Friday, October 18, 2013

OMG - GMO!

The easiest part of this blog was the title. Which is in fact somewhat misleading because GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, when actually I want to share with you may musings on genetically engineered organisms. So, whats the difference?

GMO is a broader term - it includes organisms that have been bred by traditional means - I used to own a GMO. She was a cute West Highland Terrier...and I still miss her. It's not just pedigree dogs that are GMOs, I'd go so far as to say that all modern domestic dogs are GMO. Their genes have been modified by selective breeding by humans. To that end, all of our farm produce is also GMO - all domesticated from a ancestral wild-type and bred for favorable traits.

It also covers organisms that have been exposed to radiation that causes mutations in their genes (yes, this is has also been a field of genetic research) and of course genetic engineering.

Genetic engineering, actually recombining the DNA of an organism to change the gene sequence, can be thought of as a sub-group of GMO. I believe that most people who claim to be anti-GMO really mean that they are against genetic engineered crops. I can't blame folk for being unable to articulate clearly what it is they are protesting about. The whole world of genetic engineering  is a minefield of facts, half truths, exaggerations and outright lies - on both sides of the debate.

I've been reluctant to jump into the debate because I feel that both sides have been trying to manipulate us, yet the theory behind genetic engineering is absolutely fascinating and its potential to provide nutritional food to a growing human population - 9.5 billion by 2050 - is hard to ignore.

I studied genetics during the first year of my Environmental Biology degree and feel that I have a fairly sound idea of the theory of how gene insertion takes place. I can describe how the blueprints of an organism are stored in  chromosomes, long strings of DNA coiled up in the the nuclei of our cells. I can explain how these long strings of DNA carry genes, a code for the cells to join amino acids together so that proteins can be formed. These proteins then make up our enzymes, hormones and cell structures. One change in the sequence of the gene code changes a protein. That has a knock on effect of changing the shape of the enzyme and thus affecting it's function.

I can draw you diagrams to explain how the gene for human insulin is inserted into bacteria which "tricks " the bacteria  into producing insulin which is harvested and used to treat diabetes. It's really not a complex theory once you understand how DNA works and codes for proteins...it's like playing with lego really and by far the simplest facet of this whole thing.

In the same way, I also understand the basic theory of the derivation of nuclear energy ... but do I want nuclear power in my world? Yes and no. Yes if we could be guaranteed no accidents and safe waste storage until its radioactivity has dissipated. It produces no carbon dioxide and could meet the increasing demand for energy without the same impact on climate as burning fossil fuels has caused.

I really do think that genetic engineering is to the biology world what nuclear power is to the physics world - highly contentious, highly emotive and, in reality, a great solution to some really huge problems, but also with the potential to cause even more problems.

In an ideal world, lies could not be posted online (nor even told at all), people would be working wholeheartedly for the benefit of all, and there would be no hidden agendas. But that's not our reality. So what to believe? It boils down to two things - does genetic engineering harm our health directly and does it adversely impact our environment. Genetic engineering to produce insulin for diabetics is an easy argument - It works,  it's safe for humans and it won't damage the environment because it can be contained inside a lab until the finished product is purified and ready for use.

As for the genetically engineered crops debate - some people claim that if we eat GMO food (I think they mean genetically engineered!) we could incorporate the transplanted gene into our own genes and then mutate into... what? Monsters? OMG!

However, this is an outrageous claim, since we take DNA into our bodies all the time from other organisms - it simply gets broken down in our gut. If this were not the case why aren't we incorporating apple DNA into our cells when we eat an apple, or pig DNA when we eat pork ... and what about if we eat oysters? OMG!

But, I do think we need to worry about other ways our health can be impacted. Allergens and poisons can be inadvertently introduced to the food by accidently adding genes that code for that protein.


Then there's the very real problem of producing a super-organism that is so robust that we cannot actually control it. Even those with less robust features escaping into the wild can cause harm. We have seen this in conventionally bred horticultural species...invasive plants like Pampas grass here in California and rhododendrons in Ireland.

Recently, I attended a Master Gardener talk on genetic engineering. The talk was given by Alan McHughen, Ph.D. He is a molecular geneticist at University of California, Riverside, with an interest in crop improvement and environmental sustainability, he helped develop US and Canadian regulations governing the safety of genetically engineered crops and foods. His credentials are pretty impressive - doctorate at Oxford University, worked at Yale University and the University of Saskatchewan.

I came away thinking that, yes, there is a place for genetically engineered plants in our future (actually they are already here).  According to Dr McHughen, genetically engineered food has not be found to be harmful to humans despite many (over 600) scientific studies that he referenced. 

He addressed the allergen issue and said that it is something they are always testing for. He showed us photographs of the amount of paperwork that needs to be done before a genetically engineered product can declared safe and introduced into the food chain. I was heartened that he at least could admit that there were dangers and limitations to this technology.

It was exciting to see how genetically modified food could be enriched - golden rice for example, enriched with vitamin A to help prevent blindness in the poor areas of the world. Oh what potential there! Can I really campaign against a technology that could benefit so many people who don't have access to good food as I go out to my organic garden to harvest this evenings dinner? Yet, can I promote the same technology knowing that I'm wealthy enough to avoid eating it by growing my own food, and at a push, shopping in Whole Foods (if you buy into the whole marketing farce that is "Organic produce")?

Dr McHughen also made a convincing case for the use of Roundup ready crops on the basis that Roundup is one of the less noxious herbicides available and pointed out that farming conventionally-bred crops also uses herbicides. (And he did state that he does not get any funding from Monsanto - a company easy for us to vilify because of the amount of noxious pesticide it produces, its sheer size and the fact it appears to be heading towards global domination in its field - in many fields- pun intended!) He said that using a genetically engineered crop with a built in pesticide - like Bt corn - may actually reduce the application of pesticides. I did discuss this with a friend and colleague of mine who brought up the case that the Monarch butterfly population is impacted by this type of genetic engineering.

So, as Dr McHughen suggested, I did my own research. He advised us to look at websites that did not end in .com or .org, and try to look at actual scientific studies. When I did, I found two studies that claimed "no significant" impact on the monarch butterfly and one that showed some impact. I haven't had a chance to examine the actual experiment methodology nor even the raw data, so I'm still officially "non the wiser".

Master Gardeners is a great organization for keeping us focused on "What does the science say?" Today, online, we were discussing counter-arguments to some of Dr McHughen's claims. It appears he may have "omitted" some truths. That's disheartening.

One of the Master Gardeners suggested this link... it's not an official Master Gardener standpoint, and it's a .org site. At the end of the day, I find myself going round in circles trying to get to the bottom of all the conflicting claims. 

I think that in the future, we will need a combination of conventionally bred and genetically engineered crops, but each individual gene insertion needs to be rigorously researched. We need to be able to trust that research too. It's hard to trust research made by big corporations who have lots to gain by passing the safety criteria. On the other hand, it's easy to get sucked into believing conspiracy theories too. It's almost as if it's trendy to be seen to hate big successful corporations like Montasanto, MacDonalds, and even Starbucks!

The most important thing is to keep an open mind, and to try to uncover as many of the facts as possible. Genetic engineering has the potential to be a great way to produce food for our ever-increasing population in the same way that nuclear energy has the potential to solve the problem of our ever escalating energy needs - also a problem caused by over population.

And there is it right there ... perhaps its not the breeding of crops that needs to be examined, but rather the breeding of Homo sapiens. Over population on  a global scale is our biggest problem. By treating the cause of the problem, then we wouldn't even need to worry about how harmful the solutions to the symptoms are. Somehow I can't see anti-GMO protesters going down that route!

Well, with that I've just about melted my own brain - and yours too, I'm sure! Better go now and relax with that new Dan Brown novel ;-)

Byddi Lee

 

4 comments:

  1. Excellent blog post, Byddi! I missed the class but you've managed to give me the sum of Dr. McHughen's points balanced by the other inputs. I do like your comparison of GE foods and nuclear power plants. Risks and benefits to both. We need to think carefully about our choices.

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  2. Thanks Bracey - It's a scarey thing to blog about because it is so emotive and so far I have no concrete answers!

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  3. So interesting Byddi. Especially since in my ignorance I would have assumed all gm foods were nasty by definition. Food for thought lol. This is probably unrelated - you know im no scientist- but reminds me of reading about elizsbethan medicine recently. Lots of people were very afraid of the new studies in alchemy and associated it with witchcraft, yet this was the beginning of modern chemistry based meds.

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  4. Exactly Siobhan. That's an excellent analogy - I was thinking about even how using modern drugs incorrectly can be harmful - like overuse of antibiotics, drug dependency etc, and how this is no reason to ban the use of all medicines....

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