There is a strong public opposition to genetically modification, be it of food or microorganisms. A lack of general understanding of what exactly GMOs are or can be, and a skewed or absent understanding of what “conventional” or “organic” foods are, contributes to this growing problem. It certainly doesn’t help that whatever anti-GMO articles that half-baked sources share have a tendency to go immediately viral: further fanning the flames of ignorance.
None of the food that we eat today comes to us in its natural form. Seriously: none of anything that you can find in your local produce section or farmer’s market is the same breed of fruit or vegetable that you would have found in nature several hundred years ago. Once humans had managed to refine corn to having such large cornel, its natural form actually contained many different colors and a far greater genetic diversity. Ironically, the purely “gold” corn that you are used to is nowhere close to how corn actually looked in nature.
Living within civilization means accepting that our food has been modified both through breeding and irradiation (dubbed “mutation breeding“): even when we are talking about organic food. Although selective breeding has long been a human tradition and is generally accepted as “natural,” irradiation is taking the insane risk of creating random mutations throughout the genome and then deciding whether the changes are “good” or “bad” by simply looking at whatever grows. The problem is that random changes are unspecific, and the majority of mutations cannot be categorized by simply looking at the plants that grow.
Genetic modification, on the other hand, is a process where extreme specific changes are made within the plant. Unlike irradiated organic seeds, a library of genetically modified plants is created and analysed long before it ever goes into mass production: there exist vast amounts of data that let both creators and consumers technically know what changes were made. If this data was made publicly available, it would enable a greater level of transparency than almost any other process.
Genetic modification is not simply a tool of chemical companies, although Monsanto has come to fame by making their corn and soy immune to a total herbicide (that means it kills literally EVERYTHING except plants that have been modified to express a protein that allows them to survive) with connected health and ecological problems, it can be used for much more amazing, ecologically sustainable, and useful things.
One of the first GMO success stories was the incorporation of Bt proteins into plants to give them a highly selective built-in defense against its main predators. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a highly specific protein-based insecticide, and is actually allowed to be sprayed on organic crops. Its use has been primarily response for a 45% reduction in the use of pesticides on corn, and does this without presenting itself as an environmental toxin. Unlike the myriad of other pesticides that are very likely connected to the bee die-off, Bt is actually pretty highly selective and primarily only harms specific insects during specific life stages. If you oppose the use of Bt, you have to ask yourself whether you think it makes more sense to spray this same molecule onto the plants, or to give the plants the advantage of expressing it in their cells (which would limit how many organisms are exposed to it). Although Bt may not be perfect, and may have an effect on honey-bees at doses around 5000 parts per billion, it certainly isn’t less dangerous when produced and then sprayed onto the plants. It is also certainly more selective than the alternatives.
Genetic modification has also been used to increase vitamin content in staple crops like in rice or bananas, and can be used to increase protein stability or temperature/pH tolerance. Although chemical resistance offers companies the highest profit margin by allowing them to sell both seeds and chemicals, it represents the smallest advantage for the plants and the environment. How selfish and narcissistic is the idea of making our crops simply resistant to poisons, instead of giving them long-term advantages in the face of increasingly serious environmental problems.
We can use this technology to make plants more effectively fix carbon into biomass, or as my university’s IGem team showed this year: give E.coli the potential of turning electricity and CO2 into fuel sources like isobutanol. We are seeing an exponential increase of methane rising from the oceans and the permafrost, which humanity has so far completely failed to mitigate or stop. Unlike the increasing levels of CO2, the CH4 (methane) was only initially triggered by anthropogenic climate change: its release is actually increasing its own release, causing a form of positive feedback loop. This is a major problem, and one humanity has not even taken much time to discuss, let alone solve.
Genetic modification offers us some of the best changes of mitigating the effects of climate change, help stabilize the biosphere and protect key-species from extinction, and help humanity increase its chances of surviving the biosphere shift.We don’t need to use GMOs to maximize profit: we can actually use them to maximize our collective ability to survive on this planet. Instead of letting the methane rise into the atmosphere, increasing temperatures, and increasing methane output: why not add a metabolic pathway that would allow cyanobacteria or red algae to fix into biomass on its way to the surface? We could actually enable our environment to turn greenhouse gases into food for us and the fishes.
And what about the long-term effects? What are the long-term effects of any of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals we produce and use on a daily basis, of the thousands of tons of plastic that end in the oceans every year, of the increasing number of toxins and endocrine disruptors that are, according to a Harvard study, the leading cause of the increasing number of developmental problems in children born today. If we are not panicking about the long-term effects of substances and molecules which we essentially know to be damaging, why should we suddenly freak out about the long-term effects of processes and organisms which have extremely limited potential for causing problems? The only answer I can find to this question is ignorance.