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GMOs: Critics, Politics and Positive aspects

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism such as an animal, plant or microbe whose genomes have been systematically altered in the laboratory using genetic engineering techniques such as recombinant DNA technology at the molecular level, primarily by inserting genes from unrelated organism species that code for traits that would not be effectively obtained by conventional selective breeding.

We have heard several rumours about GMOs being evil and how it muddles up with our faith in consuming natural food, bringing ethics into play but if we look at it from a viewpoint of someone who belongs to a scientific community, we will see the greater good it does to the mankind.

The Biotech crops are being criticized alleging that they’re untested, they degrade the environment more rapidly, they result in uncontrollable superweeds, they pose health risks, and they release unpredictable Frankenstein-like creatures onto the world ecosystem. Such claims, mostly fuelled by anti-Americanism and business paranoia of companies such as Monsanto, have taken an unhealthy hold of the European psyche.

Europeans have been fearing about transgenic crops since most part of the 20th Century. Some of them are scaremongers who are unaware of the latest science and research. The assertions that were made against the transgenic crops could be shown to be false, stating that the problems associated with the farming of transgenic crops are present in all of agriculture, including organic farming. But if the resistance to Biotechnology is based on political, cultural and religious beliefs then it will be difficult to refute those views with evidence and facts.

According to research, People who oppose the GM crops clenching on to negative views think that they know a lot about genetically modified food science, but in fact, they know very little. The critics have stated that “the science hasn’t been done” on the transgenic crops.

In 2010, a survey was done on hundreds of scientific studies which showed that there was clearly no evidence that transgenic crops put human health or the environment at a greater risk. This survey was supported by other unbiased surveys that portrayed the same. Trillions of meals containing GM ingredients have been eaten around the world over the past 13 years without a single substantiated case of ill health.

In 2001 and 2011, the European Commission released two reports that cover 25 years of research on GM crops or food on human health or the environment: (EU Commission Report, 2011) ‘A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001–2010)’ and ‘EC-Sponsored research on the safety of GM organisms (1985–2000) (EU Commission Report, 2001).’ They concluded that the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory inspection probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods. The more recent was a compilation of 50 research projects on the safety of GMOs over the past decade. The Commission funded research from 130 research projects involving 500 independent research groups over 25 years, concluding that “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” A declaration signed by more than 3500 scientists, including 25 Nobel Laureates, reiterates this position.

As the world population continues to rise acutely, even with engineering technologies, agriculture and food production are struggling to keep up the pace with the world’s needs, with an estimate of a billion people starving every day, the most recent famines hitting the countries Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. The world population currently holding a 7 billion number is expected to touch 9 billion by 2050. Hence, scientists must find another way to feed an extra 2 billion people. That would mean, we need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have had to produce for the past 8000 years when agriculture first begun. It has been seen that more and more wildlands are being converted to cropland, including rainforest and savannah. To break this process of converting all the wildlands, while also producing 60% more food, we need to rely on transgenic crops that will increase yields, producing more food per acre whilst reducing the amount of land used for agriculture.

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As a matter of fact, the strongest grip in the application of Biotechnology today isn’t its functionality, but politics.

Most researchers and science journalists say that biotechnology critics today insist on educating the controversy, in a similar manner as the deniers of climate change who stated that “Climate change is a hoax”. These anti-biotech activists execute a carefully planned publicity campaign that raises fear in public. Many politicians are inclined to follow the simplest and least divisive paths and bow to these loud extremist groups. This damages the prospect of applying technology that would have major benefits for mankind.

So let’s have a look at two cases where political factors disturbed the distribution and use of two potentially very valuable products. One animal, and the other a plant.

AQUADVANTAGE SALMON 

Aquaculture or aquafarming is alarmingly on the crest of a wave being a rapidly growing food market in the world with a soar of demand for animal protein.

In 1993, a Massachusetts biotech company, AquaBounty, approached the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about selling a genetically modified salmon that grew faster than normal Salmon. The Science behind this AquAdvantage fish is that this is an Atlantic salmon that carries two foreign bits of DNA; micro-injection of a recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) construct, composed of an element from an ocean pout antifreeze protein gene and a protein-coding sequence from a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene into the fertilized eggs of wild Atlantic salmon. This AquAdvantage Salmon is comparable to the Normal Salmon as this fish produces growth hormone all around the year. As a result, this modified fish reaches their adult size in 1.5 years as opposed to Normal Salmon that takes about 3 years. Solving the problem of fish consumption as their food source by Salmon, these genetically engineered fish convert less amount of food to bodyweight much more efficiently. Hence, less food makes the bigger fish in a shorter time leading to less pollution from fish farming.

Image comparing a genetically modified salmon and a farm salmon

If the modified Salmon were to be approved, it will become the very first transgenic animal to officially enter the human food chain. There have been multiple reviews from the scientific community weighing in on whether it is fit for consumption and what might happen if it were to make its way to the human food supply. Scientists and FDA’s experts have concluded that this modified fish is just as safe to eat as conventional salmon. Science journalist Emily Anthes, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, describing how politics and not science, has slowed down the approval process for AquaBounty’s genetically modified Salmon. The article also mentions about the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) and its executive director Jon Entine who revealed that the Obama White House had deliberately postponed the salmon approval process until after the last election. Many of the members of Congress in the US and some non-profit groups spontaneously objected to the genetically engineered Salmon as a part of an agenda to defy animal biotechnology in spite of their safety or potential benefits.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation has articulated a concern as to what would happen if the fish were to escape into the wild, potentially becoming an invasive species. Farm manager Peter Bowyer says the company has a range of measures in place.

“We take it really seriously. We are in Indiana where there aren’t any salmon. The fish are sterile,” Bowyer said. “They are all female. But even after all of that, we still have physical barriers in place.”

A GMO salmon fish farm
Fish hatchery tanks in AquaBounty’s hatchery facility,PEI,Canada.

Critics have tagged the GM Salmon as “Frankenfish” and raised safety questions on human consumption. But after years of testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the salmon in 2015. “Our salmon is the most heavily tested food in the history of mankind. And what they concluded was that our AquAdvantage salmon is as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon,” said Sylvia Wulf, Chief Executive and President of AquaBounty Technologies.

According to an article published by CGTN America on 18th November 2019, the first harvest of GM Salmon will be made later in 2020. However, the company AquaBounty still faces obstacles over labelling before the Salmon hits the shelves but they are positive and looking for further expansion.

GOLDEN RICE:

Golden rice is a genetically modified crop that consists of a bacterial gene and a maize gene. It can accumulate 30 micrograms of beta-carotene per gram of rice grains. Once the golden rice is consumed, beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A inside the body. It also has better protein quality. However, this crop has become a tool of global capitalism and a core slab of the anti-GM movement. Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization, in Amsterdam believed that golden rice has relatively insignificant nutritional value, and would need several kilograms of consumption in order to receive benefits of vitamin A.

Robin Mckie, exposed the emptiness of Greenpeace’s position by writing in ‘The Guardian’: “Two studies, both published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, demolished this claim. The first, in 2009, was based on a group of healthy adult volunteers in the US and showed that golden rice’s beta-carotene was easily taken up into the bloodstream. The second trial was carried out by American and Chinese researchers and published last year. It was carried out on Chinese children, aged between six and eight, and showed that a bowl of cooked golden rice, between 100g and 150g, could provide 60% of the recommended intake of vitamin A for young people. The study also revealed that golden rice is better than spinach at providing vitamin A.”

The latter study has since been a subject of controversy. In a Greenpeace press release, activists asserted that the parents of the Chinese children had not been informed that they were given GM food and being used as guinea pigs. An investigation by the Chinese authorities led to the expulsion of the three Chinese scientists named by Greenpeace who described the incident as yet another example of big business hopping at one of the most important items in the world, our food supply. The Scientists satisfaction over the Golden Rice Project has been mitigated by the fact that this GM crop had taken an exceptionally long time to be approved. Golden rice was developed in the year 1999, but the anti-GM campaigners strongly refused to accept that development and cultivation of this rice could provide ample Vitamin A, who also argued that the introduction of this crop in the developing countries would make farmers highly rely on the western industry. This view has since been turned down by the International Rice Research Institute, which is commonly coordinated in the Golden Rice Network with other partners, including the Hellen Keller International, a leading global health organization that reduces blindness and prevents malnutrition worldwide, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who sees golden rice as a way of diminishing a real health problem in the developing world.

Image comparing normal rice and golden rice
Golden rice (GM) compared with non-GM rice. Picture Credit: FotografiaBasica

The golden rice project had some promising knock-on effects in triggering a series of similar crop modification programs aimed at addressing deficiency of vitamin A. A conventional breeding program has produced a sweet potato with four times more beta-carotene than an average sweet potato. A team led by James Dale, of Queensland University, Australia is developing a golden banana. Bananas and sweet potato are key nutritional sources in Africa, where there is a significant deficiency in vitamin A and also an iron deficiency in diets. The golden banana is being engineered to raise both levels of iron and vitamin A, and will be similar to golden rice. It will be a carrot-coloured Banana (Fun fact: In the 17th century, carrots were mostly yellow or purple, they were bred to be orange by Dutch farmers to pay tribute to the House of Orange).

Mark Lynas was an opponent of GMO crops for several years. He actively participated during the late 1990s in protests and vandalism of field trials in the UK. But after recognizing his support for science-based decisions and the science of modern crop improvement, he changed his mind. In a public apology, he says of opposition to Golden Rice that it –

“…is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.”

adding –

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough. So my conclusion here today is very clear: the GM debate is over. It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there have never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no-one has died from eating GM.

Just as I did 10 years ago, Greenpeace and the Soil Association claim to be guided by consensus science, as on climate change. Yet on GM, there is a rock-solid scientific consensus, backed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society, health institutes and national science academies around the world. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored because it conflicts with their ideology.”

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 REFERENCES:

  1. https://america.cgtn.com/2019/11/18/genetically-modified-salmon-to-hit-us-markets
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290122500_Regulatory_Challenges_to_Commercializing_the_Products_of_Ag_Biotech
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790416/
  4. https://phys.org/news/2019-01-genetically-food-opponents.html
  5. https://www.supportprecisionagriculture.org/former-critics-of-gm-have-a-change-of-heart_rjr.html

 

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