In my last post I mentioned GMO tomatoes. I had a friend review the article before I posted but the next day I had second thoughts. So I asked her if she knew what GMO means, and she revealed she did not. Nothing to be ashamed about, she has an abundance of good company. I’m not quick with acronyms so I had to Google it the first time I saw it to make sure I understood correctly. So let’s get with the basics, a description and then the ugly, the bad and the good. Yes, I said ‘good.’
GMO means ‘genetically modified organism.’ This isn’t the same as a hybrid. Hybrids are created by crossing two individuals of different species. A mule for instance is a hybrid, resulting from cross breeding a horse with a donkey. GMOs are different in that humans have mucked around in the genes and added a little this or that from another organism, resulting in a phenotype (WYSIWYG, what you see is what you get) with a characteristic or characteristics we, for whatever selfish purpose, desire.
So you might ask, what is a gene? A gene is a segment of DNA, a snip-it of the genome. Genes contain information. DNA residues are the code or alphabet of genes and genome. The genome or all the genes collectively, contain all the information to create and successfully operate an individual. I tutor a very bright grade school student and when I talk to him about this I call the genome a book. The book contains all the blueprints and operating instructions for the organism. It also acts like a CEO (chief executive officer), responding and directing or redirecting operations at the molecular (chemical particles) and cellular levels when an organism is faced with change or challenge. For us, the flu would constitute such a challenge and our bodies respond by producing antibodies under the direction of genes within the genome.
So let’s assume you want to grow corn, lots of corn. When you grow a lot of any one thing there are inherent problems. Foremost among the problems are nutrition, competition, disease and predation. In agriculture, for many years now the primary tactic used to deal with these challenges has been to treat with synthetic chemicals; respectively, non-organic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides & anti-bacterials and pesticides. However, evidence has amassed showing that some if not most of these chemicals have detrimental effects, from herbicides reducing crop vigor to reduced reproductive success of bald eagle and other raptor eggs (1). Human cancers have also been linked to agricultural chemicals (2,3). At the same time demand for agricultural products is increasing; particularly corn and soy for food products and now for biofuel.
The result is that people do what people do, that is to work hard to find a way. Now agriculture has a new tool in their arsenal, creating genes for desirable attributes then adding those genes into the genomes of crops or target organisms, thus creating a GMO. For example, let’s say growers are having horrendous problems with weeds, so we then create a gene for herbicide resistance and insert it into the corn and/or soy genome. Bingo, those farmers can now apply herbicide at a higher rate without reducing crop plant vigor and/or harvest size. Alternatively, let’s say that disease rates for particular pathogen are predicted to skyrocket in the upcoming seasons; we create a gene that directs the crop to produce anti-pathogen molecules. Now the farmers don’t have to spray or spray less for that disease.
Sounds good, right? Certainly, GMOs are a slick way to deal with agricultural issues. Yet that brings us to the ugly. The strategy of creating crops that tolerate herbicides then increasing herbicide use is already being employed. How many studies showing environmental and human health issues will it take to prove to the industry that the cost of using herbicides outweighs the benefits? We don’t need more herbicide, we need less. We don’t need more non-organic fertilizers, pesticides or anti-pathogens, we need less. Yes, with GMOs we may acquire more food products and biofuel at lower a cost, but how do you put a price on the environment, the potential extinction of species or the emotions, pain and monetary cost of a family member battling cancer?
It seems logical that we could eat GMO corn, tomatoes, soy or other crop plants without harm. After all, if the GMO crop organism can thrive with the new molecules being produced within their bodies, why shouldn’t we also tolerate them? Well let’s all go out and collect water hemlock root and put it in our winter stew! Tomorrow we won’t be talking about how good the stew was last night. Even if you survived the stew, the story would not be a happy one. This example is extreme of course. However, it makes the point; just because an organism can create and tolerate a chemical within its body, that doesn’t mean it isn’t poisonous to us or other organisms. All of the GMO created foods need to be tested for safety as thoroughly as any other food additives.
With those points being made you might wonder what good I could possibly see in a GMO. Not all GMOs are crop plants. In particular, there is research and work being done to create GMO algae that produce oil for biofuel (4). Work is being done to create strains of GMO yeast that produce high quality alcohols for biofuel (5). Yeasts have been successfully put in a GMO harness to produce quality, low cost pharmaceuticals (5). The difference is that these organisms are not directly in our food chain nor are they intended to be. Further, the products we are creating in this manner, with these organisms, require processing and purification. When the use involves human consumption such as pharmaceuticals, the safety work has already been done and the pharmaceuticals themselves are purified before use. There is the possibility of creating a super decomposer (6) for use in textile and biofuel industries. This type of GMO could become problematic if it could attack untreated plant materials or live plants and was released into the environment. For the moment, this seems an unlikely scenario. Yet, with the rapidly building climate and energy issues, this direction of biofuel research may be worth the risk.
It isn’t the research or theories behind GMOs that I find problematic. It is the application to food chain products and their end use. Even with the potential positives in mind, I wonder if it is not a dicey experiment, egotistical and potentially devastating to believe we can enhance without negative consequence the natural processes of adaptation and evolution that have been in place and functioning successfully for millennia.