Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are stirring controversy across the globe. Some believe that GMOs are the solution to many problems like overuse of toxic chemicals or world hunger. Others believe that GMOs pose a threat to life on earth by introducing unanticipated allergens and toxins. All that is clear is that tampering with the guidelines nature has set – breaking the biological barrier – is still a mysterious field that must be treated with caution.
Papaya infected with Ringspot (left) versus transgenic papaya (right)
GMOs present many benefits in the agricultural world. Crops that are threatened by disease can be rescued with a genetically modified version of the crop that is immune. For example, the papaya fruit was once close to annihilation due to the Ringspot virus, which defied both physical and chemical barriers. By inserting a protein gene from the virus into the papaya, the new breed of plant resisted the virus. Similarly, corn and cotton were suffering from caterpillar infestations. A gene from the Bt bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis), which produced a deadly toxin targeting caterpillars, could be spliced into the DNA of these crops so they too would produce the toxin. Caterpillar herbivory declined and crop yield rocketed in these crops. The papaya, corn, and cotton are all examples of transgenic plants. Genes were artificially crossed between incompatible species to produce desirable results. The use of transgenic plants mean topical pesticide use can decrease, causing less environmental pollution. Increased crop yield can provide more food for those who are poor and hungry.
Bt corn (left) versus non-Bt corn (right)
However, GMOs still have their drawbacks, some of which can be very threatening. In the United States, food products are not labeled if they contain GMO products. A study at the University of New Mexico demonstrated that 80% of consumers are unsure if their food contains GMOs or are certain that their food does not contain GMOS. New food allergies can emerge when genes are artificially manipulated. Starlink corn creates a potential allergen called cryonine C, and was banned from use in human products. However, it still ended up in Taco bell shells due to lack of stringent control. Brazil nut genes spliced into soy products can trigger an allergic reaction to tree nuts. Pollen from GMOs cannot be stopped from mingling with pollen from non-modified plants. The Union of Declared Scientists makes this point: how can we determine if GMOs cause illness if they are not labeled as GMOS?
Some food items are labeled as non-GMO verified, but millions of other products on the market contain unlabeled GMO ingredients
While GMOs are not inherently terrible, they do have many issues that cannot be ignored. Altering the products that were shaped by the same forces of nature that shaped human beings can have devastating consequences, despite good intentions. Genetically modified crops need to be designed and used with extreme caution. However, GMO technology is an invaluable innovation that will change the future of the food industry and the human race forever. Millions of suffering, starving people can be helped with advanced crops that provide them with nutritious, plentiful food.
Wright, Richard T., and Bernard J. Nebel. Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print. (pages 243-246)
Harvest of Fear. Dir. Jon Palfreman. NOVA/Frontline, 2001. DVD. (video website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest/exist/)