Genetically Modified Opinions

To start off blog post #2, I’d like to say that I’m sorry. In reading my last post I realized that I have become part of the problem of science communication. While discussing the issue of GMOs, I never actually properly explained what they are, and why people may- but probably shouldn’t- be afraid of them. As a high school kid that wanted to be a genetic engineer, I have a large base of knowledge about genetics that wouldn’t come standard for most readers, so it was pretty insane of me to have assumed so. Let’s face it; genetics doesn’t really make for some light enjoyable reading. So for those of you those who don’t know, here’s a crash course in GMOs:

First things first, those pictures that you see on the internet where a suspicious looking liquid is being injected in a plump tomato has literally nothing to do with genetic engineering. I’m not really sure why so many people still use images like that, but that’s an aside.

Pictures like this have nothing to do with genetic engineering.

Pictures like this have nothing to do with genetic engineering.

To understand genetically modified crops, you first have to understand genes. Genes are segments of DNA that code for different proteins. These proteins then dictate the ways in which the organism should grow and function. Simply put, DNA and genes are a blueprint for what makes us, us.

Genes are segments of DNA

Genetic modification is the process in which we actively tamper with this code. Arguably you could say that humans have been genetically modifying crops since the introduction of farming thousands of years ago. They did this through a process called selective breeding. In the case of crops, the plants that had the most desirable traits, such as bigger fruits or higher yields were cultivated, while the plants that didn’t perform as well were discarded. This meant that the genetic composition of the species slowly changed.

The reason there is so much controversy surrounding GMOs now is that in recent years we’ve made great leaps in our understanding of the genome (the sequence of genes) of different plants and animals. This has allowed scientists to directly change the genetic code of plants to create a more desired product. This is usually done by taking the genes from one plant or animal and inserting them into another. For example, there are genetically modified strawberries that contain the frost-resistant gene from an artic salmon. This allows them to grow in the winter, meaning we have strawberries all year around.

There is still a lot of publicly perceived mystery surrounding GMOs. Many GMO activists claim that not enough research to prove that GMOs are safe. From my point of view, genetically modified crops are one of the most researched areas in science. There are over 2000 articles that prove that GMOs have no observable negative health effects.

It seems that the biggest concern in all of the four countries examine, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and China was the fact that the GM crops could not be successfully controlled, leaving rouge seeds to germinate in the wild. This would mean the chance of cross contamination of the “pure” or “organic” crops. So I investigated this claim.

To say the least, the reports were extremely varied. In Japan alone, one report said that up to 33% of the products claiming to be organic (thus GMO free) were contaminated (although I hardly think contaminated is the appropriate word) with genetically modified DNA, while another source on the same website claimed out of the produce tested showed less than 0.1% contamination. In my investigation I think I finally understand why people are so confused. There is a wealth of information on the internet concerning GMOs, however none of it is consistent. Journal articles are convoluted and hard to read for the everyday man, however websites seem unreliable. I’m beginning to fully appreciate why it is that people don’t understand, little alone like, GMOs.

Through my research I now understand that maybe it’s not so much the purity of the crops that farmers and the public are worried about, rather the genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is what helps protect a species from different dangers. By having a variety of different traits, it is more likely that some of the crops will survive different environmental pressures. The great potato famine in Ireland occurred because there was very little genetic diversity in the potato crop, so once one plant got sick, they all did. By having GMOs spread and interbreed there is a chance they may ruin the genetic diversity of the crop, meaning it may all die at once. Understanding the reproductive behaviour of a GM crop and the function of its genetic modification is very important before introducing it into the wild. In saying that, there is little evidence to suggest that GM crops have so far impacted the genetic diversity of the environment at large, and most of the GMs used are sterile (unable to reproduce).

The anti-GMO movement is not going anywhere soon.

The anti-GMO movement is not going anywhere soon.

The Chinese public’s reluctance to adopt GMOs might also have been influence by a history of food scandals. Although they have always been wary of GM crops, banning basically all new crops from 2006, in 2008 the central government granted permission to a group of scientists to create a GM strain of rice that naturally wards off pests. This just happened to coincide with the revelation that due to corruption, powered milk being supplied to infants in the country was cut with melamine, a chemical used in plastics, which ended up killing six infants and hospitalising 54, 000. To the Chinese public, it seemed as if allowing the GM crop research was just another symptom of the corrupt government. This isn’t what I found most interesting however. Maybe naively, I assumed that people were more likely to reject GMOs based on a lack of education. In one survey done, it was found that 84% of Chinese people didn’t want GMOs, with the more educated being more against the crops. That was a result I certainly didn’t expect.

Another interesting discovery was that Thailand was mostly looking into employing GMOs in a time of crisis, namely a world war, to help feed a stricken population. However after massive protests of the ‘Biological Safety Bill’ the government decided that the threat of another world war was not yet imminent enough to justify passing the GMO bill.

I think throughout this experience I have learnt that I need to immerse myself in what someone without scientific training would see when they were trying to learn about the issue. It is all too easy to fall back onto research papers, all the while ignoring the fact that it’s unlikely that’s where the public would go for their knowledge. I need to clear the slate of what I think to be true, and learn to examine the evidence as if I were someone just trying to make up their mind, in order to be a better communicator. I suppose the best I can do it try.