It is imperative to proceed with caution and weigh the potential benefits against the potential risks of GMOs.
As she walks through the softly lit aisles of the supermarket, the woman hums to herself, navigating her bi-weekly grocery run. In the produce section, she pauses to examine a bag of apples. Turning it around, her eyes scan the label, and a frown creases her face. After a moment of consideration, she puts the bag back on the shelf, moving on hurriedly.
What possible information on the label may have caused her to react this way?
In this particular case, the woman's reaction was caused by the label indicating that the apples came from a genetically modified food crop. This type of labeling, which identifies food items and feed products that contain genetically modified ingredients, is the law in 64 countries worldwide.
The decision to establish mandatory labeling regulations for genetically modified food products was the result of a complex and contested process. The labeling evidently causes the loss of business for food companies relying on GMO ingredients while stimulating a state of confusion and distrust against genetically engineered organisms amongst consumers. The situation is also an accurate reflection of the ongoing debates and concerns surrounding the safety and transparency of GMOs.
As the discourse over GMOs continues to unfold, some experts argue that genetically modified crops are essential to addressing global food security challenges, and that they have undergone extensive safety testing to ensure their benefits outweigh any potential risks. However, others raise concerns about the environmental and health impacts of GMOs, while advocating for greater transparency and consumer choice in the food industry.
This essay aims to examine these arguments in detail, drawing on relevant research and evidence to provide a comprehensive analysis of the benefits and risks associated with GMOs. By the end of this essay, readers will hopefully have a better understanding of this complex issue, and be equipped to make informed decisions about their food choices.
What are GMOs?
GMO is an abbreviation of the phrase “Genetically Modified Organism”. WHO (World Health Organization) defines the technology as: “Organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”
The word “genetically” in GMO comes from ‘genes’, where genes are the most basic units of information found in all living organisms. What these genes do is account for the collective units of information an organism needs throughout its lifespan; for its survival as well as its reproduction. The central dogma of molecular biology dictates that these genes, that are composed of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), are translated in the body to form proteins that go on to serve all the designated purposes of the said gene. These proteins do most of the cellular labor and are required for the structure, function, and regulation of the body's tissues and organs.
The word “modified” in the abbreviation is reflective of a biological technology spanning decades, perhaps, centuries. People not familiar with biology naturally find the concept of genetic modification complex, but you can imagine it as replacing a faulty rung on a long, complex ladder. In this case, a weakened or undesirable rung is replaced by a more supportive one to improve the ladder’s function and stability. Similarly, genetic modification entails the replacement or addition of genes to the double helical structure of DNA, in order to enhance or introduce new traits.
With that in mind, GMOs are living beings that have had their genetic code scientifically tweaked with. Organisms with altered genetic material include plants, animals and even microorganisms. Let us take plants for an example: the process starts off with the identification of a specific gene or a sequence of DNA encoding a desirable trait; such as disease resistance or increased crop yield. This specific sequence is then isolated in the laboratory and inserted into the genome (another term for genetic material) of the target plant using a variety of techniques. These techniques include gene editing using CRISPR technology (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), gene splicing using recombinant DNA, or gene transfer using virus and/or bacterial vectors.
These techniques may employ different methods of transferring genes from the desired plant to the target plant such as the use of a vector or protoplast bombarding, but the overarching goal of these techniques is to artificially insert a selected gene into the target cell's genome such that it adapts to the changes produced. As the cell begins to divide, the resulting progeny inherit the same modified DNA, ultimately resulting in the development of a genetically modified organism.
It's crucial to understand that even though a cell's nucleus is incredibly tiny, it contains a vast amount of genetic material. Even after undergoing genetic modification, the majority of this information remains unaltered. For instance, if we were to extract all the DNA from a single corn cell's nucleus and place it end-to-end, it would span approximately six feet! This means that only a tiny portion of the DNA is inserted during genetic modification, leaving the vast majority of the organism's genetic code completely untouched by the process. During the process of translation, these modified genes produce little difference in the translated proteins.
Currently, there are several genetically modified (GM) crops used as food sources, while no GM animals have been approved for food use yet, except for a proposed GM salmon awaiting FDA approval. GM crops are typically sold as commodities and further processed into food ingredients. Some examples of GM crops used as food include ringspot virus-resistant papaya, Bt-engineered potatoes, virus-resistant zucchini, and glyphosate-resistant canola and sugar beet.
History of GMOs:
Since the scientific community had mutually accepted Watson and Crick’s model of DNA, the energies and concentration were then redirected on editing the helical structure of DNA. The history of GMOs can be traced back to the discovery in 1944 that genetic material can be transferred between different species. This led to the development of DNA modification technology, which was first demonstrated by Stanley Cohen in 1973. Subsequently in 1982, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval for the first genetically modified product developed through genetic engineering for consumer use: human insulin, intended to treat diabetes.
However, the technology is not as recent as we may think and the roots of GMOs can be traced back even further, to the ideas of Charles Darwin on species variation and selection. Darwin theorized that living organisms with advantageous traits were more likely to survive and pass on those traits to their offspring. Humans have since applied this concept to plants and animals, selectively breeding them to produce desired traits. This practice of artificial selection has resulted in new varieties of crops and livestock that are better suited for specific commercial and breeding purposes.
Although artificial selection and conventional breeding are not as invasive as genetic modification, they still aim to alter the gene pool of an organism. However, these methods leave room for uncertainty and the inheritance of undesired characteristics. For example, inbreeding animals can lead to a higher risk of abnormalities and diseases in their offspring. This is one of the reasons why genetic modification, a more targeted and reliable technology, was developed.
In 1983, the first genetically modified plants were produced, including antibiotic-resistant tobacco and petunias. The first commercially available genetically modified tobacco was introduced in China in the early 1990s while the first GM food to be approved by the FDA in the US was a tomato with delayed ripening in 1994. Since then, several transgenic crops have been approved by the FDA, including canola with modified oil composition and herbicide-resistant cotton and soybeans. GMO foods currently available in the market include potatoes, eggplants, strawberries, and carrots, among others, with many more in the pipeline.
Why Need GMOs?
There is no doubt that genetic modification as a technology has, and continues to face severe backlash for interfering with mother nature itself causing the masses to fear the consequences that this encroachment may have. But the current discussion also warrants that light be shed on the reasons for why effort has been continually dedicated to this highly controversial biological technology.
World population reached the widely predicted 8 billion mark on November 15, 2022 according to the United Nations. Despite the growth rate having reduced from 1.24% per year 10 years ago to 1.18% per year in recent years an annual addition of 83 million individuals is still expected, and the current food systems are severely unequipped to meet the growing demands. According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, GMOs and genetically modified foods will play a critical role in feeding the expected global population of 10 billion people by 2050. The report emphasizes the urgent need to embrace new technologies to meet the growing demand for food, with GMOs and genetic engineering being a vital solution, for the current varieties available are not designed to produce as high of a yield that the rapidly extrapolating population needs.
Another reason for the development of genetic modification technology is the fact that arable land is being lost rapidly to many sources all around the world. FAO predicted that the finite amount of arable land available for food production per person will decrease from the current 0.242 hectares to 0.18 hectares by as soon as 2050. This widespread loss of arable land is caused due to many reasons including: the growing demand for biofuel and feedstock production; accelerated urbanization; land degradation due to desertification, waterlogging, salinization: and the impacts of climate change.
For example, consider the loss of fertile land due to urbanization in Pakistan’s agriculturally advantaged province of Punjab: agricultural lands in the province are being converted into residential plots within gated housing socieities that the majority of the country cannot even afford. The regions of Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, and Gujranwala have been severely impacted, resulting in the transformation of once flourishing agricultural fields that produced wheat, sugarcane, seasonal crops, vegetables, and fodder for animals into mere "plot files." Based on a report from the Kisan Board of Pakistan, it has been found that roughly 20-30% of the arable land in Punjab province, which is responsible for producing 65% of the country's total food supply, has been transformed into industrial units and residential schemes. The Lahore division has the highest rate of conversion, with 70% of its agricultural land now taken up by housing and industrial units, followed by Gujrat, where the ratio is 60%.
Climate change too is a strong motivation for the development in the field of genetic modification. This is because climate change produced changes in temperature and precipitation are likely to expand the occurrence and range of insects, weeds, and crop diseases, which lead to a sequence of increased expenditure on weed and pest control. Hence, controlling excessive application of agricultural chemicals and creating plant varieties equipped to survive significant environmental variations, that too in a short time, are dependent upon genetic engineering. The harm caused by climate induced heavy precipitation was witnessed in the recent floods of 2022 in Pakistan.
According to a report released by the Planning Commission of Pakistan, the agriculture, food, livestock and fisheries sectors suffered damage totalling PKR 800 billion (USD 3.7 billion) in the heaviest floods of the nation’s history. These floods were reportedly caused by climate change and the devastation was so far reaching that cotton production this year, as of March 19, 2023, is to be only 4.78 million bales against the target of 9 million bales due to damage by the floods and decline in the area.
What do we Stand to Gain from GMOs?
Genetic engineering enables modification of the DNA system of an organism, a feat that is huge, and a technology that has vast potentials. Many of these bio-engineering possibilities have been explored, while many remain to be worked on yet.
The targeted specificity of genetic modification wields great power. An accurate portrayal of this ability would be displayed in contrast to conventional breeding. The process typically involves crossing two parental lines in the hopes of producing offspring with desirable traits such as disease resistance where breeders then select the best progeny and back-cross it to one of its parents to eliminate unwanted traits. However, this process can take years, particularly for species with long generational times like wheat. Genetic modification removes the need for this incredibly time consuming and unreliable process by introducing the required gene itself into the genome and then what remains of the process is growing the organism and observing the gene expression.
In the field of agriculture, genetic modification has resulted in GMO crops that have been engineered to express genes that provide them with natural resistance against pests, insects, and other stressors. For example, the Bt gene, derived from Bacillus thuringiensis, is commonly inserted into crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans, resulting in a protein that is toxic to several pests and insects, hence significantly minimizing the need for harmful pesticides.
In addition to pest resistance, GMO crops can also be modified with genes that help them survive in stressful conditions such as droughts and resist diseases like blights. This results in a higher yield for farmers, even in unfavorable climatic conditions. Studies have shown that GMO technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and increased crop yields by 22%.
By lowering costs for farmers and consumers and providing a greater yield through harsher conditions. According to a report, GM crops have substantially increased global production between 1996 and 2015. In that period, GM crops yielded an additional 357.7 million tons of corn, 180.3 million tons of soybean, 25.2 million tons of cotton fiber, 10.6 million tons of canola, and about a ton of sugar beet. Moreover, the report highlights that GM crops have significantly reduced the need for agricultural land due to their higher productivity. In fact, in 2015 alone, almost 20 million hectares were saved from agricultural use, which helped prevent the environmental impact of cultivating forests or wildlands. Despite the initial expense of purchasing GMO seeds, their cost of production is often lower than that of traditional crops due to their natural resistance to pests and insects. GMO crops also reduce the need for harmful pesticides and insecticides, making them environmentally friendly.
To add on, genetic modification of food can be targeted to enhance the nutritional value of certain substances like vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, cellulose, and probiotics. An example of this is "Golden Rice," which helps combat Vitamin A deficiency. This variety of rice is high in beta carotene and was developed to help prevent blindness in regions where local diets are chronically deficient in vitamin A. Belgian researchers also successfully increased folate in rice by 150-fold, which could significantly decrease the risk of birth defects like spina bifida and other neural tube defects that occur due to a deficiency of this nutrient.
Researchers can also alter the amino acid composition of proteins and the content of carbohydrates, as shown in the case of sweet lupine and Amflora potatoes, hence modifying the nutritionally useful content of crops. The goal of many of these GM crops is to alleviate nutritional deficiencies in underdeveloped countries in Africa. For instance; the "Biofortified Sorghum Project for Africa" is a partnership between public and private entities that has successfully increased the levels of beta-carotene, iron, zinc, and essential amino acids in sorghum. Field and greenhouse trials have been conducted in both the United States and Africa.
Furthermore, GMOs have not only boosted farm income to a significant $116 billion, almost three times the previous decade, but also enhanced the quality and longevity of produce. Farmers have achieved greater yields with lower agricultural expenses, thanks to genetically modified crops that have been engineered to have a longer shelf life. An excellent example of this is the "Flavr Savr" tomato, which contains an antisense gene that slows the ripening process and saves farmers from significant losses. GMOs have not only enhanced the appearance of fresh produce, but have also made it look more appealing and brighter, while it is also widely acknowledged that GMO food provides consumers with a higher quality product as it is known to taste better.
What do we stand to lose from GMOs?
Genetic engineering provides vast amounts of control and power, offering endless possibilities for the improvement of food, and life in its entirety. However, with this great power comes an even greater responsibility. As the GMO debate rages on, concerns persist about the potential short- and long-term health risks associated with this technology. While some scientific experts may be quick to dismiss these concerns, it's important to listen to the reservations that both the public and fellow experts may have regarding the consumption of GMOs.
The use of GMOs has been linked to allergic reactions and an increase in permanent allergies worldwide, concerns that are not entirely unfounded. “Starlink” maize, a modified plant with information from Bacillus thuringinesis, though equipped with resistance to certain insects, is also reported to have increased allergenicity. This is because the inserted gene translates into a protein with pesticidal properties and causes strong allergic reactions amongst some consumers.
Genetically modified plants have been linked to allergic reactions due to the fact that some of the genes used in their modification are extracted from sources that have severe allergenic properties. This is particularly concerning for those with nut allergies, which are becoming increasingly common and can be life-threatening. For instance, the transgenic soybean plant, which has been modified to produce elevated levels of protein, has reportedly caused allergic reactions among consumers with nut allergies. The reactions can be traced back to the gene responsible for the increased protein production which was obtained from Brazilian nuts; widely known to cause allergic reactions.
These were some of the very obvious and primary consequences GMOs have reportedly had on consumers, however, a lot of the impacts can be much less straightforward to understand. These impacts are referred to as secondary and pleiotropic effects and their effect manifests in the body’s biochemical pathways.
The human body is complex, not only at an anatomical level but at the biochemical level too. The many biochemical reactions and cycles being carried out are interlinked and dependent upon multiple enzyme complexes, toxins and substrates. In this scenario it is extremely unpredictable if genetically modified food sources can have an impact on these cycles, causing a long-term accumulation of toxins. For instance, if a resultant protein or enzyme of genetically modified wheat variety in turn inhibits one of the enzymes within the body, the impacts could be far reaching and undetectable. Moreover, the subsequent accumulation of toxins in the body would be difficult to trace back towards GMO sources, for it is the actual detection of toxins that is close to impossible too.
Another possible trouble expressed by experts is the fact that the genes are not isolated, nor independent from one another. It is for this reason many experts of the field believe that genetic recombination does not come without consequences. For example, if a gene responsible for producing a herbicide resistance is inserted into a crop, it may inadvertently affect the expression of other genes, leading to unintended and potentially harmful consequences. This can be especially problematic if the unintended modification is expressed in the dietary part of the crops.
The use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture is a complex issue that carries potential ecological risks too. One major concern is the development of resistance among pests and weeds, which can eventually lead to the failure of the GM crops to provide the desired benefits. For instance, insect-resistant crops that express insecticidal crystal proteins may result in the emergence of new pest populations that are not affected by these proteins.
Similarly, herbicide-resistant crops may lead to the proliferation of minor weed species that were previously not a problem, while the main target weed becomes resistant. Such changes in the agricultural landscape may cause disruption to the entire food web, potentially affecting the balance of predator and prey populations. Another issue is the risk of antibiotic resistance, which can occur when genes conferring resistance to antibiotics are transferred from GMOs to other bacteria, including those that can cause disease. This can result in a loss of effectiveness of antibiotics, thereby increasing the risk of infections that are difficult to treat.
Many of the common myths surrounding GMOs have been repeatedly debunked including the rumored impact on fertility. Researchers analyzed four consecutive generations of rats who had been fed transgenic corn and found no impact on the fertility parameters decided. However, it is important to realize that the current extent of research is not sufficient enough to completely dismiss the reservations people have about GMOs, and likely so. This is because while genetic modification technology has been touted as a solution to the world's food supply and agricultural needs, there are negative consequences that cannot be ignored. The rapid loss of arable land, the effects of climate change, and the need to feed a growing global population have been cited as reasons for the development of genetic modification technology. However, the risks and negative impacts of GMOs cannot be ignored, including potential harm to human health, damage to the environment, and the creation of monoculture. Therefore, it is imperative to proceed with caution and weigh the potential benefits against the potential risks.