Another plate of genetically modified organisms, please

My fellow columnist, Crista Jackson, wrote a column criticizing the lack of labels for products containing genetically modified organisms. I disagree with her proclamation that “We must purchase organic produce and meat and reward products that are Non-GMO Project verified.”

Hastily demonizing genetic modification as irrational or misguided impedes progress in a field of science that promises and delivers a better future for everyone.

The majority of Americans can sympathize with Jackson’s fear of the alleged rampant dangers of GMOs, especially after reading studies that demonstrated the traumatic health deterioration in rats after having been fed genetically modified corn.

The problem with Jackson’s column and others like it is the discrediting of an entire field of genetic modification with a few isolated case studies.

Genes simply produce specific proteins, and the effects of these proteins can be manipulated to be positive or negative. In the study Crista mentioned, rats were fed genetically modified tomatoes with genes that produced a known poison.

Giving a dangerous gene to an organism is obviously bad, but what happens when good genes are given to an organism? Or when naturally occurring dangerous genes are removed?

Really, really good things.

Genetic modification has allowed scientists to produce human insulin in E. coli bacteria, create bio-fuels to meet energy demands and to produce strawberries that don’t freeze during winter. The harmful GMOs produced by companies like Monsanto are not representative of the good that genetic modification can produce. They are representative of the lack of ethics within major corporations.

Jackson’s column, as well as the sources she cited, presents GMOs as if they were some unholy Frankenfood. Anti-GMO arguments often force the juxtaposition of “man-made” GMOs with “natural” and “organic” products.

When meta-analyses of data fail to demonstrate any nutritional or safety differences between organic and conventional foods, the distinction is completely arbitrary.

GMOs have existed millennia before humans even knew genes existed. Sure, the GM tomatoes fed to rats in Jackson’s source had genes inserted using modern laboratory techniques, but tomatoes themselves never existed as they do in nature. Modern tomatoes are the fruits of an ancient form of GM called selective breeding.

Can a tomato then ever be called organic? How about lettuce, bananas, watermelons, corn or all the other produce items that hardly resemble their ancestral species?

As genes are the recipes for all of Earth’s life forms, mastery of genetic engineering is by extension mastery of life. GMOs are created for more than the production of “cheaper grains to creating insect-resistant crops,” as Jackson says. Genetic modification is also being used to increase the nutritional content of food products to combat malnutrition, create viruses that combat cancer and potentially begin safely eradicating genetic disorders.

Genetic modification is in a similar position to medical science. Both fields are not completely understood, and both are unnatural and pose major ethical problems. Neither field is free from risk.

Implanting certain genes may have unforeseen consequences, just as medications may have unforeseen side effects, but the incredible potential benefits of both outweigh the negatives.

Genetic modification should be respected and treated as a serious milestone in the march of human progress. Genetic modification is a tool, and like all tools, careless use is dangerous.

However, with proper and ethical use, genetic modification can greatly improve our lives.

 

Reach the columnist at jacob.evans@asu.edu or follow him at @jacobevansSP