Something to Think About

"I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Look At Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

There has been a lot of hubbub in the media and online about genetically modified organisms (a.k.a. GMOs) recently.  There are many people and organizations who are concerned about GMOs and whether or not products containing them should have to be labelled to reflect that fact. I really wasn't sure what side I was on in this argument, to be honest, as I don't like to jump to conclusions and I really didn't know very much about GMOs in the first place.   So, I decided to see what I could find out.

Most of us are aware of cross-breeding and cross-pollination which have been used since the mid-1800s.  Our modern day rice, potatoes and corn, for example, are the results of cross-breeding.  These traditional methods take quite a bit of time - 10 to 12 years -  to get the desired results.

Genetic modification can be seen as a shortcut to get the desired results quicker. Scientists first must isolate a particular gene that causes a specific attribute.  They are then able to transfer that genetic material from one organism to another. Unlike traditional cross-breeding, they are not limited to using only related plant genes but can also use unrelated genes, as well.  This creates quite a huge range of possibilities!

So, genetic modification is more time efficient than traditional methods and the method opens up more possibilities but is it safe?

The National Academy of Sciences tells us that genetic transfers between unrelated organisms do not pose any additional risks from those we encounter through traditional cross-breeding methods.  Keep in mind that the transfer of genes between unrelated organisms is only possible because of the similarities of all living organisms.  That is, any given living organism has more in common with any other living organism than it has differences.

The truth is that there are hundreds of studies that indicate that GMO foods are as safe as conventional foods.  Why, then, are people so upset about them?  Let's take a look at some of the objections to GMOs, then.  Here are some that I've seen:

1. Genes from herbicide-resistant crops may cross over into the wild weed population and create "super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides.  The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for reviewing new plant varieties.  They are careful to allow only plants that are unlikely to cross-breed with weeds to be approved for this reason.  Remember that plants can only cross-breed with related plants in the wild, so this limits the possibilities of this sort of thing happening. We should also keep in mind that weeds are already adapting to become more resistant to herbicides so this is already happening. An herbicide will not kill all the weeds. Some will survive. The survivors will drop seeds that grow into plants that might be more resistant to the herbicide.  Over time, this creates weeds that are more resistant to a particular herbicide. This is why we change up the herbicides we use over the years.

2. Genes from a food a person is allergic to could be added to another food he is not allergic to and this could cause him to have an allergic reaction to the new food. The FDA is responsible for overseeing all new food products. One of their requirements for producers of new food products is that they address whether or not new food allergens have been created during the modification process that may cause a reaction.  If so, the product will have to be labelled as such.

3. Antibiotic-resistant genes could be transferred to bacteria in our bodies during the digestive process.  If an antibiotic-resistant bacteria causes an infection, it could be impossible to treat.  There have been numerous studies addressing this possibility. These studies indicate that the possibility of the transfer of an antibiotic-resistant gene to a bacterium is very low. We should also keep in mind that when we consume fruits and vegetables we are eating antibiotic microorganisms from the soil and this has no adverse effects.

So, should GMO foods be labelled?  Frankly, my conclusion is that it shouldn't be necessary.  In the event that an allergen might be present in a different food, then yes - a label should be created to reflect this. Otherwise, it appears that this food is perfectly safe to consume and therefore I don't think labelling should be required.

Disagree with me?  Think I overlooked something?  Let me know in the comments!

Information for this post was obtained from the following sources:
GMO Compass
Time
Quackwatch
Slate

Image was obtained here.

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