Communicating the Science of GMOs

GMO tomato


One of my favorite philosophers, the lay-friendly Massimo Pigliucci, recently penned a piece on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that merits a closer look. GMO, as we all know, refers to plants, animals or other organisms that have been altered genetically for the purposes of food or medicine (or even fluorescent pet fish). For better or worse, ‘genetic modification’ or ‘genetic engineering’ is one of those suitcase phrases that can pack a lot of different meanings and contexts. While we’ve been playing around with genetics in the foods we eat before we had the terminology for it, introducing and removing predefined DNA segments from other species—otherwise known as transgenics—is specific to modern GM food production. It is on this latter context that Massimo focuses.

As with most attacks on established and thoroughly vetted science, the concerns surrounding GMOs are overblown. Amid all the frenzied cries that scientists shouldn’t “play God” and allegations that due diligence has not been followed, there have still been no documented cases of adverse effects from humans consuming GM foods (see also here, here, here, here and here). After thirty years of genetically engineering plants and crops, no evidence has been found that GE foods present unique risks compared to conventional food production techniques (i.e., non-GE foods). If the more than 1,700 studies to date fall short of persuasive, it’s unlikely any additional studies will matter.

Misplaced concerns over labeling and safety tend to overshadow their vast benefit to third world nations. Let’s take golden rice, for example. This rice variety was developed as an affordable alternative for nations across the African continent suffering from Vitamin A deficiency, a condition responsible for 1-2 million deaths annually, including 670,000 children under the age of 5. To remedy this public health crisis, recombinant DNA technology was used to insert a few beta-carotene genes into the common variety, transforming it into a nutrient-rich crop. All studies on this crop have found no risk to human health, and with major partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, next to other GM breakthroughs the rice is largely considered an achievement in biotech and humanitarian efforts.

Through clever genetic editing, we’ve also been able to significantly improve resistance against plant viruses, insect pests and drought, and boost nutrient levels of readily available foods in international markets. More resilient crop varieties carry the additional benefit of reducing use of insecticides and herbicides, which helps not only to minimize environmental impact but lower production costs to smallholder farmers in developing regions, of which there are an estimated 500 million worldwide.

While many critics have come to terms with the safety and food security aspects, they will still raise concerns about the effects of GMO commerce on local and international markets, whether it be fears about monopolization of the industry or unfair business practices. As always, we should be careful to distinguish between the market or industry on the one hand, and GMO safety and scientific efficacy on the other. We should not let our misgivings of the former cloud our perception of the latter.

The allegations that Monsanto and other producers have engaged in ethically dubious business practices does not change these facts. I do think Massimo overstates his apprehensions when he writes: “I do think that GMOs producers have been engaging in questionable to highly questionable market and labor practices, and that they ought to be strictly regulated, as should the food industry in general — but then again I’m known to be a social-democrat with Chomskyan tendencies, so there.”

I assume he’s referring to Monsanto’s litigious reputation for defending its patents and not the various charges of environmental and health issues, all of which have been found wanting. Yes, all food production should be regulated, but decrying Monsanto as evil merely because their patents require farmers to “re-up” each year is a gross oversimplification of both the science and the economics.

When you buy seed from a GMO producer, you sign an agreement not to reuse it. The basic reason for this is that in the second generation only 50% of the genome is known, the third 25%, and it falls off in step from there. Organic seed companies and selective and cross-bred seed companies all have the same legal contracts and engage in the same practices. Most farmers prefer this because the seed is predictable when you buy it new, enabling them to generate higher crop yields and better gauge seasonal shortfall. (See here for a more comprehensive discussion of U.S. patent law as it relates to GM food production.)

Yet even if one could make the case that innovators and biotech firms are corrupt entities bringing out the worst excesses in capitalism, this shouldn’t jade one’s view of GM science and its benefits to global health and agricultural sustainability. It’s like people who condemn the very notion of government. That we would like it to operate better and more efficiently should not be construed as thinking the government a purposeless entity.

While we should be wary of those uncritically assailing GMOs, we should also be alert to people on both sides communicating the science inaccurately, as Massimo emphasizes in his piece:

“As it turns out, there are two categories of GMOs: the first is the result of genetic engineering that uses as source material DNA from the same species, the second one is obtained by engineering a novel genome by importing DNA from a different species. The technical term for the second class is transgenic organism. Much of the fracas about GMOs has to do with transgenics (otherwise tendentiously known as “Frankenfoods”), not with GMOs obtained by modification of their own species’ genetic makeup.”

Many GMO advocates often kick off the discussion by pointing out that molding genetics to our will is something we’ve been doing all along, at least since the inception of agriculture, and that nature was doing it well before that thanks to mechanisms like horizontal gene transfer and mobile genetic elements such as transposons and other sources of genetic novelty.

The problem with this is that it does not capture what most scientists or industry experts mean when they refer to GMO. It’s misleading to say that all of the various processes involved with modern GM food production is qualitatively indistinct from what crossbreeding farmers have been doing for thousands of years, or nature before that. Farmers of yore were not inserting and replacing sequences of DNA (transgenics), for example. Blue flowers, a rarity before humans started making them, originated purely through experimentation of selectively breeding flower varieties.

Today we can fiddle with the genome of plants and other organisms in myriad ways—by knocking out, overexpressing or inserting new genes—to create preselected outcomes in a much shorter window. Transgenesis, moreover, is often conducted even between reproductively incompatible species, a possibility not available through conventional methods. The modern process constitutes the next step in the evolution of genetic manipulation. And if conducted properly, in adherence with testing and certification protocols, today’s methods are safer because we know what genes we are inserting, and we understand precisely why we are doing it.

As Massimo notes, if we want to elevate the public discussion surrounding GMOs, it’s critical we get the science right.


Further reading:

Retro Report: The Test Tube Tomato

The Misleading War on GMOs: The Food Is Safe. The Rhetoric Is Dangerous.

WHO: Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods

Do we need more studies on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.?