The scientific community continues its ever-quickening pace in bringing science fiction into the realm of reality. A major area of progress has been in the field of genetically modified organisms. Since the first synthesis of GMOs in the early 80s, however, apprehension has been on par with the enthusiasm behind GMOs.
The term GMO is used to refer to genetically engineered crops whose RNA strand (the “DNA” of plants) has been genetically modified for a specific purpose. This is done in two ways. The first method is done intra-species. In this case, an aspect such as the brilliance of one tomato’s red hue can be extracted and manually written into the code of another type of tomato. It can also be done between species, such as DNA Plant Technology’s “Fish Tomato”, a tomato given the ability to survive freezing temperatures thanks to the DNA of the winter flounder.
In this way, GMOs differ from previous methods of genetic manipulation techniques. The oldest and best known is selective breeding. This is what led to the many different breeds of dogs we have today, as well as the creation of corn as we currently know it. Other methods primarily involve forms of mutagenesis, in which a plant is exposed to certain types of radiation in the hopes of creating a desirable and stable mutation.
Scientists who support GMOs tout several benefits that could be reaped from their use. Besides just being able to create foods that taste better or have improved consistency and color, GMOs can be created specifically to resist certain weeds, parasites or diseases. GMOs can be modified to grow in tighter quarters with higher yields. Scientists can change their RNA so they have a longer shelf life, and ultimately many of these modifications can be combined to create “super foods” that can be used to put an end to world hunger.
On the other hand, opponents have a laundry list of reasons to be concerned. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN non-governmental organization based in Rome, has cited many of the arguments both for and against genetically modified crops. Among the motivations for detractors are concerns about the impact on the environment, human health, and even socio-economic effects.
The potentially negative impacts from GMOs are diverse. The genes of GMOs can end up in other plants or mutate with harmful effects. Modifications could lead to harming insects and birds, threatening populations that depend on a particular plant species. A cross between Brazil nuts and soy resulted in genetically modified soy that would have caused those with a Brazil nut allergy to react negatively. In the past, GMOs have managed to find their way into the food supply, such as when StarLink maize, a GMO originally intended only for animal consumption, was detected in corn destined for consumption by humans. It generated 28 recorded cases of adverse reactions in the form of allergies to the unique protein chain in StarLink.
Thankfully, at this point there has not been any serious consequence due to the introduction of GMOs to our food supply. Researchers have generally accepted that genetically modified crops are safe for consumption. Genetically modified crops geared for human consumption are tested extensively before being introduced to our food supplies. Most of our livestock already consume GMOs, so in some form most of the Western world has been exposed to genetically modified food already. Even so, the debate is not likely to go away as scientists continue to develop newer and better versions of our everyday produce.