What’s Wrong With Genetically Modified Organisms?

Are you bored with your ordinary goldfish? Is your fish tank feeling bland and boring? Then you need GloFish; a new and improved fish that comes in your choice of six exciting colours. Choose from galactic purple, electric green, and more! Buy the first genetically modified pet available for sale and liven up your fish tank today!

When people think of genetically modified organisms, they often conceive of radioactive and fluorescent mutants. People commonly think the work scientists are doing by experimenting with genetic modification is unnecessary, creepy, and potentially dangerous; but is that fair?

While I did make up the above spiel myself, GloFish are a real thing and were indeed the first genetically modified pet made available for sale commercially, entering the market in 2003. At first glance they do seem unnecessary, but when you learn that these fish were originally developed to change colour in the presence of pollutants you begin to understand the wider context – there is method to this madness.

Creating fluorescent animals for our own amusement may seem unnecessary to many, and some would even question doing so to help detect polluted waterways given the other technologies available to us. We also use genetic modification to develop fish that grow faster, like the AquAdavantage salmon, which is an Atlantic salmon that has been modified to grow all year round, instead of just in spring and summer. The result is that it is ready for consumption in half the time as conventional salmon. This could potentially reduce pressure on wild stocks in our overfished oceans but again, some may claim better regulation and simply eating less fish would solve this issue. However, when you learn that scientists were able to develop a lethal gene that eradicated 80% of the Aedes aegypti mosquito population in the Cayman Islands in a 2010 trial, it becomes more difficult to argue against the use of genetic modification technology in the same way (the Aedes aegypti mosquito is the single most important carrier of dengue fever. Two and a half billion people are now at risk of infection with 390 million infections and 25,000 deaths occurring annually). In addtition, the malaria-resistant mosquitos created in the lab in 2010 are hugely important given the World Health Organisation estimated that there were 214 million new cases and 483,000 deaths from malaria in 2015. The potential to fight the spread of disease alone makes genetic modification vital, but an equally urgent catastrophe demands the consideration of the technology; and that is climate change.

As I mentioned in my previous article, catastrophic climate change is not only inevitable, it is already occurring. We must be dedicating as much of our efforts towards mitigation as we are towards halting temperature increase. In this light, genetic modification is an important tool we have to ensure our survival. Genetically engineered crops have the potential to produce higher yields, grow in dry and salty lands, withstand extreme temperatures, and have improved resistance to insects, disease, and herbicides. All of these traits are incredibly desirable when you couple the challenge of growing 70% more food by 2050 to keep up with population growth (as estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) with the reduction of the world’s arable land that will occur because of climate change.

All of these facts withstanding, many people (myself included) find altering the genetic material of a living species slightly disconcerting. But we have been altering the genes of species for millennia. Breeding through artificial selection, something humans begun around 12,000 years ago, is a precursor to the modern concept of genetic modification. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture includes the statement “genetic engineering or other more traditional methods” in their definition of genetic modification. Therefore, genetic engineering – the deliberate, controlled, and direct manipulation of the genes in an organism using biotechnology – is the more precise term for what we are discussing. The fact that biotechnology is used ensures stringent safety requirements are in place, whereas through genetic manipulation via selective breeding we have created dogs with breathing issues and wheat with seeds that do not scatter (meaning it could not exist outside a farm) for cuteness and convenience – reasons no less trivial than the motivation behind the existence of GloFish.

We have also been using mutagenic techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals for 60 years now, producing many strains of crops that have become agricultural mainstays (including wheat, rice, and peanuts) and this has met little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health issues.

The process for getting genetically engineered crops to market is long and fraught with regulatory and safety checks. It could be argued that many conventional crops and animals developed through selective breeding would never have made it to market if they had to undergo the same stringent safety checking process as genetically engineered organisms. More than 17,000 genetically engineered releases have been approved and globally one tenth of the world’s cropland includes genetically modified plants. Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations and by now trillions of meals containing genetically modified ingredients have been consumed. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the European Commission, the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have all concluded that genetically modified crops pose no unique health risks. Dozens of academic reviews have all backed that view and those few studies that have found health risks have almost all been discredited.

And yet, there remains fierce resistance to genetically modified crops – sometimes in countries that would benefit most from them. Only two genetically modified crops are accepted in the European Union currently, with eight EU nations banning them outright. India, China, and much of the rest of Asia is yet to approve most genetically modified crops, including an insect resistant rice that produces higher yields with less pesticide. No country has plans to grow golden rice which has more vitamin A than spinach, unlike conventional rice which has none (vitamin A deficiency is responsible for an estimated 250,000-500,000 children going blind in the developing world every year, with half of them dying within 12 months of going blind). Several nations in Africa have refused to import genetically modified food and Kenya has banned them altogether. The US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina collectively grow 90% of all genetically modified crops.

However, there are credible concerns with the attempted proliferation of genetically modified organisms. These are not to do with the safety of genetically modified foods themselves, but the economic and legal implications of the technology. Being able to patent life has immense consequences and is worthy of many academic papers, articles, and debates itself. Many fear the control of the seed market by a few chemical companies. Monsanto itself has a page on their website explaining why they sue farmers who save seeds. This means that farmers are forced to buy new seeds every season. And with a new round of industry consolidation underway that could put more than half the global seed market into the hands of three companies, it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to avoid these patented seeds. Furthermore, the exclusive use of herbicide-tolerant crops also makes farmers dependent on the same companies’ chemicals, further adding to these companies’ control over the agriculture industry. This is problematic for another reason; evolution. Herbicide tolerance is the most widely used application of genetic modification, but weeds can quickly develop a tolerance to these same herbicides, as was the case with Palmer Amaranth; a weed found to be resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide, in 2006. This was less than 10 years after the genetically modified cotton designed to be resistant to glyphosate was introduced, thus rendering its alterations inconsequential. This leads to another real concern, loss of biodiversity. This is the antithesis of sustainability and control of the agricultural market by a few companies could significantly impact on crop biodiversity as use of a few genetically modified crops become more prevalent. This greatly increases the susceptibility of the world’s food basket to disease, endangering food security for all of us.

All of these issues and more are worthy of further investigation, but in the context of a changing climate, it is imperative we move past our vague unease at genetic engineering and realise the profound potential genetically modified organisms have to ensure the survival of our species’ from ourselves as we attempt to deal with the consequences of a rapidly warming planet. If we can become educated of the fact that scientists have failed to find a unique health risk from genetically modified organisms after decades of trying hard to do so, we can deal with the more complex, and more urgent, issues pertaining to regulation and patenting of living organisms. Climate change is here, it demands our attention, and genetic modification is a crucial tool we can use to mitigate its effects. It is time for the world to face this fact.


Header image via washingtonpost.com

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