Whilst researching this topic it soon became apparent that: ‘Genetically Modified Organisms’ (just call me GMO) is a huge and diverse field to tackle in a short article. For a comprehension exposition, not only is it necessary to cover the relevant science, but an appreciation of GMOs reach and impact upon our modern lives is required. Therefore, this article should be seen as a basic introduction to the subject- merely a taster for your future reading delectation and digestion.
In the popular mind, GMO is synonymous with the genetic modification of food crops and the various ramifications thereof. This is a great pity as GMO encompasses so much more than simple food production, but it is with crop modification where most of the controversy resides.
GMO: The Backstory
Humans have been practicing genetic modification for thousands of years. Selective breeding of plants and animals has enabled humankind to produce desirable traits in a diverse range of species. Some species are barely recognizable from the parent, ‘wild type’ progenitor. It is acknowledged that the domestic dog is derived from the Grey Wolf. The small, fluffy, white coated dog curled up on my lap and gently farting shares 99% of its genome with the wolf, although superficially at least, this is not readily apparent. However, the technique of selective breeding is ultimately restricted to innate variability or ‘genetic plasticity‘ of a given species.
During the 1970s genetic manipulation techniques became accessible. Scientists developed the ability to introduce genes from one organism to another. Genes from different species can be exchanged to optimize productivity or to manufacture a desired characteristic. Crops have been developed to resist adverse conditions and to increase yield. Crops can now be sowed in harsh environments where previously they would have failed. Animals have been modified to produce more meat and to exhibit immunity when challenged by disease. Mammalian genes can be introduced into bacteria to ‘persuade’ them to produce pharmaceutical drugs such as insulin. These are just a few of the practical applications of genetic modification and illustrate the power and utility of the technique. And it doesn’t stop there; new applications for gene transfer are being developed and approved as I write.
Green and Godly Reactions to GMO
Concerns have been raised with regard to the technology, and I think rightly so. Criticism of GMO is desirable and even necessary. However, there have been two approaches to the problem: one laudable, the other lamentable. As with most problems in life, a rational appreciation of the issues is ultimately the best approach. And therein lies the problem. The opponents of GMO are generally not concerned with presenting a balanced view based on current scientific data. They are more interested in promoting their own ‘world view’ and agenda at the expense of the truth and in spite of contrary evidence.
It should come as no surprise that ‘green’ organisations and religious groups are most vocal in their objection to GMO. The ‘green’ response is a predictable ‘knee jerk’ reaction against what they consider as harmful artificial meddling in the natural world.
Religious groups (not all, admittedly), rail against fallible man’s intervention in nature and what they see as an affront and challenge to God’s ordained plan. Their arguments are often vague and have appeal more to the ‘heart and gut’ rather than the ‘head’. They mean to instill a vague feeling of unease and play on the innate visceral fear that is engendered. Foolish man! Tinkering where he should not. Interfering in God’s province and undermining the providence of the deity.
Although often anti-reason, opponents are not averse to leaning on evidence, if it supports their viewpoint. They are not practicing science in any real sense and will grasp at any study which paints the technology in a bad light. The less light, the more they crow. Evidence supportive of GMO will be quietly dismissed and ignored. In this regard they take on the mantel of a legal advocate. This is not scientific enquiry as I was taught. It is a sophisticated attempt at disinformation to promote a specific viewpoint regardless and is certainly not directed or concerned with unearthing the truth.
Concerns leveled at GMO
The production of non-indigenous proteins by plants has been seen as presenting an allergy risk. Whilst it is true that rates of ‘allergic reactions’ have been on the rise since the introduction of genetically modified crops this in no way supports causation. Rates of allergies and asthma have been steadily rising in the developed world for over four decades. Our increasingly sanitized environment is likely to blame. It appears that our immature immune systems need a challenge. A childhood spent mired in mud and dirt, in the 1960s, was not all in vain! Exposure to allergens at a critical young age is important for the development of a healthy and responsive immune system. It is worthy to note that allergy and asthma rates are much lower in developing countries.
Concern has been raised about the ability of transposed genes to cross infect non-target intended species. Consider the situation where a crop plant has a gene inserted to confer resistance to disease. Clearly this is advantageous and has the potential to increase crop yield whilst reducing costs. However, if the gene migrates to a weed species it may cause that species to proliferate uncontrollably with detrimental consequences. There are other examples where transposed genes could have unpredictable consequences if they transfer to non-target species.
Perhaps the greatest concerns reside with the viral route of transmission. Retroviruses are genetic particles teetering on the very edge of the definition of life. When a retrovirus infects an organism their genetic material links in with the host DNA. In this way they bamboozle their host to produce more viral protein and DNA and ultimately more viral particles. When they decide to leave they may take some of the host DNA with them. In this way they can transfer genetic material between other organisms and species. It seems retroviruses have naturally been transferring genetic material from humans to other organisms, and vice versa, for millennia. In the majority of instances transfer will involve small pieces of non-coding genetic fragments and not whole functioning genes.
For a problem to occur the whole of the novel gene would need to be transferred together with promoting factors. Therefore I think the problem has been overstated and the transfer of whole intact transposed genes to a potentially hostile ‘environment’ is highly unlikely. As an aside, bacterial genes transfected to animals by this route have had important consequences for the evolutionary history of many species, including man. It is thought that up to 10% of the human genome contains material deposited by viruses. Some of this alien DNA has been with us for many millions of years and over eons has mutated and evolved into active genes. Unfortunately I don’t have the space or remit to digress into this most fascinating aspect of evolutionary biology. This will have to await a future article.
Regulation of GMOs
And so this leads us neatly into regulation. Since the inception of GMO, regulatory bodies and government agencies have been quick to introduce mechanisms and proposals for the safe incorporation of GMO technology and products into our needy, daily lives. Therefore, I would like to make a few general remarks with regard to current GMO control.
There is an illusion that many countries have banned GMO and by implication that GMO technology is not safe. Such is the effectiveness of the naysayer propaganda. As far as I’m aware, only two countries have implemented an absolute ban. Most countries have embraced the technology, but not without caveats and controls. I will not dwell on specifics however, in general, similar concerns are voiced and similar regulations are proposed and enforced. GMO and relevant issues do not exist in a political vacuum; sadly the political dimension cannot be ignored. Whether it be the politician pandering to the ill-informed electorate for short term, personal, political gain or a nation’s leader introducing sanctions to influence international policy; sad but true.
The implementation of GMO technology is a fundamental given if we want to feed, nurture and medically treat the world’s burgeoning population. In terms of risk analysis, the overwhelming good outweighs the relatively small risk of potential harm. Always, proven and sound scientific analysis and data should be our concern. Irrational and unsubstantiated fears should remain hidden in the dark primitive recesses of our limbic system which controls our baser instincts and irrational drives and psyche. Otherwise we are ultimately trapped and doomed in irrational, limbic, limbo.
Finally I would like to list a few important resources which bear on the subject and debate. Hopefully I’ve chosen an unbiased collection of online material which will help to formulate a well balanced opinion.
This article was written as a guest post by Flaxen Saxon.
Flaxen Saxon is an Englishman, in exile, living out his days in the beautiful and under populated country of New Zealand- please don’t tell anyone. He has worked as a professional scientist (geneticist) for the past 28 years and as a consequence is steeped in the scientific method and a thorough, dyed in the wool, rationalist. He is passionate about science and critical thought. Paradoxically, Flaxen is a qualified reflexology practitioner, but holds no truck with the pseudo scientific claims underpinning the so-called theory. He considers that reflexology should be appreciated for what it is- a relaxing massage technique.
He writes prolifically and administers his own blog, ‘The Flaxen Saxon Chronicles’. The site is an eclectic showcase of military history, science, rationalism, philosophy and Flaxen’s bizarre brand of humor. A fervent believer in ‘free speech’ he exhibits a pathological (nay rabid) loathing of ‘Political Correctness’, in all its manifestations.