GMOs: An Ancient Practice, Refined

Granny Smith apples. Chiquita bananas. Golden Retrievers. Mice that glow in the dark. Every last one of them are genetically modified organisms. While it’s true that most of them took multiple generations to become what they are, all of them were artificially selected and bred by humans. We identified a trait we liked, whether based on appearance, taste or behavior, and we then ensured its owner’s reproductive success.

People have made their mark on this planet’s history in many ways, and sometimes we forget that a great many species of plants and animals bear that stamp in their genetic heritage. Many people believe that advanced research into GMOs and their potential role in our diet is frightening, unnatural, and dangerous, and that they ought to be banned outright for those reasons. I will not dispute that there are complications when it comes to political and corporate control over GMOs. The core research, though, the basic study of genetically modified organisms should, however, continue apace.

The fear of GMOs has been seeded in popular culture for almost as long as we’ve researched them. Consider the term “Frankenfood”. It’s an emotionally manipulative term, and an enormously successful one. Claims that GMOs cause cancer, or that they destroy stomach linings or trigger severe allergies, are all over the internet. It’s easy to find them. The sites that attack GMOs are, however, notoriously self-referential, and they enthusiastically emphasize horrific results — that turn out to be false or misleading — while ignoring positive ones. Scientists are as human as anyone else, and bad studies can still leak through peer review. These are usually caught and later retracted, but once the study is published, it is, as they say “out there”.

Fear is everywhere, and its purveyors, legion. But we can fight that fear by taking a good look at the arguments from the other side. We can develop a better understanding of what GMOs actually are, rather than forever rely on a straw man caricature to argue against. So what are the scientists actually saying about their work?

Biologists have been studying this area for over a century, and the fruits of their labors have only just begun to ripen. Not only have they discovered what individual genes do, but scientists are now able to mix and match them across species. All living organisms use the same language, that of DNA. Once inserted, a gene will go on to instruct the development of precisely the same molecule that it did in its parent organism. By the time a GMO is in production, scientists know full well the effect of that molecule on the hybrid.

Is this a “natural” process? Think of it this way. If something does exist, or it can, it is, by definition, “natural”. The question of whether a GMO is “good” or “bad” can only be addressed on a case-by-case basis. After all, any technology can be used for good or ill. Would you ban the existence of hammers, or nails, simply because they might be used for nefarious purposes?

Ultimately, GMO researchers are engaged in the very same process that we have performed since our earliest days of farming and ranching. The only real difference is that we can now describe the process of genetic modification much more accurately, and work with it much more effectively.

There are numerous success stories in GMO production, from virus-, bacteria- and drought-resistant crops, to a new form of rice that contains vitamin A, to bacteria from which we can create biodegradable plastics that eliminate the need for fossil fuels. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what GMOs can (and might) offer us. They are neither frightening, unnatural nor inherently dangerous, but fascinating, exciting and resplendent of possibilities.

** The video recording of this speech can be downloaded from my GMO Dropbox Link **

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