We all know that there are topics that are best to avoid at public dinners.
Religion and politics usually top the list because we’ve all seen the awful effect these can have on family Thanksgivings. Invasive inquiries about age, weight, and personal finances are no-nos, and asking someone if they’re pregnant, especially if they’re not, can be a fast track to social disaster.
Increasingly, though, these days, another addition to the to-be-avoided list is the touchy subject of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—predominately in the form of bioengineered foods. Impassioned rhetoric between pro-GMO and anti-GMO camps brings to mind the murderously hostile Montagues and Capulets, Campbells and MacDonalds, and Hatfields and McCoys.
So—I might as well be right up front here—I’m pro-GMO. I think the potential positives greatly outweigh the potential negatives. (We’ll come to those. First, let’s talk.)
Everything is Genetically Modified, Always
Since the dawn of agriculture, human beings have done nothing but genetically modify their food. Everything we eat today has been genetically modified—traditionally by selecting peculiar varieties that we like and propagating them—which is why we’re no longer eating potatoes the size of peanuts, cucumbers as prickly as sea urchins, cyanide-laden lima beans, or peas so tough that they have to be roasted and peeled like chestnuts. Nowadays, however, we don’t have to wait around, kicking our heels, for a beneficial mutation to serendipitously show up in the field. Useful genes can be biochemically snatched from any organism and plugged into another where they have a chance of doing some good. (See “That GMO Cancer Study—It Gets Worse“)
An example is Golden Rice, created by Ingo Potrykus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, by co-opting a couple of genes from daffodils and one from a bacterium that enable the rice to produce beta-carotene—the stuff that makes carrots orange, an essential building block of Vitamin A. (Normal white rice contains no beta-carotene.) Vitamin A deficiency is common in the U.S. in low-income groups –an early warning sign is trouble seeing in the dark—and is a serious problem elsewhere, notably in Africa and Southeast Asia, causing over a million deaths annually, and half a million cases of irreversible blindness. Despite its potential, however, Golden Rice—an easy dietary fix to this wholly preventable problem—has, primarily for political reasons, failed (so far) to get off the ground.
Genetically modified papayas, on the other hand, engineered to resist the devastating papaya ring spot virus that nearly wiped out the Hawaiian papaya industry in the 1990s, are thriving. Last year, when Hawaii’s Big Island (somewhat ungratefully) passed a bill banning GM crops, they exempted their lucrative and highly productive GM papayas. GM crops, present and future, include fruits and vegetables that carry vaccines—we may prevent cholera and hepatitis B, for example, by simply eating bananas; crops containing genes that allow them to flourish in poor soils or in conditions of drought or high salt; or plants with genetic batteries that allow them to combat pests or—like Hawaii’s GM papayas—fatal diseases.
GMOs Aren’t All That Odd
To a lot of people, GMOs sound freaky. Unlike traditionally hybridized plants, they’re transgenic—that is, they’re cobbled together using genetic material from sometimes widely disparate organisms. Researchers have implanted jellyfish genes in potatoes, which makes the plants glow when they’re thirsty, thus helping to conserve water. Rat genes in lettuce boost the plant’s Vitamin C content by 700 percent, and fish genes in tomatoes confer resistance to cold.
Frankly, this isn’t as odd as all that. Our own genome, the sum total of DNA coding for any one of us, is an evolutionary patchwork of weird foreign genes. About 8 percent of our DNA comes from viruses. We share about 18 percent of our DNA with baker’s yeast; 47 percent with fruit flies; 65 percent with chickens; and 88 percent with mice. And the human genome—far from being set in stone—is changing all the time. Each one of us is born with somewhere between 100 and 200 mutations—that is, new and quirky changes in our DNA sequences. Nature continually mixes things up, which is a tried and true survival mechanism.
GMOs: Feeding 9 Billion
And no, just because nature does it, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should, too. Worries about GM food include the movement of transgenes into the environment, perhaps infiltrating non-GM crops or creating unstoppable “super-weeds;” the creation of new allergens, carcinogens, or toxins that may have adverse effects on human health; and GM-generated unexpected or unpredictable harm to ecosystems. But all new technologies have potential dangers, and these—like everything from antibiotics to the ubiquitous mobile phone—call for caution, care, and a lot of well-designed scientific tests.
The vast bulk of reputable evidence currently shows that GM food is healthy and safe and that GM crop plants are productive and able to grow in places where non-GM crops die. I think it’s important to remember that genetic modification–despite a lot of outraged rhetoric to the contrary—is not solely the purview of supposedly unscrupulous corporations out to take over the world. There are some big-business dealings here that have left bad tastes in all our mouths—but there’s a lot more to GMOs than manipulative monopolies. There are researchers who are trying to solve global problems. There’s some real hope for the future here.
By 2050, we’re going to have over nine billion people to feed, and small traditional farms simply aren’t going to be able to do the trick. People are hungry. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.