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GMOs: yes or no?

The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has grown heated lately. GM foods have been around for decades, but they still--in many cases increasingly--make people uncomfortable. Some argue that they introduce unintended consequences into the food chain. While this can happen if these new foods are not carefully tested and well regulated, dismissing GMOs for "gut" feelings that they are unnatural and therefore dangerous is not the best approach to them. First, let's examine what we are talking about when we talk "GM" anything.

How it works. The genetic code is digital, in the same sense as computer code. Moreover, it is universal, meaning it is identical in every living creature, from bacteria to redwood trees, or mushrooms or humans. This means that a software subroutine, which is what a gene really is, can be copied from one species and pasted into another, where it will work exactly as it did in the first species.

The "antifreeze" gene that keeps Arctic fish from freezing has been pasted into tomatoes, for example, to save them from frost damage. This is a good thing; it gives the tomato a trait that makes it more robust, allowing us to feed more people via tomato farming. It does not add a trait of "fishiness" to the taste of the tomato: using the computer-code analogy, it is no different from using the same mathematical equations to balance a budget as to build a space shuttle.

Seen this way, genes are tools--and the key is to always remain responsible about how we use them. Absolutes like "using genetics to modify food is always bad" really don't get us anywhere. As noted, some people feel a gut hostility toward anything human-made. But are they similarly repulsed by the selective breeding of modern dogs? Where is the line in the sand about what even is natural? If we can grow corn with a naturally occurring insect repellent, as we have done to the great consternation of many because it has been purposely implanted genetically, isn't this more natural than dusting crops with harmful artificial chemicals to stop pests from feeding on them? More to the point, whether natural or not, the minor genetic manipulation over the toxic-chemical dusting would seem the superior option.

Responsible science is key. Where we must exercise caution is in observing the effects of these genes on the organisms we are manipulating--in fact ultimately on everything--and always employ rigorous safety testing, just as we do for all new products. GMOs can be extremely useful and should not be dismissed out of hand as dangerous or wrong. The hysteria distracts from similar, more pressing concerns. The evolution of antibiotic resistance among the world's bacteria, for example, represents a far more imminent threat. Common misapprehensions aside, this itself has little to do with (responsibly deployed) genetic modification practices. The risk of introducing a plant variety with a new allergen or toxin using genetic modification is much smaller than using traditional breeding processes. Strict safety testing requirements are one reason. More importantly, transgenesis has less impact on the expression of genomes or on protein and metabolite levels than conventional breeding or plant (non-directed) mutagenesis. In other words, the precise nature of the cut-and-splice, followed by a period of careful tweaking to make the new gene sequence better fit with its new organism, lowers the risk of unintended allergens or toxins.

Even ethical benefits are possible. Perhaps most people at best tolerate uncomfortably GMOs after being convinced of their safety. But modern genetics have a place in modern ethical decisions. The inhumane treatment of animals that is widespread in modern meat production may one day be solved by lab-grown meat. Eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat, and sadly, the rule rather than the exception is that many livestock animals spend their entire lives crated and force-fed in filthy conditions on factory farms. Since these animals are born solely to be killed, it seems a short ethical leap to reach the idea that meat grown using cell cultures is a desirable alternative.

In-vitro meat can be produced by placing a few cells in a nutrient mixture without inflicting pain on living animals, and it would positively alter our problematic patterns of meat consumption: the global livestock industry, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, is responsible for 20 percent of the earth's human greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than all cars, trains, ships, and planes combined. Most disconcertingly, by 2030 the world will likely consume 70 percent more meat than it did in 2000. The path we're on seems unsustainable. Meat produced in the sterility of a lab would be much safer, too, than current factory farm practices. Periodic outbreaks of deadly e. coli underscore the point; last month's discovery of rampant labeling fraud in the fish industry is another recent example.

What about GM salmon? Much has been made over the GM salmon application currently before the FDA that would engineer the fish to grow twice as fast as normal. However, as far back as 2002 a piece on the unacknowledged health benefits of GM food appeared in AgBioForum, a biotechnological journal with an emphasis on economic impact. The authors calculated that the marketing of GM salmon could reduce the cost of salmon by half, thus increasing salmon consumption and potentially lowering heart attack risk in the United States. This claim remains dubious because reduced costs could easily lead farmers to pocket extra profits instead, but a national conversation on regulating GM salmon pricing to see through this effect is worth having.

The GMO soy controversy. Something called the Natural News, which turns out to be one or more uncredentialed bloggers, published an item in May that made the rounds on Facebook and elsewhere. Entitled GMsoy destroying children, the piece had little to offer the GM debate but unfounded, and rather shrill, opinion. There is a debate to have about GM soy, salmon, and any modified foods, but hyperbole has no place in the discussion. A few excerpts:

"Genetically engineered crops are destroying the environment, the health of indigenous communities, and ultimately our health as end of the chain consumers." No hard data follows this claim.

"Ninety-one percent of the soy we consume is tainted by the filth of the GMO machine, literally the most quietly kept epidemic of our lifetime. Soy makes up a large portion of the diet for the chickens, pigs, and cows some of us eat. Even the vegetarian/vegan community is exposed as a number of meat substitutes list soy as a main ingredient. So unless you are eating an organic version of any of the above, there is a good chance you are exposing yourself to GMO soy." The 91-percent claim is roughly accurate, but that simply raises the question of why so many more of us aren't gravely ill.

"Children are the most susceptible to these harmful effect [sic], since they are constantly in a state of high growth; parents should take care. GMO foods, and especially soy, have been tied to an increase in allergies, asthma, and a propensity to get antibiotic resistant infections."

The above claims are unfounded with regard to GM soy--the piece is possibly conflating the well-known dangers of overconsuming soy-- "organic" or otherwise--for political effect. The claims in the piece, particularly the appeals to child safety, strike one as similar in tone to the debunked vaccination/autism scare of 2009.

Carl Sagan was once pressed for an answer one way or another about whether there were extraterrestrial life forms out there trying to contact us. When he said that he did not yet know for sure one way or the other, the interviewer pressed him, asking, "What is your gut feeling?" Sagan famously answered, "But I try never to think with my gut."

AgBioForum, 2002, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 59-64

A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins, 2003, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, NY, pp. 27-30

The New Yorker, "Test-Tube Burgers " by Michael Specter, May 23, 2011, pp. 32-38

Natural News, "GMsoy destroying children " by Kaitlyn Moore, May 12, 2011,
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Title Annotation:genetically modified organisms
Publication:Running & FitNews
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2011
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