One of the hottest and most controversial issues in the world today is genetic engineering. With protests against Monsanto on May 25th in over 400 cities, people have shown that this is a topic they truly care about. Largely, the stances are highly-polarised with opponents saying it is all cancer-causing, poisonous, and environmentally dangerous and supporters saying it is wonderful, improving yield and making everyone except “anti-science” opponents happy.
The problem with polarised positions is they almost always miss the reality of the issue and avoid talking about the general facts. Polarized texts instead skip directly to the evidence supporting their position. But, in real life, I think it is important to lay out exactly what we are talking about before we try to say if it is “good” or “bad.”
The first question we have to address, before we talk about the potential and danger of genetic modification, is what exactly is genetic modification? If you want to avoid the science, you can just skip the next 3 paragraphs. Otherwise,
I can advise continuing to read, using the sources I provide, or using a search engine.
In the modern context we are talking about the introduction of foreign genetic material, almost always coding for a protein –which are molecular workhorses capable of doing everything from binding with other proteins to changing what DNA is activated or not (nuclear receptors), to themselves performing reactions and either creating or breaking down molecules-, which is introduced into the genome through a double-strand break and insertion (what I call “splice-in”), or through homologous DNA recombination (meaning it trades bases, or DNA, with a target strand inside the cell).
This means that using existing techniques we are often inserting a new piece of code, complete with its own regulatory mechanisms (transcription factors), into the cell and inducing a targeted double-strand break and insertion with endonucleases, something like TAL-effectors, and hoping this doesn’t accidentally alter any important regulatory or coding elements.
Newer methods allow homologous DNA exchange, but switching out bases (which we can perceive as letters, which together make words –amino acids- which then form sentences –proteins-) from existing code depends on us actually understanding all the roles existing code is playing: which we often do not. So in both cases we risk tampering with existing code and risk current genetic information being lost. But, this risk can be minimized by selecting for redundant code, meaning little risk of disabling something entirely.
But, current usage has not been sufficiently responsible and in fact viral DNA containing an extra Cmv promoter and gene sequence (Gene VI) has recently been found in almost all GM crops. This seems to be able to activate transcription or expression of any cellular mRNA (Ryabova et al, 2002), meaning it can lead to the production of the wrong proteins. Gene VI also codes for a protein which does, among other things, suppress RNA silencing processes: it weakens the body’s reaction against viruses (Haas et al. 2008). Gene VI even makes plants less capable of defending against bacteria (Love et al. 2012). Unfortunately, this sequence was found in all of Monsanto’s transgene crops, and this, many years after they had already been approved in the US (Podevin & du Jardin, 2012).
Now that we know what we are talking about, we can ask ourselves: is this safe? Well, is anything in science inherently safe or dangerous? It really all depends on what you are doing, how you are going about it, and what, if any, precautions you take.
I don’t think we can regard all genetic modification as being equal. Huge successes in the realm of unicellular genetic modification have been seen, for instance using modified yeast to produce insulin or other molecules which would otherwise require complex industrial processes to create (for instance in the realm of fuel alternatives). This use of genetic modification, isolated from the natural world, seems to only bring benefits.
Unfortunately, a lot of the efforts towards modifying multicellular organisms like plants have relied on genetic resistance to endocrine disruptors -disrupt metabolism and internal processes- or toxins. This means that their use and usefulness depends on the simultaneous use of a chemical which will do ecological damage. These chemicals remove competition for the plants by killing anything lacking resistance-genes (for instance Glyphosate aka Roundup), they do this by destroying their metabolism. These chemicals are often, if not always, non-selective and thus will wreak havoc on the metabolism of anything unlucky enough to come into contact with these chemicals.
This toxicity also includes mammals, with 2 year rat studies showing a significantly higher death rate of 2-3x more than normal, liver congestions and necrosis were 2.5–5.5 times higher, tumor risk in males 4x higher, and more kidney deficiencies than normal. (Seralini et al, 2012).
The arguments used against this fact is that destruents (which are the most important part of the ecological cycle since they turn dead organic matter –with carbon- into inorganic –without carbon- material for plants to use) like bacteria, Earthworms and other parts of the soil ecology will adapt relatively quickly to this, that the effects are likely limited, and that the doses we consume of them in our produce are relatively small.
But, none of those arguments are fully valid: only some destruents will adapt but many will invariably disappear from the soil at least temporarily (years), since none of these chemicals degrade quickly. This makes the soil less fertile for future generations.
If that was not enough to convince us to avoid GM pest control, Bt toxin plants are often mentioned –plants which produce their own insecticide- along with the statement that they have led to reduced pesticide use. Now, to be truthful, the absolute worldwide use of insecticides has sunk since the introduction of Bt organisms. But, the overall use of pesticides and herbicides has continued to rise, especially as resistance develops in the “target” populations and making Bt less effective.
This has likely contributed to the continued death of the bees: Colony Collapse Disorder, which currently wipes out approximately 30-40% of colonies every year (15% is acceptable at the end of winter). Of course, the disorder may also be related to the use of monocultures, which is intensified by the use of total herbicides like Roundup. In the end, it is likely a mix of both the chemicals and the monocultures.
Now, the thing is that these Bt toxins are actually not even harmless to mammals (Portilho et al., 2013) and we need to ask ourselves about the ecological sense in creating something which cannot be eaten by the other organisms in the ecosystem.
Now, before we say that genetic engineering is inherently bad, there are in fact more responsible ways to use this technology even in the realm of multicellular organisms. A really good example is the “golden rice” which is rice with an added enzyme to produce beta-carotine (basically Vitamin A, which we cannot synthesise ourselves). The research was done relatively transparently, seed created and distributed at cost or for free. The rice is even shown to contain more vitamin A than spinach (Tang, 2012).
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation advises the continuation of supplement programs instead of giving the people a way to produce the vitamins they need in their own soil. The anti-GM movement has also so far been largely inclined to oppose all genetic modification and lump golden rice in with roundup-ready corn.
Unfortunately, while Monsanto has the economic power to push their products through, even block labeling in certain nations (e.g the US, where despite public support for labeling, the senate blocked an amendment 71-to-27 which would have allowed states to label GMOs if they wanted to, on Thursday May 23rd, 2013) general suspicion of genetic engineering has led to the use of this rice also being opposed, despite the fact that no new chemicals would be needed in its use, and that the new gene actually has a beneficial ecological role.
We are being misled. The world is not black and white, and we cannot lump an entire branch of science together with those abusing it. Luckily, the world may be open to waking up to this fact. Recent global protests have seen millions marching against Monsanto, not against genetic modification.
As always the issues are goals, methods, responsibility, and transparency. Companies like DuPont and Monsanto are not here to help the world’s farmers, they are not there to help feed us. The people making the decisions, as always in an LLC (Limited Liability Company), are not responsible for any consequences they cause through the company’s actions. They even have personal interest in reducing transparency so they can hinder people from finding out about problems or mistakes for long enough that they can become filthy rich.
They were producing poisons (including Agent Orange) since before they were working to supposedly feed the world. They work very hard to try to discredit all the studies I have linked in this article, but I encourage you to read the studies yourself. If anything, the fact the data is open for us all to see, and their methods of analysis, gives me more faith in them than in Monsanto, who has famously misrepresented and even falsified data in the past (e.g PCBs, Roundup) and has monetary interest in ignoring the warnings.
Both a recent New York Times article and a Forbes rebuttal concentrated on the economic values of Monsanto’s crops, cherry-picking economic data. What is strange is how this discussion has been so railroaded into the realm of statistics instead of real world ecological and health consequences.
So, are GMOs bad? In my opinion, there are some wonderful applications for this technology that have little or limited risk for negative consequences. Meanwhile, the way the technology is being used at the moment, in tandem with dangerous chemicals, is obviously not acceptable. It may be a good idea to not only forbid the patenting of genes, as some companies are trying to do in regard to the human genome, but to make genetic engineering efforts: data, methods, and analysis, publicly available. Only then can we help insure that decisions are not being made independent of the data, to help prevent decisions being made only in light of the profit margin.