As a student of molecular biology, I am frequently confused as to why people seem intent to either completely ignore all scientific evidence and claim that GMOs are “bad for humans and the environment,” or at the other extreme: determined to protect every single use of biotechnology (even in the case of glyphosate, also known as Roundup). The fact of the matter is that biotechnology and genetically modified organisms represent a great tool in our efforts to survive more sustainably on this planet.
How can we get everyone on the same page? How can we appease those who fear the technology, calm those with legitimate worries, and also continue research and developement of everything between golden rice (which is rich in ß-carotene) and insulin producing bacteria? Well, the key to the responsible use of any technology goes hand in hand with its transparent and thorough testing and development. In the hope that we can start to rid ourselves of unfounded paranoia, and also tilt the scales in the favor of responsible use, I now present 8 demands to ensure the safe and transparent use of genetically modified organisms.
1) Libraries characterizing the genotypes (so gene sequences) of GMOs should be made publicly accessible before regulators make decisions.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but I am a big fan of crowd-sourcing. By making the genetic data publicly accessible, companies and governments will be enabling independent scientists to pick apart what was included and how it is being regulated. Essentially anyone with even rudimentary bioinformatics knowledge would then be able to figure out what was changed in a GMO by using tools like BLAST, taking some of the guess-work, quotes, and miscommunication out of the picture.
2) Studies about environmental and health impacts should be replicated independently several times prior to approval.
One of the problems in the world of science and medicine is publication bias, which can lead insignificant changes to appear major or even potentially allow major changes to appear insignificant. This error can be rounded out by repeated tests, but this can only really work if all data is made available. Thus tests need to be carried out both by the company, and by independent regulators, with all data then made available to the public.
3) Changes to plants should carry at least no disadvantage to the organism in question, independent of chemical agriculture.
In instances where foreign genes are being inserted, as opposed to simply “tweaking” levels of existing genes (as with the new GMO potatoes that produce less acrylamide when fried by reducing how much sucrose is metabolized into glucose and fructose), the gene should carry either an innate advantage or at least no disadvantage for the organism and ecosystem in question. This would mean the end to “Roundup Ready” type crops, which are designed to survive chemicals that kill literally everything else. Of course, this is a demand that is not applicable to the use of microorganisms in bioreactors.
4) If a GMO is going to be used for food (which many/most are not), members of the research and marketing teams should publicly consume the products.
In the same fashion that those who design and build cars should feel safe enough to drive them: those who change or design foods should feel safe enough to consume them. I want to remind everybody though, that there is no reason to think that introducing foreign DNA (either coding or regulatory) would have a negative impact of the food. Although you do uptake some DNA from your food into your blood: this DNA has no way to enter your cells or to affect biological processes. Once cooked, literally all DNA and proteins lose their shape and essentially become building-blocks for your body to use in other processes. Thus, expecting designers to eat it really shouldn’t be too much to ask and should serve to calm skeptics.
5) Companies and scientists should work alongside journalists: allow the authors of public opinion to understand what is being done and how.
One of the major reasons that there is so much opposition to biotechnology in general and especially genetically modified foods is that members of the media are frequently completely uninformed about genetics. A great example is this article titled “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods” by Ari Levaux from The Atlantic, in which he bases his arguments almost entirely on the misconception that RNA in your blood could somehow work to change gene expression (this would be called RNAi) in your cells. This is because he never learned about cell biology and the fact that cells do not simply uptake genetic data from their medium.
In order to quell public fear of the unknown, the people they go to for advice and understanding have to become competent in the fields they are talking about. If you are not at least somewhat well versed in cell biology and genetics: you should not be writing about biotechnology or genetically modified organisms. If scientists and companies open their doors and start explaining to these emissaries of public opinion then the rampant misconceptions should slowly die off.
6) Random insertions should be avoided: if a gene is added then it should be added into non-coding, non-regulatory DNA separating genes.
This might sound confusing if you haven’t studied genetics, but it is actually pretty simple. Genes are frequently separated from one another, especially in multi-cellular creatures like ourselves, by repeating patterns of non-coding DNA. In some instances, this non-coding DNA can be regulatory in nature: “attracting” either a repressor or enhancer to specify gene activity. But, in many cases the repeats between genes exist to aid in clean recombination and are not connected to regulatory duties, and in fact this is the type of DNA that we use for DNA fingerprinting because we vary individually in how many times the sequences are repeated (called variable number tandem repeats).
There are way to do a targeted insertion (for instance using a cas/CRISPR system), but the simplest and most common method of gene insertion is using T-DNAs (taking a page out of Agrobacterium tumefaciens‘ book). This reasonably simple method has the downside, however, of inserting its DNA randomly into the genome, potentially interrupting or disrupting existing genetic data. Since we have the technology to avoid this problem, shouldn’t we be doing so?
7) Allow equivalence to be determined individually for each organism on a case-by-case basis: avoid generalizing.
Although I myself already said that DNA and RNA from GMOs cannot affect your cells, the fact remains that it would technically be possible to create an apple that produced melatonin to help you fall asleep faster, or even fruit that produced a little insulin to make it easier for diabetics to eat. These foods can be considered different from their conventional brothers, unlike rice which simply produces more ß-carotene, expresses a protein to better fend off specific insect pests (like Bt), or is simply better able to adapt to warm or cold temperatures due to better protein folding. Whether a genetically modified organism should be considered the same as, or something different from, conventional foods should be decided on a case-by-case basis.
8) Studies investigating the environmental impact of GM crops should compare both monoculture and mixed crops instead of just GM and non-GM monocultures.
The irony of much of the anti-GM movement is that it claims to center around environmental integrity. As someone who places a great of value on environmental and biosphere stability: I find this argument somewhat backwards. The negative impact of monocultures on everything from biodiversity to bee health appears to be far more clear than any connection between environmental impacts and genetic modification. Companies and regulators should be investigating what factors contribute to or subtract from ecosystem services, this would be more informative if studies were undertaken using both mixed and monoculture crops.
Genetic modification is a tool comprising many different technologies. It can be used responsible with great success, or it can be abused. In the same way that we cannot ban electricity because of the electric chair: we cannot villify all GMOs because of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops. Indeed, many chemical and industrial processes are being made more environmentally viable through the use of bioreactors (instead of classic chemistry) or making mosquitoes immune to malaria, and there exists the possibility of enabling existing organisms to better adapt to the changing climate (which is a less threatening way to say biosphere instability).
There is no reason that we should let ourselves be convinced that a combination of mutation and selection breeding is morally better than directed evolution. The choices we are being offered are not between environmentally safe and environmentally dangerous, but instead we must choose between the intelligent use of the tools we have available or to hang onto environmentally destructive traditions. I strongly believe that if we can come to terms on these 8 points: we can guarantee a more responsible and beneficial use of genetic modification.