Why We Should All Love GMOs

Why We Should All Love GMOs

The anti-GMO movement is rooted in fear tactics, pseudoscience and speculations. The truth is that humans have been genetically modifying organisms from the beginning of civilization with beneficial results. Man’s best friend was selectively bred from wolves around 30,000 BCE and the first evidence of domesticated wheat is dated back to 7,800 BCE.1 During the modern agriculture advances of the 1960’s, new wheat and rice strains helped avert Asia from a food crisis and has allowed the world to feed an larger population than ever imaginable.2

The majority of the anti-GMO movement has come from developed countries in the Western world and has neglected to look at facts and potential benefits to those in the developing world. While the wealthy in the Western world have the luxury of being selective about food products and can choose to buy foods labeled non-GMO, people in underdeveloped and developing nations, as well as the poor in developed countries, do not have this luxury. Instead, almost half of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day and 27-28% of children in developing countries are malnourished.3 Therefore, if the advances of GMOs can improve the lives of the three billion people in the world, who are dying of starvation, why should the Western world stop it?

Early genetic modification required the slow process of selective breeding that yielded dogs from wolves and corn from teosinte. Few groups have an issue with this method of selective breeding, but now that genetic science has opened the door to a faster mode of genetic modification advocacy groups are up in arms.

The first advances in modern genetic engineering came in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen created the first genetically engineered bacteria using recombinant DNA techniques.1 From there, research on the applications of such technology exploded. However, even this early research was met with skepticism on the possible implications on health of consumers and ecosystems. After this, a hold was placed on genetic engineering research and the Asilomar Conference was held in response to these concerns. The Asilomar Conference was a summit held by scientists to discuss the potential of GMOs. Experts fields met and discussed protocols of genetic engineering research and debated the ethical repercussions of new discoveries. At the end of the summit, the hold on genetic engineering research was lifted and the emergence of this field was celebrated. Research continued and in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the first patent on a genetically modified organism. It was a bacteria produced by General Electric and reputed to aid in cleaning up oil spills.

In 1982 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first artificially produced insulin drug Humulin for the management of diabetes. Humulin is produced by inserting the gene for the production of human insulin into bacteria that then manufacture the protein, which is then isolated and packaged as a pharmaceutical, aiding the ## millions with diabetes. Then in the early 1990s in the FDA approved for consumption and sale the first genetically engineered crop Flavr Savr tomatoes after five years of extensive testing. Flavr Savr tomatoes delay ripening and allow for a longer shelf life. A couple of years later the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of the Bt toxin gene in food crops. The Bt toxin gene is now one of the most widespread genetic engineering techniques used today in food crop production.

           The Bt toxin gene originates from the bacillus thuringiensis bacteria and is toxic to some insect larvae. The Bt toxin was first used as a biopesticide in France in 1938 and is now the most common biopesticide used in organic agriculture. Now thanks to genetic engineering scientists have been able to transfer the Bt toxin gene into plants that allow them to produce the toxin on their own. 81% of corn and 84% of cotton grown in the United States have the Bt toxin gene incorporated into their genome. Has this enabled a dramatic reduction in traditional insecticides, protecting numerous species and ground water, while producing higher yields?

           Crops with the Bt toxin gene in their genome have been the subject of attack from many anti-GMO movements. The Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements states that Bt crops “direct harm to non-target organisms.” However, this new outrage against the Bt toxin is imprudent because these same groups have readily adopted the use of the same toxin in the form of a biopesticide. Biopesticides are sprayed and therefore have a greater chance of reaching non-target organisms. However, incorporating the Bt toxin into the plant itself it eliminates this risk.  Moreover ,the EPA and other independent organizations have tested the Bt toxin thoroughly and have declared it safe for mass consumption.4 The toxin pathway used by the bacillus thuringiensis bacteria is via Cry protein, which is highly toxic to insects, but has shown no deleterious effects to mammals.4 A paper in the Annual Review of Entomology in 2002 declared that Bt toxin plants might even cause additional benefits because it kills insects that may cause diseases that are toxic and carcinogenic to humans and livestock.

           In addition, farmers lose 20 to 40% of their crops annually to disease and pests. Therefore, by incorporating the Bt toxin gene into their plants they are able to increase their yields.1 This not only produces more efficient agricultural practices, but will lead to an increase in crop productions. An increase in crop productions can go directly to feeding our growing population.

           The Bt toxin gene will also decrease the use of pesticides in farming that do have deleterious health effects to mammals and cause ecological damage.4 Currently the EPA estimates that 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used globally each year and cost about 35 billion dollars.4 Therefore, the Bt toxin gene will not only allow for a decrease in pesticide use and free resources to be used in greater production.

           Another triumph in genetic engineering is the production of Golden Rice. Vitamin A deficiency plagues young children in Southeast Asia and other developing countries because their diets do not include enough Vitamin A. Each year 250,000 to 500,000 kids will go blind due to Vitamin A deficiency and up to half of those children will die.6 Instead of using the traditional methods of Vitamin A supplement pills, scientists created a rice that produced beta-carotene. Since rice is the staple crop in Southeast Asia, where Vitamin A deficiency is prevalent, it provided an alternative supplementation that had a high likelihood of being adopted by the people.5

           This new Golden Rice when first released in 1999 created a challenge for many GMO skeptics.5 Golden Rice had great potential to change and save the lives of many children in Southeast Asia. Anti-GMO organizations proposed that instead of growing Golden Rice the farmers could have a small vegetable garden and continue Vitamin A pill supplementation. However, these solutions seem incredibly unlikely. Farmers in these regions do not have the land, resources or time for a small vegetable garden for which their local conditions may not be suitable and the widespread distribution of Vitamin A pills is incredibly difficult.5 If these roadblocks were not enough to unilaterally support the growth of Golden Rice, in 2005 a new strain of Golden Rice was released that produced 20 times the amount of beta carotene as the original Golden Rice.5 At these concentrations Vitamin A deficiency finally seemed like a controllable problem. However, there was still pushback from groups like Greenpeace who have an aggressive stance against GMOs.

           Golden Rice is a triumph for genetic engineering and the application it has in curing the world’s aliments. No child should go blind from a Vitamin A deficiency if it can be prevented. The traditional methods of pill supplementation and diversified diets were clearly not working because children continued to go blind and die. Organizations like Greenpeace have the access and capabilities to distribute the Golden Rice and really make a difference in the lives of so many. Instead they choose to fight against the product for reasons of principle. Principles that should not be placed on other around the world.

           Overall GMOs have the potential to make a difference in the lives of many whose constant struggle is to provide food to feed their families. The backlash that they have received has been founded in misunderstanding and skepticism without empirical evidence. Bt toxin and Golden Rice are just two examples of GMOs that prove that the fear associated with GMOs should be dispelled.

           Organizations that fight against the widespread use of GMOs have a misunderstanding of the science behind the most common GMOs. This misunderstanding has led to a blocking of scientific progress that could help feed our world’s growing population. The truth is that food security is a luxury that officials at organizations like Greenpeace take for granted. Therefore, they do not take into consideration the positive effects that GMOs have for those who do not have a choice between food products. They also do not have the resources to buy more expensive non-GMO products, who have not been deemed more safe by the United States government organizations or scientific bodies. GMOs are the future of agricultural progress and the hope to create better crops to feed a hungry world while protecting the environment.

 

 

References:

[1] Rangel, Gabriel. "From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology." Science in the News. August 9, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. o http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/.

[2] "Towards a New Green Revolution." Food For All. Accessed October 30, 2016. http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0262e/x0262e06.htm.       

[3] "Poverty Facts and Stats." Global Issues. Accessed October 30, 2016. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats.

[4]Niederhuber, Matthew. "Insecticidal Plants: The Tech and Safety of GM Bt Crops - Science in the News." Science in the News. August 10, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/insecticidal-plants/.

[5]Saletan, William. "The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food Is Safe. The Rhetoric Is Dangerous." Slate Magazine. July 15, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html.

[6]"Vitamin A Deficiency." Golden Rice Project. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://www.goldenrice.org/Content3-Why/why1_vad.php.

[7]Smith, Jeffery. "10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs." Institute for Responsible Technology. August 25, 2011. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://responsibletechnology.org/10-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/.

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