November 29, 2014

This will be the second in a list of (at least) 3 somewhat controversial topics that I wanted to address on this blog.  I don’t expect everyone to agree on these issues, but I like to try to state in objective terms what the facts are so that when we argue we can do so from the same starting place.  The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is being hotly debated right now, and I suspect that for many people it comes down to the same old fear of science that we have dealt with in other arenas.  People fear doing something a new way because it’s unproven and unproven things can be dangerous.  For me, one of the issues that isn’t discussed enough is the issue of the impact of GMOs on the world food supply.  In terms of quantity and quality of food, GMOs can offer great increases, increasing food security in many countries where farming is difficult with traditional crops and traditional methods.  While it may be admirable for anti-GMO advocates to question the safety of GMOs and make sure nothing untoward can come of them before more widespread implementation, we should also remember that restrictions on GMOs are killing people right this very second.

So what is a GMO, really?  As far as I’m concerned, everything is technically a genetically modified organism.  The first organism was a microscopic single-celled creature that probably survived on photosynthesis, so everything alive today has undergone a lot of genetic modification.  In addition, virtually all of the food we eat has heavily modified genes.  Don’t want genetically modified corn?  Have fun eating teosinte, the wild grass that corn was domesticated from thousands of years ago.  There is no such thing as “natural” corn, and the corn we eat today (or, in fact, the corn people ate 500 years ago), bears almost no resemblance to the grass it is derived from.  This is not because of modern science but because of traditional selective breeding techniques.  Now, of course, when most people talk about GMOs they are excluding selective breeding and talking about direct genetic modification.  Personally I think this is an artificial distinction but I acknowledge that there is a specific technical and biological difference between the two methods.  The real question is whether there is a reason to think that horizontal rather than vertical gene transfer can result in species that are more dangerous to us.

Usually when we talk about transferring genes in nature, we’re talking about vertical gene transfer: two organisms mate sexually and combine their genes into a new offspring with traits stemming from both parents.  However, not all organisms mate sexually (in fact, many do not, and there is significant debate about why sexual reproduction exists at all), and we can also end up with gene modification due to random mutations.  In addition, there is also rampant horizontal gene transfer in nature, such as in many species of bacteria, where individual bacteria swap genes with each other not in a reproductive act but just in the course of normal interaction.  Thus horizontal gene transfer is very natural and occurs without human intervention.  For that reason I think it’s better to think of genetic modification as similar to in vitro fertilization rather than, say, cloning: we’re not doing anything that doesn’t already happen in nature.  It’s not The Truman Show; it’s a blind date.  We just put the genes that we want to end up in a new strain together and hope they like each other.

We can approach the issue of whether or not GMOs are dangerous from two methods: a priori (logically, by thinking about possible reasons why the gene modification process could create strains that would poison us) or a posteriori (by looking at evidence of danger that already exists, since people have been eating GMOs now for several decades).  A priori, there is no specific reason to suspect horizontal gene transfer would create poisons in food.  As mentioned above, horizontal gene transfer already happens naturally between bacteria.  A posteriori, there has been no clear evidence that GMOs are somehow biologically different from other food sources.  Perhaps their origin is more artificial, but the resulting plant is just as natural as any other plant.  Saying GMO corn is somehow corrupt or dangerous is like saying humans are really bad monkeys.  The main position of the anti-GMO camp is that we don’t know that they are safe.  I say: fair enough.  We don’t really have enough data yet, and we may never, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that GMOs are always safe to consume.  So the real question is whether it is ethical to introduce GMOs into the food supply without this data.

If we had plenty of food, then this would basically be an academic argument.  “We don’t need this technology, so let’s do a lot more testing before we even consider introducing it to the world.”  Well, unfortunately that’s not the case.  Even in the United States, which is one of the richest countries in the world, up to 20% of children are food-insecure (depending on your definition of food-insecure).  In many, many other countries, this number is greater than 50% and many children (and adults) die of starvation or malnutrition every year.  Since we have decades of data that suggests (though certainly does not prove) that GMOs are safe, I think this is a compelling argument for allowing companies to use genetically modified food, at least where it is needed most.  I think the real danger is not in people eating this food, but companies using these methods to make more profit without passing the savings along to those who really need it.  And that raises the questions of whether GMOs should be marked as such.  Personally, I think the stand-up thing to do in the current food climate is for companies to label GMOs, so that people can make their own decisions.  However, I don’t know if I would be in favor of a law to require such labeling, since this is one more hurdle standing between starving people and food production methods that could save their lives.