Three-letter acronyms tend to be very weighty. What dark and sinister meanings lurk behind FBI, CIA, NSA, USA? While the term GMO doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of questionable policies, it is a very contentious little bundle of letters. People often feel strongly about genetically modified organisms, whether they are for or against them. I haven’t ever quite understood what it means, though, for a product (normally I think of produce) to be genetically modified or why products are modified.
There are sundry uses for genetically modified organisms. These include biological and medical research, experimental medicine, and agriculture. Humans have modified plants and animals for centuries and centuries through the process of selective breeding. The first genetically modified organism, however, wasn’t until 1973 when scientists Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed bacteria that were resistant to an antibiotic by using a gene from a different bacterium resistant to the same antibiotic. Breakthroughs in the field continued from then on. In 1974 Rudolf Jaenisch inserted a DNA virus into an early-stage mouse embryo and the inserted gene was later found in every cell in the mouse. In 1983, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics was engineered and in 1990 genetically engineered cotton was successfully field-tested. In 1995, Monsanto (dun dun dun) introduced a type of soybean known as “Round-Up-Ready,” which was herbicide immune. Five years later, scientists found that nutrients and vitamins could be introduced to enrich foods.
In the United States more than sixty varieties of genetically modified crops that are approved for food and feed supplies, including: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (both field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash, and sugar beets, with apples being the most recent addition. Worldwide more than 18 million farmers use GM seeds. A GM plant’s genetic material is altered for a variety of reasons. Many crops are modified to be tolerant to herbicides and droughts and to be insect resistant as well as to be fortified with certain vitamins. For these reasons (and others) people believe that GM crops should be permissible and easily obtainable.
There are concerns that produce that is modified to be immune to diseases contain antibiotic markers that, when consumed by humans, can make antibiotic medicine less effective. Other concerns about GM foods are unknown issues related chemicals, allergies, and the formation of super weeds. There is also the problem of ownership and patents, which can restrict research rights, lead to a consolidation of the seed industry, and, depending on the kind of seed, force farmers to buy new seed every year rather than saving seed from previous years.
Golden rice is a clear example of a GM crop enmeshed in controversy. Golden rice differs “from its parental strain by the addition of three beta-carotene biosynthesis genes”—meaning that it is fortified with vitamin A to be grown in areas with shortages of that vitamin. It is clear that vitamin A deficiency is a real problem: it is estimated that 670,000 children under the age of five die each year due to the deficiency. And a 2012 study showed that the rice provided 68 children in China with more vitamin A than spinach and was as effective as vitamin A capsules.
However, anti-GMO activists worry that focusing on a narrow problem (like vitamin A) will lead to a loss of biodiversity in already impoverished areas and will hurt perhaps already struggling agriculture. In 2008, WHO malnutrition expert Francesco Branca said, “Giving out supplements, fortifying existing foods with vitamin A, and teaching people to grow carrots or certain leafy vegetables are, for now, more promising ways to fight the problem.” The rice, however, has great amounts of backing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in developing Golden Rice and in June 2016, 107 Nobel laureates “signed a letter urging Greenpeace to abandon their campaigns against GMOs and against golden rice in particular.”
(Further research: There’s just so much more to know. I would like to know how exactly the genetic modifications occur and the difference between genetically engineered and genetically modified, etc.)