Albert Einstein once calculated that if all bees were to disappear off the earth, it would only take four more years for humans to disappear too. What is the purpose of tying this piece of information here? Well, the population of bees is falling at a very disturbing rate and scientists are crediting this trend to the over-use of pesticides, and special thanks to genetically modified (GM) crops.
People around the world are talking about GMOs. There is a heated debate about the long-term safety to our health and how they are triggering environmental concerns. While GMO proponents argue that the technique is simply traditional plant breeding taken to another level with no adverse effects, a growing body of scientists are of the opinion there is nothing natural about genetically modified foods and that they carry tremendous health and environmental risks. But what exactly are GMO's? And what is all the fuss about? Is there any real reason to be concerned?
This is a 3-part series on GMO foods. In the first part, we are going to discuss how GMO technology works and why it is radically different than what our farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Let's explore.
What are GMO foods?
GMOs are genetically modified organisms, created with the help of a relatively new genetic engineering or genetic modification techniques, where:
- Scientists isolate and extract genes of interest from one species of organisms (for example bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or plants)
- This gene is inserted into and artificially recombined with the genes of the host organism (plant)
The purpose? Genes carry information to create proteins that in turn are responsible for specific traits. When a gene from an organism is transferred to a plant, the plant will now express the desired trait linked with the transferred gene (transgene). For example, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt is a bacterium that produces toxic proteins that kill insects. When genes from Bt are transferred into the DNA of corn, the new genes will enable the corn to make its own killer proteins that kill insects, thus significantly reducing the use of harsh pesticides.
But why GMO?
Bio-technologists and agricultural companies look at GMOs as an effective strategy to create high quality crops that possess better resistance to diseases and pests, and offer increased yield and nutrition. Reduced use of pesticides is also an expected benefit, and a huge one too. The GMO crops were introduced and are now promoted on the premises that these foods are safe to eat and offer a sustainable solution to feed an ever-growing global population.
So, are GM foods safe?
The opinion is divided. GMO supporters argue that genetic modification is nothing but simply an extension of how farmers have been traditionally creating plant hybrids. But the truth is that GM technology is fundamentally different, both in the technique and in concept. Scientific evidence suggests that GM crops:
- Can cause allergies and other health problems
- Cause super-weeds, resulting in increased use of pesticides
- Are a serious threat to our environment?
During natural plant breeding, farmers work with either the same or a closely related plant species to create new varieties that are better in terms of yield and nutrition, and are resistant to harsh environmental conditions as well as pests. These species share a common evolutionary history and have developed a genetic compatibility. Meaning? When genes are transferred within similar or closely related species there is a certain kind of predictability and genes, are transferred in an organized way.
However, with the GM technique, a gene is introduced from one organism to another belonging to either totally unrelated or distantly related species. This is something that can't happen naturally. Nature has created genetic barriers among unrelated species - to prevent the introduction of new DNA that may have unpredictable outcomes. So, in the GM process, these natural barriers intended by nature are manipulated and even destroyed. Result? The forced recombination of genes within unrelated species - when transferred from bacteria, viruses and even animals to plants â€“ gives rise to unique traits with unforeseen ramifications.
In addition, the genetic engineering process:
- is based on a flawed scientific theory that one gene encodes one protein.
GMO technology is based on a theory that believes one gene encodes for only one protein. (Our genes contain a blueprint or set of instructions to create proteins. These proteins are responsible for our physical traits and certain functions, and determine how we grow and survive).
Based on this theory, a genetic engineer isolates a gene of interest from one organism and will forcibly insert it into another organism. Since one gene supposedly codes for one protein only, this means only the desired trait will be transferred with no unexpected effect. In a nutshell, inserting a single gene will result in a single, planned and desired change.
But the fact is:
- one gene can code for up to thousands of proteins.
The Human Genome Project found that Central Dogma theory is flawed and a gene codes for more than one protein. This means genes operate in an extremely complex environment that is not yet fully explored and understood. That's why even the slightest disturbance in the typical process may result in unknown, unpredictable changes in the genome of the host organism - possibly resulting in undesired, unplanned and potentially dangerous outcomes.
Genetic Modification: A dangerous technology?
- Inserting a foreign gene is an uncontrolled and random process,
- And so, the inserted gene can cause mutations - unexpected alterations in the genetic make-up (DNA and proteins) of the host plant.
- Since a gene can create more than one protein, this random process can create rogue or novel proteins not otherwise found in our food supply,
- And therefore, these novel proteins can create toxins in foods and trigger allergic reactions
While there may not be any scientific consensus whether GMO foods are safe or not, emerging studies suggest that GMO foods may have some immediate as well as long-term adverse effects on our health as well the environment. There must be a reason why more than 64 countries have taken steps to either label or completely ban GM foods, except most notably the U.S.
And what about the studies that prove the safety of GM crops? It has been found that most of these pro-GMO studies were conducted over short periods and based on inconsistent methodologies  .
A highly commendable article titled 'Seedy Business', aptly drives the point home with clarity. It says, "So, the US FDA states that it is "confident" about the safety of GMOs currently in the marketplace. But it does not itself conduct safety testing on GMOs. It does not sponsor independent safety testing. It does not require independent safety testing. It does not require long-term safety testing, to uncover ill effects that have delayed onset. It does not have access to the full data and content of all industry safety testing. And it does not require post-market epidemiological testing. Without such testing, and full access to industry data, the US FDA cannot credibly decree, declare or certify that GMOs are safe."
So, what are the health effects of consuming GM crops? What is the impact on the environment? Stay tuned for our next article in the GMO series that will talk about these negative impacts in more details.
- de Vendômois JS, Cellier D, Vélot C, Clair E, Mesnage R, Séralini GE. Debate on GMOs health risks after statistical findings in regulatory tests. Int J Biol Sci. 2010 Oct 5;6(6):590-8.
- I.M. Zdziarskia, J.W. Edwards, J.A. Carman, J.I. Haynes. GM crops and the rat digestive tract: A critical review. Environment International. Volume 73, December 2014, Pages 423-433