. In other words, many people oppose GMOs because it “makes sense” that they would pose a threat. The paper is also very well summarised by one of the authors in an article from Scientific American.

One reason they give is the concept of “Psychological Essentialism”, making us perceive an organisms DNA as its “essence”. Following this logic, DNA is an unobservable core causing an organisms behaviour and determining its identity. This means that, when a gene is transferred between two distantly related species, people are likely to believe that some characteristics of the source organism will emerge in the recipient.

They also report that an opinion survey in the US showed that more than half of the respondents thought that a tomato modified with fish DNA would taste like fish. This is NOT how DNA works.

However, it is worth pointing out that not all criticisms of GMOs are unfounded, as many people are skeptical of how the business world will change with their introduction. It has already been reported that the US supreme court has ruled in favour of Monsanto’s claim to copyright GMO seeds, as well as the ability to sue farmers whose fields become contaminated with Monsanto products, whether it is accidental or not.

Now I don’t feel I can safely comment on all of this as the world of business is not something I am educated in, but, while Monsanto’s business practices may be ethically questionable, they are not the only company involved in GMO research and distribution. Many academic institutions and non-profit organisations are also involved, and such groups are responsible for the introduction of Golden Rice, a GMO that has had only beneficial effects for society.

Knowing this, to dismiss all such organisms simply because one questionable company produces some of them is extremely narrow-minded. Another valid criticism is that it is not possible to say that future GMOs will be safe, and that each organism should be evaluated individually. I would agree with this, as a newly created GMO may and likely will have problems associated with it.

But these will be addressed in the research phase, in the same way that a newly synthesised drug has to undergo trials to determine and correct problems, and any product that gets a commercial release will have been thoroughly evaluated by the scientists involved with the research. The problem appears when people claim the gene editing techniques themselves are dangerous, which has no scientific grounding whatsoever.

So, now we go back to the problem of the European Union’s decision to ban GM crops. It is worth noting that this ban doesn’t apply to scientific research, so they are clearly not opposed to the development of new GMOs, just the cultivation of ones that have already been proven safe. Sounds confusing right? I should also point out that this decision was made without consulting the scientific advisor of the European Commission (EC), because they currently don’t have one!

Last November, the EC’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, chose not to appoint a chief scientific advisor due to lobbying from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, who seemed to have a problem with what the previous advisor was saying about GMOs. Ignoring the fact that the advisors comments reflected the scientific consensus, they wrote “We hope that you as the incoming commission president will decide not to nominate a chief scientific advisor”.

This is extremely worrying, especially since the scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused climate change. This is especially strange as Greenpeace appears to support the consensus on climate change. You can’t pick and choose which science you agree with; you either support science, or you don’t.

I would assume this ban is due to the negative public opinion of GMOs, and the idea that all scientists that advocate for them have somehow been “bought” by large corporations like Monsanto. Speaking as someone who has experience with scientists and scientific research, I can say that the process has no agenda. Yes, the researchers may prefer one outcome to another, but if the evidence contradicts what they want to find, then they accept that. To do otherwise goes against the very nature of science, and given the amount of work and studying that goes into such a career, very few people go into science without a great deal of passion and respect for the process. You don’t have to trust the corporations, but you should trust the science.

Sources not mentioned in text:

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