There are numerous concerns regarding the usage of GMOs and most of them can be lumped into three main categories: ethical, human health, and environmental. The ethical questions that arise usually revolve around whether we should be embracing and using this technology at all. This technology, more than most others, allows humans to “play god” and create organisms that may never have evolved naturally. This potential power requires that strong ethical consideration and regulation be provided before more and more GMOs are created and industrialized. Other ethical questions arise from current regulatory practices. Currently there are three agencies that companies need to get sanction from before commercially selling their modified crops. These agencies, the USDA, FDA, and EPA, require different tests and have various requirements (e.g. toxicity and allergen studies) that must be satisfied. A large conflict of interest comes from the fact that the biotech companies provide the money for or conduct these tests themselves, which raises questions about objectivity. However, the biotech companies contend that they are even more rigorous about testing because a faulty product could spell lawsuits, loss of profits and eventual bankruptcy.
Issues of human health concern about GMOs span a wide ranging continuum from proponents who claim that these foods are safer than non-GMOs to radical skeptics who believe that eating GMOs will give you cancers, organ failure and “mutant DNA.” Many of these stories reflect a general lack of understanding about biology in general. Given the testing that GMOs go through, which is more extensive than for new non-GMO crops, the risk of GM crops being harmful to you are probably equal to or less than the risk of crops produced by other modern agricultural methods (sprayed with insecticides, herbicides etc.). In general, risks of problems to human health are widely overblown and exaggerated, however, the slight possibility of unknown or long-term effects exists and more stringent and comprehensive testing, especially long term testing, would be prudent.
There are several environmental concerns about GMOs. First, people are concerned that the GM crops will hybridize with nearby wild relatives and pass on their inserted genes into the hybrid progeny. This could result in a suite of problems such as excessive weediness, insect resistance, and rampant toxin production. This gene flow is also a problem in areas where the integrity of crops is a source of cultural and historical pride, as is the case with the many land races of corn in Mexico. Also, the crops themselves could become invasive and spread to areas outside of where they were intentionally planted. Another concern, which stems from the precautionary principle, is that we simply do not know enough about this technology to use it safely. Lastly, the Roundup ready agriculture truly results in a complete monoculture, where other native plants may have coexisted on farm fields without the Roundup ready crops (albeit sporadically), now there are only crops growing. These are just some of the ethical, health and environmental concerns over the use of GMOs and certainly more will come to the forefront as the use of GM foods continues to grow.
If GM foods are so bad and raise such complex issues why should we even use them at all? There are actually some very good arguments in favor of growing GMOs. Certain crops, such as “golden rice” contain much higher levels of beta carotene that could help prevent vitamin A deficiencies and subsequent blindness in children of developing countries. These vitamin enriched plants could help alleviate vitamin deficiencies all over the world. Other benefits include being able to grow more crops in the same area for a variety of reasons such as higher insect resistance, better growth rates etc. This more intensive agriculture, it is argued, is beneficial because it allows for more people to be fed for a given area of land, which allows for more land to be left undisturbed (or more likely will allow us to accommodate the growing human population). Also, fewer pesticides need to be used for the insect resistant crops, which help to alleviate chemical runoff and environmental pollution. Additionally, various tillage practices (including no tillage) can be incorporated more easily with GM crops resulting in significantly less soil erosion. Other advantages of GM crops include longer shelf lives, greater environmental tolerance (e.g. less susceptible to drought), and increased disease resistance. There are also a slew of potential benefits that are not in existence today, but are projected to be developed in the near future. Some examples from this lengthy list include: livestock that produce leaner meat; animals (mainly goats and sheep) engineered to commercially secrete drugs through milk or urine – several of which already occur, but none of which are commercially employed; animals as a source of transplant organs; disease resistant poultry; and further increases in herbicide resistance, disease resistance, environmental tolerance and pest control in crops. Also further nutritional enhancements for crops are in the works, such as the addition of various vitamins and cancer reducing antioxidants.
Given this very brief and incomplete background information, it is easy to see that this is a vast topic that could take the average person a long time to develop a thorough understanding. Further adding to the confusion is a lack of objective information. Proponents of one side or the other often promote their agenda by at best taking information out of context, and at worst making up or dismissing claims entirely. If somebody wanted to find out the facts about GMOs for themselves, and then make a decision based upon what they learned, they would be hard pressed to find sources of information that were presented without an ulterior motive. Another common problem occurs when scientific information is taken out of context and subsequently misinterpreted by the public, which is what happened in the case of the Monarch butterfly.
In May of 1999 researchers from Cornell found that lab-raised monarch caterpillars that were fed milkweed dusted with the pollen from Bt corn experienced much higher mortality than those feed milkweed dusted with pollen from regular corn. This finding was published as a note in Nature and caused significant public outcry and protest. The study, while it raised some important concerns, was blown out of proportion and vastly misinterpreted by the public. None of the data were collected from experiments in the field, and the amount of pollen that the caterpillars ingested was significantly higher than what they would encounter if they were on milkweed growing in the middle of a corn field. Subsequent studies published in the Proceedings of the national academy of the sciences (PNAS) have demonstrated that the Bt pollen from cornfields poses negligible risk to monarch caterpillars or butterflies. Yet, the monarch is just one of many species that may end up ingesting Bt pollen and it is still unclear what far reaching effects Bt crops may have on ecosystem health. The moral of this story is that public perception and reality may be two separate things when it comes to complex issues. The public may have felt an unwarranted concern for monarchs when Bt corn is probably the least of the monarch’s concerns (such as habitat destruction, roads, insecticides etc.), yet what the public should be concerned with is what we don’t know (e.g. will Bt toxin build up in the ground, or affect more sensitive species, or show up in higher concentrations in animals further up the food chain (a phenomenon known as bioaccumulation)). Dissemination of accurate and objective information is of utmost importance in this complex debate.
Next week I will conclude with an examination of the values that will ultimately determine how and where GMOs should be used. Stay tuned….