One of the hottest and most controversial issues in the world today is genetic engineering. With protests against Monsanto on May 25th in over 400 cities, people have shown that this is a topic they truly care about. Largely, the stances are highly polarized with opponents saying it is all cancer causing, poisonous, and environmentally dangerous and supporters saying it is wonderful, improving yield and making everyone except “anti-science” opponents happy.
The problem with polarized positions is they almost always miss the reality of the issue and avoid talking about the general facts. Polarized texts instead skip directly to the evidence supporting their position. But, in real life, I think it is important to lay out exactly what we are talking about before we try to say if it is “good” or “bad.”
The first question we have to address, before we talk about the potential and danger of genetic modification, is what exactly is genetic modification? If you want to avoid the science, you can just skip the next 4 paragraphs. Otherwise, I can advise continuing to read, using the sources I provide, or using a search engine.
In the modern context we are talking primarily about the introduction of foreign genetic material, almost always coding for a protein, which are molecular workhorses capable of doing everything from binding with other proteins to changing what DNA is activated or not, to themselves performing reactions and either creating or breaking down molecules.
The origin of this inserted sequence, or even just the improvement of an existing gene sequence, is attained through a number of different methods: all depending on the goal. It can entail homologous DNA recombination, primer extension (meaning genes are mixed together, as in family shuffling), through non-homologous end joining (like incremental truncation for the creation of hybrid proteins aka ITCHY, with or without shuffling), through Error-Prone-PCR to induce random mutations in the gene (resulting in mutant sequences).
This means that using existing techniques we are often inserting a new piece of code, complete with regulatory mechanisms, into the cell and inducing a targeted insertion with endonucleases, something like Fok1, TAL-effectors, or CRISPR, and hoping this doesn’t accidentally alter any important regulatory or coding elements elsewhere within the cell.
The tertiary (or inter-protein interactions) of the proteins being introduced are not fully characterized, but can be predicted based on polarity of the amino acids. The location of the insert can be characterized using known restriction sites, along with the known size of the insert.
Still, current usage has not been sufficiently responsible in some cases, and in fact viral DNA containing an extra Cmv promoter and coding gene sequence (Gene VI) has recently been found in almost all Monsanto GM crops. Gene VI codes for a protein which does, among other things, appears to suppress RNA silencing processes: it weakens the body’s reaction against viruses (Haas et al. 2008). Gene VI seems to make plants less capable of defending against bacteria (Love et al. 2012). Unfortunately, this sequence was found in all of Monsanto’s transgene crops, and this, many years after they had already been approved in the US (Podevin & du Jardin, 2012).
Now that we know what we are talking about, we can ask ourselves: is this safe? Well, is anything in science inherently safe or dangerous? It really all depends on what you are doing, how you are going about it, and what, if any, precautions you take.
I don’t think we can regard all genetic modification as being equal. Huge successes in the realm of unicellular genetic modification have been seen, for instance using modified yeast to produce insulin or other molecules which would otherwise require complex industrial processes to create (for instance in the realm of fuel alternatives). This use of genetic modification, isolated from the natural world, seems to only bring benefits and is unreasonable to oppose.
Unfortunately, a lot of the efforts towards modifying multicellular organisms like plants have relied on genetic resistance to endocrine disruptors -disrupt metabolism and internal processes- or toxins. This means that their use and usefulness depends on the simultaneous use of a chemical which will do ecological damage. These chemicals remove competition for the plants by killing anything lacking resistance-genes (for instance Glyphosate aka Roundup), they do this by destroying their metabolism. These chemicals are often, if not always, non-selective and thus will wreak havoc on the metabolism of anything unlucky enough to come into contact with these chemicals.
This toxicity also includes mammals, with a highly questioned 2 year rat study showing a significantly higher death rate of 2-3x more than normal, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5–5.5 times higher, tumor risk in males 4x higher, and more kidney deficiencies than normal. (Seralini et al, 2012). The paper has since been retracted, due to his choice of species and sample size.
The arguments used against this fact is that destruents (which are the most important part of the ecological cycle since they turn dead organic matter –with carbon- into inorganic –without carbon- material for plants to use) like bacteria, Earthworms and other parts of the soil ecology, will adapt relatively quickly to this, that the effects are likely limited, and that the doses we consume of them in our produce are relatively small.
Well, if we look at the literature: there appears to be no significant differences in symbiotic soil microbes in transgenic crops as in conventional ones (this was reconfirmed with a more thorough and newer study). Follow-ups even found that Bt plants might have higher microbial diversity than glyphosate tollerant or conventional plants. This may be connected with the fact that the Bt protein has anti-fungal properties (which means reduced mycotoxins) that may allow more bacteria to grow in the soil and the produce to better resist rot.
Bt toxin plants producing their own insecticide are often mentioned when total pesticide use is discussed. To be truthful, the absolute worldwide use of insecticides has sunk since the introduction of Bt organisms. Still, the overall use of pesticides and herbicides has continued to rise slightly, especially as resistance develops in the “target” populations and making some Bt proteins less effective. Some have claimed the rise of “superweeds” and “superbugs.”
Of course, any resistant pests are no more super than a bacteria able to resist a single antibiotic is a “super” bacteria: it just has a useful skill in a certain circumstance. The use of “refuges” to help prevent the evolution and dominance of Bt resistance appears to help, as does modifying the Bt protein.
The use of GMOs has been blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder, which currently wipes out approx 30-40% of colonies every year in the US (15% is acceptable at the end of winter). Of course, the disorder may also be related to the use of monocultures, which is intensified by the use of total herbicides like Roundup. Modern agriculture’s reliance on monoculture In the end, it is likely a mix of both the chemicals and the monocultures.
Now, still these Bt toxins appear to potentially not be harmless to mammals (Portilho et al., 2013) and we need to ask ourselves about the ecological sense in creating something which cannot be eaten by the other organisms in the ecosystem. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves whether we would rather have plants defend themselves or have our farmers spray them with chemicals that have established mammalian toxicity?
The actual mechanism of action of Bt is not even fully established, yet we do know that it works. Is there really reason to fear Bt crops more than organic crops that have been sprayed with Bt? The answer is: probably not.
Now, before we say that genetic engineering is inherently bad or good, there are in fact more responsible ways to use this technology even in the realm of multicellular organisms. A really good example is the “golden rice” which is rice with an added enzyme to produce beta-carotine (basically Vitamin A, which we cannot synthesize ourselves). The research was done relatively transparently, seed created and distributed at cost or for free. The rice is even shown to contain more vitamin A than spinach (Tang, 2012).
Meanwhile the World Health Organization advises the continuation of supplement programs instead of giving the people a way to produce the vitamins they need in their own soil. The anti-GM movement has also so far been largely inclined to oppose all genetic modification and lump golden rice in with roundup-ready corn.
Unfortunately, while Monsanto has the economic power to push their products through, even block labeling in certain nations (e.g the US, where despite public support for labeling, the senate blocked an amendment 71-to-27 which would have allowed states to label GMOs if they wanted to, on Thursday May 23rd, 2013) general suspicion of genetic engineering has led to the use of this rice also being opposed, despite the fact that no new chemicals would be needed in its use, and that the new gene actually has a beneficial ecological role.
We are being misled. The world is not black and white, and we cannot lump an entire branch of science together with those abusing it. Luckily, the world may be open to waking up to this fact. Recent global protests have seen millions marching against Monsanto, not against genetic modification.
As always the issues are goals, methods, responsibility, and transparency. Companies like DuPont and Monsanto are not here to help the world’s farmers, they are not there to help feed us. The people making the decisions, as always in an LLC(Limited Liability Company), are not even responsible for any consequences they cause through the company’s actions. They even have personal interest in reducing transparency so they can hinder people from finding out about problems or mistakes for long enough that they can become filthy rich.
They were producing poisons (including Agent Orange) since before they were working to supposedly feed the world. If anything, the fact the data is open for us all to see, and their methods of analysis, gives me more faith in them than in Monsanto, who has famously misrepresented and even falsified data in the past (e.g PCBs, Roundup) and has monetary interest in ignoring the warnings. Still, none of this makes GM technology your enemy.
Both a recent New York Times article and a Forbes rebuttal concentrated on the economic values of Monsanto’s crops, cherry-picking economic data. What is strange is how this discussion has been so railroaded into the realm of statistics instead of real world ecological and health consequences. Why do we allow Roundup-Ready to be lumped together with golden rice?
So, are GMOs bad? In my opinion, there are some wonderful applications for this technology that have little or no risk for negative consequences. Meanwhile, the way some of technology is being used at the moment, in tandem with monocultures and herbicides, is obviously not optimal.
It may be a good idea to not only forbid the patenting of genes (but still allow the patenting of specific constructs containing more than just the gene, but also regulatory sequences) and to make genetic engineering efforts: data, methods, and analysis, publicly available. Only then can we help insure that decisions are not being made independent of the data, to help prevent decisions being made only in light of the profit margin.
1) Seralini et al, 2012.http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691512005637
2) Portilho et al., 2013. http://gmoevidence.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/JHTD-1-104.pdf
3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3394250/ – TAL-effectors (“splice-in”)
4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12429697 – recombination (replacing bases)
6) http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/96/3/658 – Golden rice
7) Tang, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22854406 Golden rice.
8) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/23/gmo-labeling-bill-genetically-modified-food_n_3325972.html?ncid=txtlnkushpmg00000037 GMO labelling blocked in senate