As a geneticist by training, I am especially upset by the public misconception of GMO. A lot of people think it’s scary and dangerous, but what they don’t understand is that almost all the produce on the market and all the pets at homes are essentially GMOs. Genetic modification of species has been in practice in agriculture for thousands of years, done by grafting, inter species breeding, or even mutation breeding. It is done to obtain better yield, better taste, and more varieties, etc. During this process, genes are swapped, genomes are modified, yet humans have enjoyed the results of this practice without doubts. It is important for me to explain mutation breeding, the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation order to generate mutants with desirable traits. From 1930 to 2014 more than 3200 mutagenic plant varietals have been released to the market. One example of this is the Rio Red grapefruit, which was created in a laboratory after years of experimentation. Because mutagenesis, like genetic modification, is a process, mutagenetically created Rio Reds can even be sold as organic.
Most people never question about these approaches or not fully aware of the details. What really made people queasy about GMO is that due to the advancement of science, we can now specifically target a particular gene and engineer a specific change of trait through molecular biology. To avoid confusion, I am going to call this GEO (Genetically Engineered Organism).
Now that you understand what you have actually been eating and the concept of GMO and GEO, tell me why GEO is scarier? Would chemically induced seeds which carry many unknown mutations safer than a targeted mutation generated through GEO technology? I don’t think so. However, some people and the media have used scare tactic to build roadblocks to prevent the advancement and application of this technology.
Monsanto, the leading company in genetically modified and genetically engineered seed, has been accused of creating sterile seeds to gain profit as farmers have to buy those seeds annually. True, Monsanto is a for-profit company and it needs to make money to support its research programs. But money is not the core issue here. As a matter of fact Monsanto has donated their GE seeds to poor countries and those who have special needs. The core reason to make the seeds sterile is to prevent the spreading of the genetically engineered trait freely and randomly in nature, as there is a potential of cross pollination between GE plant and similar species in nature.
Then there are rumors that consuming the “mutants” will cause mutations in humans. This is just laughable, if genetic traits can be passed on so easily we would really have become what we eat! Genetic mutations occur at the DNA level, which would be turned into proteins for humans to digest just like all other foods we consume. There are also rumors that GEO food leads to increased incidence of food allergies and certain diseases. Keep in mind a lot of food we consume these days are GMOs. Why GE food all of sudden becomes the cause? There’s simply no evidence linking GEO foods and food allergy. Ironically, there are articles blaming GE-wheat for the rising incidence of Celiac disease while there’s actually no GE wheat even on farmers’ fields yet.
GEOs allow us to target special conditions to help fight hunger by improving yield, save plant species from extinction caused by natural diseases, prevent human disease by adding special nutrient (such as vitamins). And this technology allows us to do it in a faster and cleaner way than the traditional GMO way.
But there is a true concerning issue with GEOs, that is their impact on the overall ecology as they will change the balance of the eco-system. Therefore, caution needs to be taken and more research is needed to make sure we enjoy the long term benefit of GEOs.
Finally, I hope the expert debate from Intelligence Squared will enlighten you more on this issue.