It’s no secret that talking to anyone about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) these days is a big “no, no," and this is true pretty much anywhere in the world. In North America, especially, it is an issue which has divided the country. But why is it that we disagree so much on this topic?
Sadly, it is impossible to tackle every issue about GMOs in one article, but it is possible to talk about some of the most troubling aspects of this discussion and look at the basic science that impacts the debate. Because this is a very large topic, it makes sense to break it up into different parts FAQ style. For the most part, I will be speaking about GMOs in general; however, as the company Monsanto is usually within the cross-hairs of this topic, I will every now and then bring them up. Let's start with the basics:
What is a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)?
A GMO is basically an organism that carries a trait within their DNA that you wouldn't normally see developing through "natural processes." Usually this genetic difference is caused by a fungus, another plant, animal, or bacterium. This modification can (and does) occur by natural processes, but organisms that alter by natural processes are not considered GMOs.
Note: Of course, arguably, everything in the cosmos occurs by a natural process. But here, a "natural process" is really just linked to human intervention (please don't let the word "unnatural" scare you).
Scientists make GMOs by analyzing certain organism within nature and using one or more genetic traits to benefit another species. Once an organism is seen to have an important and desirable trait, this organism now becomes a “donor” organism. In a lab, they take the gene that is responsible for whichever specific trait is chosen, and once the gene is separated from the donor organism, it is introduced to the “recipient” organism’s DNA. At least 90 percent of the soy, cotton, canola, corn and sugar beets sold in the United States have been genetically engineered. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Crops are the most well-known and most abundant of all GMOs. Farmers use this particular type of crop as an alternative to pesticides.
What are Bt Crops? Where Do I Find Them?
Well, you find Bt crops pretty much everywhere. Bt Crops include soybean, canola (rapeseed), sugar beets, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, rice, and corn (just to name a few). Bt Crops, particularly Bt Corn, contain the trait of a donor organism that, according to Dr. Ric Bessin, Extension Entomologist for the University Of Kentucky College Of Agriculture, describes as “a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis.”
Essentially, with Bt Corn they take the gene which makes a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis called "Bt delta-endotoxin." This protein kills the insect larvae within the order of Lepidoptera. This order includes moths and butterflies, one of the biggest culprits within this order in North America is the European Corn Border (ECB).
What is Bt Delta Endotoxin? Why Do We Need it?
The easiest definition is a scientific one:
The Bt delta endotoxin was selected because it is highly effective at controlling Lepidoptera larvae, caterpillars. It is during the larval stage when most of the damage by European corn borer occurs. The protein is very selective, generally not harming insects in other orders (such as beetles, flies, bees and wasps). For this reason, GMOs that have the Bt gene are compatible with biological control programs because they harm insect predators and parasitoids much less than broad-spectrum insecticides. The Bt endotoxin is considered safe for humans, other mammals, fish, birds, and the environment because of its selectivity. Bt has been available as a commercial microbial insecticide since the 1960s and is sold under many trade names. These products have an excellent safety record and can be used on many crops until the day of harvest.
To kill a susceptible insect, a part of the plant that contains the Bt protein (not all parts of the plant necessarily contain the protein in equal concentrations) must be ingested. Within minutes, the protein binds to the gut wall and the insect stops feeding. Within hours, the gut wall breaks down and normal gut bacteria invade the body cavity. The insect dies of septicaemia as bacteria multiply in the blood. Even among Lepidoptera larvae, species differ in sensitivity to the Bt protein.
What Are the Dangers?
Now that you know what GMOs and Bt Crops are, I think that it is very important to note that, when you introduce the genetic traits of two or more organisms which do not happen by natural processes or through hybridization, it does not inherently mean that they are unsafe for consumption. Obviously tests and experiments are needed to ensure this GMO is safe. You probably shouldn't eat anything that hasn't gone through proper testing (for obvious reasons).
Because, and this is the key, some have low risk factors and some have high risk factors. Like most other issues, GMOs need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
Fortunately, there are strict guidelines for all food and drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (and similar agencies) firmly regulate all foods that are consumed by the public. That does not mean that they always succeed in their testing, but it's generally a pretty good guideline in the US.
That said, there is a claim that anti-GMO individuals sometimes make that is an issue, and that lies with the word "unnatural." Everything in the universe is "natural." Literally. A human cannot do something unnatural. One can do something atypical, one can create something that is unique and innovative. One cannot do something, or create something, unnatural. Sadly, this term is often a code word for "evil."
Yet, there is no automatic correlation between “not occurring through a natural process" and "unsafe.”
And to be clear (we are just stating the stance here, please bear with us), many scientific organizations assert that the fear-mongering surrounding GMO foods is more emotional than factual. "Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe," the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said in a 2012 statement:
"The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM [genetically modified] crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques. Since GM crops were first commercialized in 1996 … regulatory agencies in 59 countries have conducted extensive scientific reviews and affirmed the safety of GM crops with 2,497 approvals on 319 different GMO traits in 25 crops," according to a statement on the website for Monsanto, the world's largest manufacturer of GMOs. "The majority (1,129) of approvals on GM crops have been on the food safety of the products," according to the AAAS.
So scientists assert that the GMOs currently in use have undergone proper scrutiny and are safe.
Though some scientists (admittedly, a strong minority) worry about how the genes will impact the organisms in future generations (something that we really can't test in a lab), notably, a majority of scientists assert that the foods are safe, that labels aren't needed, and that they'll just confuse consumers.
It is generally a good idea to rely on the experts in the field. But as it always the case, the best advice is to research the food you eat. Know where it comes from. Know what scientists say about it, and know where the scientists get their funding. What you don't want to do is jump on a bandwagon when there is no indication that a sane person (one who knows what they are doing and is not being lead by corporate funding) is driving the car.
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This article was originally published by All Science All the Time. Republished with permission from the author.