Type ‘GMO’ into any Internet search engine and the results might well convince you that we are all on the brink of global environmental collapse triggered by something entirely man-made, alongside which issues such as anthropogenic climate change pale into insignificance. And you would not be alone.
Most of the information on the Interwebs predicts these dangerous, unstable, untested mutant organisms are already causing wide scale environmental damage and economic havoc. Yet the WHO has said no negative effects on human health have been seen in countries where GMOs have been released and recently a comprehensive meta-analysis found that the agronomic and economic benefits of GMO crops in the USA and the developing world are significant:
On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.
Add to that the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine which asserted that GMOs have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people for many years with no reported ill effects, the European Commission which has also endorsed their safety – more on them later – and even the US National Academy of Sciences strongly supports GMOs.
Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? It must be that agribusiness and others lobbying such organisations have probably bribed all the right people in all the right places in order to get their GMOs supported. Let’s face it, it’s all a conspiracy and it’s got to be Monsanto behind all of it; they can’t kill as many people with vaccines now because the anti-vaccine nut jobs have convinced people vaccines cause autism so The Evil Empire is now making GMOs to complement the nanobots they’re releasing in the chemtrails. It’s all linked…
And ‘genetically modified’. It just sounds, well, sinister and unnatural.
So how is it that in the face of all this opposition to GMOs and all the ‘facts’ out there, interestingly there have been no legal cases claiming harm to consumers from GM crops despite their having been grown for many years in some of the most litigious jurisdictions on the planet. So, what’s the story?
What Are GMOs?
The fact is we’ve been genetically engineering plants and animals for millennia via cross-breeding. So in its broadest sense we’ve been involved in genetic engineering long before the science of genetics came about. But in the early 1970s Berg, Cohen and Boyer came up with some very nifty techniques where you can use chemical ‘scalpels’ to cut out a chunk of genetic material from one organism and splice it into another organism of a completely different species. So, in addition to ‘vertical’ gene transfer through cross-breeding it became possible to transfer genes ‘horizontally’ across species.
Scientists recognised at the time that these powerful and ground-breaking techniques could have unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences so a voluntary moratorium was called and the guiding principles for recombinant DNA work were set at the Asilomar Conference in 1975.
But transferring DNA across species’ boundaries was neither new nor ‘unnatural’ – horizontal transfer exists in nature; it’s the principal means by which bacteria swap antibiotic resistance genes, much like molecular football cards. A more startling example is that over 8% of your DNA consists of retroviruses that have insinuated themselves into your genome over the millennia and not been able to get themselves out again. Only 2% of your DNA actually codes for proteins so viral DNA in your genome outnumbers that which actually makes you what you are by a factor of 4:1.
The science of recombinant DNA led to some very cool stuff very quickly. The gene for human insulin was chopped off the top of chromosome 11, spliced into a convenient bug (often E. coli but you can use yeast too) and hey presto, bug reads the gene you’ve squirted in there and produces pure human insulin (genes are quite simply an instruction or recipe that tells cells how to make stuff). Think of yeast as a simple, single-celled organism that has the instructions in its genome to consume sugar and turn it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Using the techniques I gloss over above you reprogramme the yeast to shit pure human insulin (or growth hormone or Herceptin or any number of useful things) rather than the ethanol it normally turns sugars into. And you can ferment it just as you would if making wine or beer at home. So, you can make some very complex stuff without the need for big, expensive chemical plants. Cool!
In fact, you can make pretty much anything out of anything if you set your mind to it, as demonstrated by Prof Murray Moo-Young who turned sawdust into steak about 30 years ago to prove the point to journalists.
Bacteria engineered this way are already being used in many industrial processes and to produce Hepatitis B vaccine, human growth hormone, interferons, monoclonal antibodies and tissue plasminogen activator as well as insulin. Therapeutics produced in this way are having a profound impact in fields including rheumatology, oncology, cardiology, dermatology, gastroenterology, neurology and many others.
GMOs as Food
The industrial (‘white’) or medical (‘red’) biotechnology described above takes place in factories and labs and this is probably why it isn’t such a magnet for the Tin Foil Hat Brigade and sundry enviro-nutters. It’s when GMOs are grown in fields or introduced into the food chain that causes the most disquiet. There are four broad classes of GM plants currently approved:
- Herbicide tolerance – e.g. glyphosate tolerance in soy
- Insecticide production – e,g. using the insecticide Cry1Ab produced by Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
- Altered lipid content – e.g raising laurate levels in canola oil by inserting the gene for ACP thioesterase from the California bay tree Umbellularia californica
- Virus resistance – e.g. plums protected from plum pox virus by inserting a viral coat protein.
But the potential is huge and among the products in various stages of development is Golden Rice – containing three extra genes for the manufacture of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A – which has the potential to massively reduce vitamin A deficiency. This is a cause of preventable blindness in 250,000 – 500,000 children annually, about half of whom die. And every bowl of Golden Rice gives 60% of the daily requirement of vitamin A.
But that’s just the start. A vaccine against Hepatitis B virus is being produced in transgenic tobacco plants. An oral vaccine against Newcastle disease virus is being grown in corn. Other plants are being used to grow vaccines against enterotoxigenic E. coli and the noroviruses. Further out on the horizon are plants that can fix their own nitrogen. Some legumes such as alfalfa, peas, soybeans, lentils and peanuts use Rhizobia bacteria in their root nodules to ‘fix’ atmospheric nitrogen to manufacture the nitrates they need to grow; others have to rely on nitrates in soil, hence the need for fertilisers in agriculture. If more plants were able to use this trick intensive farming’s need for massive inputs of fertiliser could be significantly reduced along with cost –both monetary and environmental.
Scare Stories vs Data
The worrying aspect with many anti-GMO stories is that – having done some digging – many of the ‘data’ and anecdotes they present to support their position seem to be pure invention and don’t even stand up to the most cursory investigation. A recent one is that aubergine crops containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticide in Bangladesh have failed and caused widespread misery and ruin. Not true. Another is that hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide due to GMOs. Again, entirely untrue.
The most pervasive opinion seems to be that GMOs are “not natural”. I’ve written before about the naturalistic fallacy and see above regarding ‘natural’ when applied to GMOs. But I’d add the additional detail that at a cellular and biochemical level our metabolism and that of all other animals and even other kingdoms such as plants are very, very similar – because on the evolutionary tree we are all far more similar than we like to think.
There is also the claim that GMOs are “not tested”. But GMOs are quite simply the most tested potential foodstuffs ever. Any GMO is extensively tested before its release and then monitored carefully and the scientific consensus supporting the safety of agricultural biotechnology is rock solid, as are the data supporting that consensus. A frequent gambit borrowed from the anti-vaccine nutters is that there should be “more testing” to prove GMOs are “100% safe”. This is scientifically naïve and a very twisted interpretation of the precautionary principle – but moreover for those that are intrinsically opposed to the technology no amount of testing is ever enough; a bit like the anti-vaccine nut jobs: as soon as one level of proof is satisfied the goalposts move and a different bar is set.
But what about unintended consequences? This is also biologically naïve as nature has some pretty robust homeostatic mechanisms. But it is true that the environmental issues are more complex. There is the argument that ‘terminator seeds’ and other tactics preventing farmers saving seed make producing GMOs immoral. But pretty much all non-GMO seeds sold are hybrids and so won’t breed true either, so non-perennial seeds is not a GMO-specific issue. The behaviour of Big Agri isn’t a GMO-specific issue either; whether it’s Monsanto or their competitors I’m happy to accept that most massive industries are probably not run by the Boy Scouts, including the agribusiness sector.
There is also the argument that crops containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis toxin) as an insecticide or glyphosate resistance will lead to more resistant plants. This is true but Bt is used as an insecticide anyway and if farmers use glyphosate resistance as their sole weed control strategy it will lead to resistant weeds. But if you grow a monoculture and rely on solitary pest control strategies you are asking for trouble and farmers know this. Again, this is not an issue specific to GMOs.
One argument with a grain of truth behind it is that antibiotic resistance markers are often used when splicing genes into GMOs. I’ve used this technique myself; it’s very cool, devastatingly simple and very elegant so bears a brief explanation. Let’s say you are trying to insert the gene that codes for insulin production into E. coli or some other compliant bug. Having done your stuff you might have a culture vessel containing billions of bacteria where only a handful have taken up the trait you’re trying to squirt in.
How to isolate them? What you do is add a gene that codes for resistance to – say – penicillin that the rest of the culture is susceptible to. So the handful of organisms that have taken up the gene you are interested in are now resistant to penicillin, unlike their neighbours. So you bung in some penicillin and go down the pub. When you get back the untransformed bugs are gone leaving the space and resources for those you’ve successfully transformed to thrive.
So yes, it is conceivable that if you ingest a bacterium that has this trait it could conceivably share its antibiotic resistance with those bacteria living in your gut. But this happens all the time anyway – bacteria are very good at sharing useful genes – and this background rate far exceeds anything GMO bacteria with antibiotic resistance markers may add.
Anne Glover is a biologist of some distinction and was chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission with a brief to provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology or innovation. But she was recently sacked by Jean-Claude Juncker who went a step further by abolishing the position of chief scientific adviser entirely.
Her crime? She pissed off Greenpeace and sundry other eco-terrorists and Tin Foil Hatters by invoking data and saying that there was “not a single piece of scientific evidence to support critics’ claims that food produced from GMOs was less safe than food grown in any other way” and that “no other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as GM”. Just to stress the point she described the opposition as “a form of madness”. And she is absolutely right. The science is unequivocal. She may have been politically naïve and possibly might have chosen more diplomatic phrasing (that’s pretty rich coming from me, I know) but speaking truth unto power (as she was hired to do) cost her her job due to lobbying by the anti-GMO nut jobs. But what do you expect from Juncker – an unelected Luddite former PM of a country with no armed forces, no industry except dodgy banking and a population smaller than most London Boroughs?
Can’t happen here?
You may recall my recent scrap with Thinktank, the Birmingham Science Museum, which initially justified its science-free exhibit on GMOs by saying it is “balanced as it highlights people’s opinions on GM technology only, and we consider it to be representative of people’s opinions, which is all it seeks to do”. On that score I’m delighted to report that – to their great credit – sanity has prevailed and the exhibit has been removed. But people chose to believe all sorts of dumb shit and fortunately a brutally effective sifting mechanism exists. It’s called the scientific method and it doesn’t matter what you believe or who you are, if the observable data conflict with your beliefs that’s it. End of.
In the USA the creationists have been trying for years to somehow get their various fairy tales into the science class by saying evolution is ‘just a theory’ and therefore creationism / ‘intelligent design’ or whatever else they call it to try to get it under the wire carries the same weight as the theory of evolution. Except they miss the bit that involves collecting data and testing falsifiable hypotheses. Fairy tales don’t last long if you do that. By all means propagate your favourite myths in Sunday School but don’t call it science.
And for the anti-GMO crowd the few studies they like to cherry-pick have all been entirely discredited so now they’re just making stuff up. There are many issues around sustainability, the environment, and the impact of the conduct of agribusiness on those issues but none of these are specific to GMOs. Quite simply the data are unassailable; GMOs – when tested and deployed responsibly – lead to less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, can lead to more profitable and sustainable agriculture and in the case of Golden Rice can potentially combat endemic blindness and death.
I will concede that “Genetic Engineering” might sound scary but it’s been around for millennia, we’ve just got a few more toys in the box to play with now. It’s just a technique that could be harnessed for good or bad.
And if you’re not convinced by the science and the data and it all seems just, well, unnatural, I would remind you that a dog shit and tonic is entirely natural. But I wouldn’t drink it.