There is a seemingly never ending stream of controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There appears to be two polar opposite views on the subject. In one camp, there are people who are happy to see a new science become incorporated into a system that could potentially offer tremendous support to the food industry and help to feed millions. In the other camp are individuals who go so far as to claim that they “know” that GMO’s cause cancer and that they will undoubtedly destroy the environment. So which is it? Like most issues, the subject of GMO’s is not black and white.
First, let’s discuss what a GMO actually is. A GMO is any organism that has a gene from another organism artificially inserted into its genome. Why would we want to do this? We can take a desirable trait from one species and incorporate it into another. Now for a lot of people, that’s all they need to hear. They immediately assume that this process will result in a dangerous plant or animal that could pose a risk to the environment, the consumer, or both. I disagree with this broad sentiment. The simple act of modifying an organism genetically does not tell us if it will be harmful or beneficial. That depends on which genes have been introduced and what their by-products will be. For example, a new GMO plant that produces a pesticide within itself that is poisonous to humans is, obviously, likely going to be detrimental when the gene product (the pesticide) is eaten. However, if the gene codes for an enzyme that helps the plant resist drought, for example, this gene will likely have no effect on whoever eats it.
Let’s look at an example: tomatoes with a gene from a fish. Here, a gene from a cold water fish was introduced into the tomato’s genome. This inserted gene codes for an “antifreeze” protein that helps prevent the fish (and in this case the tomato) from freezing in cold climates. This genetic change simply introduces the antifreeze protein into the tomato. If one wants to claim that eating a tomato that expresses this protein is dangerous, then it is similar to saying you should never eat tomatoes and fish together, since your stomach would end up with the same combination of proteins (from the tomato and the fish). The point I want to get across here is that it’s not the process of genetically modifying an organism that is dangerous. What determines if it is dangerous or not to the consumer is what the newly introduced gene will express in the new organism.
The second major concern people have about GMOs is their potential impact on the environment. I feel that this is a more legitimate concern. If a GMO proves to be more resilient, bigger, faster, or simply better able to survive than it’s natural counterpart, then the GMO could potentially become an invasive species and out compete the original native species if it is introduced into the environment. This could potentially have dire consequences on the environment as the biodiversity of the ecosystem in question could be greatly reduced if one species begins to take over. GMO producers attempt to avoid this situation by producing organisms that will be incapable of producing naturally in the wild. For example, genetically modified salmon are engineered to be sterile, so even if they escape into the environment they will soon die off. As long as the proper precautions are taken, the likelihood of a GMO devastating the environment can be minimal.
The potential benefits of GMOs are obvious: the ability to grow more nutritious food faster and in areas where these foods could not be produced before. This opens the opportunity for many starving parts of the world to become less dependent on food imports. It is primarily for this reason that I think the pursuit of GMO production is worthwhile. What will determine whether a given GMO proves to be beneficial or not, depends on the initial intentions of the genetic engineers. If we focus on being able to increase yield and nutrition while decreasing the use of pesticides and antibiotics, I believe that GMOs can be invaluable for our future. If, however, GMOs are designed with strictly economical goals in mind, then the potential to do harm is great. I feel strongly that GMO research should be government funded with these positive goals in mind, and not pursued solely by private corporations looking to capitalize on control of the world’s food supply.
I for one will continue to support GMO research because of its massive potential to help the world. As Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Let’s make sure that we don’t damage our world, but let’s also not get caught up in hysteria and block the advancement of science.