To Modify or Not to Modify

 

October 18, 2014

I believe the future of our civilization rests on one word: genes. Though not always at the front of our minds, genes determine our health, make us who we are, and how we look. They’re in our food. Even the very clothing we wear isn’t possible without the proteins made from cotton’s DNA.

Today, modern science has accomplished what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. Genetic modification. Far from being a new science, using or modifying living things began with the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians who used yeast to brew beer, and bake bread. Selective breeding and farming, though not so obvious, are also methods of genetic modification. We now have the power to directly insert DNA from another plant, virus, or animal into a cell to achieve a desired effect like resisting pests, or thriving in bad soil. This practice has been commonplace in big agriculture since its legalization in 1995, and a mere four years later almost half of all corn, cotton and soy grown here have been modified (Britannica). The benefits don’t stop with making our crops more resistant to bugs—the miracle of genetics applies to us as well.

Imagine a future with minimal medical costs, a life in which the biggest concern is the common cold. Imagine never having to worry about a baby born with a condition that puts the family at a lifelong financial disadvantage. The future of medicine will be highly personal, tailored to a person’s genetic vulnerabilities, and the best part is it begins before birth. Many people look forward to becoming parents, and with that journey comes many unforeseen challenges. My wife was diagnosed with Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, when she was in the third grade. Three years later she went under the knife to have her spine fused and straightened with metal rods in a procedure that’s still in the ballpark of $120,000. With every passing day we glean more and more insight into the genes that cause scoliosis and other diseases with the goal of removing or disabling them before the child is born. It sounds like the stuff of fiction, but human genetic engineering is a reality, gaining headway the world over, but not without its equal share of controversy. People aside, we’re still debating whether or not our modified food is safe.

Despite GMO’s outstanding safety record, special interest groups are still persistent in trying to ban them, or discourage their use through laws and labeling. On the ballot for this upcoming mid-term election is a measure which would require labeling of all genetically engineered food in Oregon. It’s an attempt to move people to eat so-called safe food, but according to Scientific American’s David Freedman:

The human race has been selectively breeding crops, thus altering plants’ genomes, for millennia. Ordinary wheat has long been strictly a human-engineered plant; it could not exist outside of farms, because its seeds do not scatter. For some 60 years scientists have been using “mutagenic” techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals, creating strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become agricultural mainstays. The practice has inspired little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health problems.

Granted, that notion isn’t universal among scientists. Professor of Biological Studies David Schubert is among many who argue that there is not only no consensus of safety, but that GMOs are not as safe, practical, or cost-effective as others claim.

Schubert is an advocate of GMO labeling, and claims it’s vital that the public is aware of the entire truth behind the science, not just what the corporations behind their production want you to know. Such as the super-weed epidemic, insects that are much harder to kill and are no longer affected by the crops GM resistance causing a “massive increase” in the amounts of herbicide used. Schubert’s chief concern is the potential of cancer from the combination of GM crops and herbicide use. He points to an AP article on the drastic rise in cancer rates in Argentina after they began cultivating new crops, and another study done on pigs whose consumption of GM corn caused inflammation in their stomachs. He believes the public is taking a step in the right direction with labeling.

It’s hard to imagine a world free of disease when the science which has the potential to cure cancer could very well be giving us all cancer. There’s a myriad of prospects for gene therapy, but they’re a long way off if the science fails our most basic needs—a human is a thousand-fold more complicated than a stalk of corn. Freedman is quick to point out: “But as medical researchers know, nothing can really be ‘proved safe.’ One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying hard to find it—as is the case with GM crops.” But sometimes it takes a very long time to find the risk, not twenty years after it was legalized and here we are in the midst of a raging conflict.

Unfortunately, we have the tendency to dive into things headfirst, only to pay for the consequences later. Our food chain, however, might not be so lenient about our willingness to experiment, and while some may see the current debate as debilitating, arguing is what will push us forward—weighing the data, ideas, ethics. In the years ahead, there will be more at stake than our food. With the power to manipulate the genes of a person come the question: how far is too far? How tall should we make a person, how white, black, intelligent? There is much to discuss as a society, but people are already deciding what gender to make their children. And while scientists are trying to measure the actual effect of these technologies on nature the ideology of others is distorting the truth.

Perhaps the most gripping story about GMOs isn’t one on herbicides or cancers, but mass suicides. Many people are familiar with the almost 300,000 deaths in India regarding their Bt cotton crop failure. Not so many know that those suicides had more to do with greedy money lenders than the cotton. The original story can be traced back to the well-known environmentalist Vandana Shiva who told the public that farmers were killing themselves because of Monsanto. Her story caught on and gleaned a lot of media coverage, but political economist Anoop Sadanandan’s research shows that many of deaths took place in states which didn’t grow cotton at all, and found that many states where cotton was grown didn’t have the same suicide rates. Instead, Sadanandan blames India’s banking reform. With growing competition many banks stopped loaning to farmers, viewing it as an unreliable investment, which forced many to turn to high interest lenders. Once the crops failed the farmers found themselves in massive amounts of debt, and seeing no way out, took their lives (Strauss).

With so much at stake, it behooves us to have a fair conversation about GMOs, without calling to emotion, which always leads to poor decisions. Bio-engineering offers the world so much potential, but distorting the facts coupled with our propensity to rush in will turn it into Pandora’s Box. I’m not against genetic modification, and I look forward to see it save countless lives whether it’s growing better food or stopping a future illness, but everyone can agree safety is essential. GMO labeling is good step in that direction. People are going to be surprised at the amount of GM food they’ve eaten, but ultimately we have a right to know what we’re eating, safe or not.

Works Cited

“Genetically modified organism (GMO)”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/897705/genetically-modified-organism-GMO>.

Freedman, David. “The Truth About Genetically Modified Food.” scientificamerican.com. Scientific American. 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2014

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=2

Schubert, David. “Why we need GMO labels.” cnn.com. CNN. 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014

http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/03/opinion/schubert-gmo-labeling/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7

Strauss, Mark. “The GMO Mass Suicides Are a Myth.” io9.com. Io9. 21 April 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014

http://io9.com/the-gmo-mass-suicides-are-a-myth-1565342067

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