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The Science and Ethics of GMO

“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” Viktor E. Frankl

More than 12,000 years ago humans first started domesticated animals and cultivating plants for food. By choosing organisms with desirable features and mating them together over a long period of time, people were able to produce food in a smarter way. The classic example is corn that once was a tropical grass called Teosinte with small almost inedible kernels. Over hundreds of years, ancient farmers in Mexico transformed this simple grass into the starchy corn we know today.

We now have the knowledge that the ancient farmers were actually manipulating the DNA of the Teosinte plant. Scientists say that the dramatic difference between Teosinte and corn has been created by making five changes to the plant's genome. This process called, "artificial selection" has made many otherwise inedible plants like wheat, rice, almond and bananas, not only edible but rather delicious.

The difference between the old fashioned way of improving the quality of foods and the modern way is the speed and the precision with which we can make more specific changes than nature usually allows. Today, instead of selectively breeding for desirable traits, scientists go directly to the DNA responsible for a specific trait, take it out and transplant it into newly developing plants or animals. If the DNA comes from the same species, scientists call the new organisms cis-genic (“cis” means “the same”), if the DNA comes from a different plant or animal, however, they call these new organisms transgenic (“trans” means “to cross”).

The newly developed organisms are called GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). These are either plants or animals created through the gene manipulation techniques of genetic engineering and biotechnology.

Currently, more than 90% of the soya beans and about 80% of corn grown in the States are GMOs. These raw foods are then widely used in food production processes. The majority of processed foods (three of every four processed foods) contain at least one GMO ingredient. It’s almost impossible to avoid products containing GMOs. Everything from soft drinks, canned foods, cereal, milk or bacon could be genetically modified.

We now have cows that produce human milk, chickens without feathers, fluorescent pigs that glow because of the genes from a luminescent jellyfish and in the last decade we have begun to see the foods that are equally scary - corn that makes bacterial toxins poisonous to pesticides or tomatoes that make the antifreeze proteins from fish.

Is this genetic manipulation safe for us?

The controversy around genetic engineering comes from the fact that many people believe that GMOs are as dangerous as they look. Let’s see what research says about this.

The most comprehensive study on GMOs and food ever conducted comes from the University of California where a team of researchers reviewed 29 years of health data from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed. The data is big; actually it’s huge. It includes more than 100 billion animals covering a period before 1996 when animal food was 100% non-GMO, and after GMO introduction when it went up to more than 90%. The researchers concluded that genetically modified feed is safe and nutritionally equivalent to non-GMO feed.

Recent meta-analyses from various centres looked at a variety of food-producing animals like chicken, pigs, sheep, goats, and fish. The results have been consistent. GMO feed is safe with no evidence suggesting any negative health effects on humans who eat those animals. All data was based on observational studies, not controlled prospective clinical trials.

A few years ago The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council revised all available data and concluded that there was no evidence that GMO foods posed any greater danger to people than conventionally grown crops. The European Union conducted its own research on GMO safety and reported:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology and in particular GMOs are not per se more risky than a e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

All the world major institutions like the British Royal Society, the American National Academy of Science, The American Medical Association and the World Health Organisation confirm that GMOs are not dangerous. All of the GMO foods currently available on the market have been tested, but many especially exotic transgenic pairings are still under investigation.

The debate about GMOs gets more complicated by the fact that much of the research is done by multinational companies that have an inherent conflict of interest. The Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas has collected more than 1,000 studies and found that about 30% were independent. They published their systematic review in 2013 looking at the last decade of GMO studies to describe the scientific consensus. The Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas “has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops; however, the debate is still intense."

Through the application of scientific knowledge humans now have the ability to influence nature in more radical ways than ever before. The genetic manipulation promises to produce food with greater nutritional value, to diversify the places that food can be grown, and even plant trees that can counter the effects of pollution.

Genetic engineering, however, comes with costs and there are many questions that remain unanswered, for example, what can we lose by creating the super weeds that are resistance to pesticides? What does is mean to eat food that actually doesn’t look like food and which technology is elusive to most of us? What real choices can we make knowing that what we eat is delivered by controversial agrochemical biotechnology corporations and not even labeled? What does it say about the human attitude towards the domination of nature? How can we minimise the risk that comes with GMO like the possibility of uncontrolled transfer of bacteria? What impact does this process have on our planet?

Personal responsibility and the freedom of choice come with information, knowledge, awareness and transparency. Since GMO has become the symbol of everything humans dislike about industrial and corporate control, these ethical and social questions are legitimate and worth reflecting on.