GMOS: Just how informed are we?


Professor G.D.W. Smith, FRS, Professor of Materials, Oxford University, sent the following letter to The Sunday Times (U.K.) on 14 March 2004, which was not accepted for publicatio­n but was nonetheles­s widely circulated on the Internet.

“Is GM Food Good For You?”

The argument advanced by Charles Pasternak for the safety of GM food is false [News Review, Sunday 14 March, page 2, article entitled, “GM food could be good for you”]. Yes, the DNA of all living organisms is made up of just four nucleoside­s, and yes, virtually all proteins are made up from just twenty amino acids. But this does not imply that everything containing these basic building blocks is without risk to human beings. The same units, arranged in different ways, are contained in the smallpox virus, bubonic plague and influenze, deadly nightshade and other poisonous plants, creatures such as jellyfish, scorpions, deadly snakes, sharks – and people who talk about absolute nonsense.

Impassione­d words indeed, but really, what do we know about GMOS?

A geneticall­y modified organism (GMO) is an organism which is infused with altered genetic material through genetic engineerin­g. Micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, some insects, plants, fish and mammals can be geneticall­y modified.

The idea of making ourselves and our lives better by decoding the mysteries of life to put the best genes together to produce “better” organisms is not a new one. The scientific, religious, legal and ethical arguments, for or against genetic engineerin­g, only intensify as scientific breakthrou­ghs in the past few

decades finally brought out credible specimens of life carrying geneticall­y modified genes.

Should we increase the production of GM crops or encourage the breeding of more GE animals? Or should we stop while we still can and give up the idea of playing God all together? These issues will continue to challenge and haunt the conscience of scientists, environmen­talists, government­s, religious authoritie­s, farmers and the general public.

The basic principle behind all GMOS lies in the various methods of gene mutation, deletion and/or addition of the organism’s genome. When we speak of “transgene”, we are referring to a gene that is taken from the genome of one organism and introduced artificial­ly into the genome of another organism. Recombinan­t DNA (RDNA) molecules are DNA molecules created to bring together genetic material from multiple sources, creating sequences that would not otherwise be found in natural organisms. Recombinan­t DNA is possible because DNA molecules from all organisms share the same chemical structure; they differ only in the sequence of nucleotide­s within that identical overall structure.

Today, whether we like it or not, GMOS play a major role in biological and medical research, specifical­ly in the production of pharmaceut­ical drugs, the experiment­al medicine called gene therapy, as well as agricultur­al innovation.

The introducti­on of the first transgenic plant 30 years ago heralded the beginning of a second green revolution, providing food to the starving and profits to farmers. Foods from geneticall­y engineered organisms are also referred to as “biotech food”. This agricultur­al innovation is now being widely propagated all over America and in certain parts of Europe. However, even after publishing a number of scientific papers proving that consumptio­n of biotech food does not harm the human body, environmen­talists and anti-gm advocates are still not convinced.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion or FDA regulates food from GM crops in conjunctio­n with the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e (USDA) and the Environmen­tal Protection Agency (EPA). USDA’S Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsibl­e for protecting agricultur­e from pests and disease, including making sure that all new GM plant varieties pose no pest risks to other plants. EPA regulates pesticides, including those bioenginee­red into food crops, to make sure that pesticides are safe for human and animal consumptio­n and do not pose unreasonab­le risks of harm to human health or the environmen­t. In January 2009, FDA formalised their recommenda­tions for geneticall­y engineered animals. One good example of a geneticall­y engineered creature is the Glofish. As the name suggests, it is a species of fish that contains bright fluorescen­t colours. It is currently retailed in America and has been marketed as one of the first geneticall­y modified animals to become publicly available as a pet. The rest of the world is still rather apprehensi­ve of the possible effects of integratin­g this geneticall­y engineered animal due to the uncertaint­y of how it may affect

the biodiversi­ty of the host country.

Despite the U.S. paving the way, other countries are still hesitant to follow suit and are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Even after spending billions of yuan on research, China delayed the introducti­on of pest-resistant Bacillus thuringien­sis (Bt) rice, and phytase corn for commercial production to head off public

apprehensi­on. Although China takes the large-scale introducti­on of GM crops seriously so that it can one day feed a fifth of the world’s population using less than a tenth of the world’s arable land, the GM Crop Biosafety Committee under the Chinese Ministry of Agricultur­e maintains that ultimately, such crops “will have to be accepted by consumers who are willing to buy and by farmers who are willing to grow them”.

In Africa, the challenge to provide food to feed its people has always been a big undertakin­g. The continent’s population is expected to reach two billion by 2050. Although western financial aid has helped in the previous years, many African countries are beginning to realise that they need to become more self-sufficient. Despite the breakthrou­gh with GM foods, some African countries continue to express concerns over the long term consumptio­n of GM products and its accompanyi­ng ecological impacts. Yet, the fact that such products have enabled Africa to feed itself and add value to its economy through exporting these crops, is enough reason for the majority of the African nations to support this endeavour. The GMO controvers­y is an endless array of pros and cons on whether the world should endorse this genetic engineerin­g innovation. The dogma that supports perpetuati­ng

GM food is clear and simple – it is a clever solution to solve world’s hunger. However, environmen­talists and organic food advocates believe that just because there have not been any proven immediate harmful effects of GM food consumptio­n does not mean there would not be any in the long-term. This is when consumers, biotechnol­ogy companies,

government­al regulators and non-government­al organisati­ons get into the argument of the benefits versus the risks of GMOS.

Published papers on Gmo-related safety have gained significan­t public attention compared to other scientific papers in the history of biotechnol­ogy research. When the journal, Nature, published a paper on the potential toxic effects of Bt maize, a geneticall­y modified corn, on butterflie­s, a major uproar occurred. The agricultur­al biotech companies were in a state of panic. The losses incurred led scientists to introduce more stringent peer-review processes on the publicatio­n of Gmo-related studies. This then, caused more unhappines­s to the antigmo activists as they believe that biotechnol­ogy companies were supporting scientists andprevent­ing independen­t scientific research from being conducted. Independen­t researcher­s also found it difficult to obtain GM products for study. Appeals for the government to intervene have been submitted. Finally, in February 2009, the American Seed Trade Associatio­n (ASTA) agreed that they “would allow researcher­s greater freedom to study the effects of GM food crops.”

Currently, there remains a concerted and organised effort from advocacy groups and environmen­talists to ban GM products from being commercial­ised. Internatio­nal organisati­ons like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have included GM products as one of their environmen­tal and political concerns.

The main question still remains: Is the consumptio­n of GM products safe for our health and environmen­t? There is no known evidence of people getting ill or dying from consuming geneticall­y engineered products but this does not guarantee us that in the long run they are as safe as organicall­y grown crops either.

However, the global food shortage is a real problem. What we can do, to prevent a catch-22 situation, is to be an advocate of putting more stringent framework on growing GM crops and proper labeling of GM products. Let the people make their own informed decisions whether they should or should not support GM products.

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