Genetically modified organisms or GMOs consists of the crossing of animal and plant variants to allow for desirable traits (good quality, high yield, disease and parasite resistance) to become expressed in the next generation. This alteration of nature must be bad for us, right? Well, there is an array of information out there in regards to whether or not the consumption is hazardous. What is it that you need to know? Let’s break it down and you can decide for yourself at the end.
A paper published in 2007 looked at the history of genetically modified food and stated that “In the process of domestication of crop plants, desireable traits were selected from the numerous random genetic modifications that occur in each crop generation. This domestication led to improved crops from a human perspective,”. The paper later on says that “most of our crops never existed in the wild and can, in fact, no longer survive without human intervention and care.” An example of this is the amazing sweet potato which is a man-made vegetable; it didn’t exist until humans created it from selecting desired traits of swollen normal potatoes. GMOs are not a new form of technology that is only just starting to jeopardise our existence; it has existed since the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago and the versions of our food today would have a hard time living now without us. It’s this process of selective breeding that has also led to many of our domesticated dog species; they’re GMOs too. Let’s skip forward a couple thousand years and have a look at the father of genetics.
Gregor Mendel was a friar and scientist in the 1800s that really loved his pea plants. Mendel discovered traits (which later became genes) that were hidden between generations of pea plants. The initial experimentation involved the crossing of tall and short pea plants which resulted in a yield that consisted 100% of tall plants for the F1 or first generation. He then crossed the F1 generation to created the F2 or second generation which consisted of 75% tall plants and 25% short plants (3:1 ratio – this is an important ratio for geneticists). He had just discovered heredity and that there was a dominant and recessive gene; whose expression could be determined by which parents were ‘allowed’ to produced offspring. He continued his studies for years breeding hundreds of generations and crossing other traits to see if they followed a similar principle; white and purple pea plant flowers, smooth and wrinkled pea surfaces. It is this initial study which was the basis for selective breeding that lead to a lot of the foods that we have today.
GMOs were investigated more and more over the next 100 or so years with the process only starting to be performed in labs in the late 1900s. Scientists early on knew the potential risks of this practice so in 1975, the Asilomar Conference took place to ensure that standards were set for GMOs so that testing could continue without risk to public health. This lead to the first GMO patent for oil hungry bacteria to assist in oil spill cleanup in 1980 and an insulin product, Humulin, that appeared in the market in 1982 for diabetic patients. Further investigation and development lead to the first GMO available for public consumption in America in 1994; the Flavr Savr tomato. The tomato had been modified to not express a particular gene that would lead to the fruit softening; altering it resulted in a longer shelf life and a ‘fuller flavour’. Before this, tomatos were picked early and artificially ripened. The Flavr Savr tomato was the first of many types of GMO foods being approved with a list being published and continually updated by a country’s responsible organisation; here is a list of GMOs available in Australia. All products on that list need to be given the all clear by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) as well as all future products. There are many concerns that stems from the idea of GMO foods and some of those fears are warranted.
One of the main issues isn’t with the whole idea of GMOs but the way in which we construct them today. Selective breeding consisted of the expression of certain traits through allowing particular organisms of a generation to produce offspring. This would result in the organism with the undesirable trait to die out; removing that trait from the genepool. Though this process wasn’t determined by nature but by humans, the act of the organism developing was natural. Today, DNA of species is spliced; meaning that the gene sequences of undesirable traits are removed and new ones are inserted chemically. There is suspicion that this might result in an unforeseeable alteration to the organism because genes are not isolated units; just because a gene is responsible for a larger yield, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have another role that might be coordinated with another gene. No conclusive study has found such a thing to date. An alternative argument that could be used for GMOs is that the modification of organisms could allow them to survive a variety of environmental situations; allowing for people living in harsh environments access to a diverse range of foods. One of the largest environmental situation is global warming and that the alteration to the weather can negatively affect the yield of crops that depend on particular environmental conditions. GMOs might be the answer for this.
In summary, the modification of organisms for human benefit is one of the first practices that humans ever developed and it has been this which resulted in a drastic increase in our rate of survival due to easily accessible food. Like many of humankind’s endeavours, we have just become more efficient and precise with the modification moving from the field to the lab. There are many benefits associated with the use and development of GMOs with no, clear evidence to suggest that negative health effects are associated. To alter the public’s perspective, views and ideas on GMOs though, scientists need to work on the clear, concise and transparent communication of findings with the public. At the end of the day though, what you put into your body is your decision.
If I have missed anything and you want to know more, comment below with your question and I’ll try my best to answer it for you.