Welcome back for the third article in this series on GMOs, cleverly entitled part 2 just to confuse you. In my first article I spent some time defining what it means for something to be “GM”, or “genetically modified”. In my second article, I attempted to frame this discussion in a more global context. Given that I struggle with being concise, I decided to split that discussion up into two parts, instead of just the one article that I had originally intended, and I think it is going to be a struggle to keep it to just three. Anyhow, in the last article I began discussing the idea of food security, and looking at general approaches to increase food production for those in need, such as increasing the amount of land devoted to food production, or changing cultural habits to focus on products that result in a greater caloric output. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both general approaches, I hope it is clear that there are considerable challenges facing the application of either approach in those areas dealing with the highest levels of food insecurity. I left off with the idea that increasing yield on existing lands is another approach to examine, and that is where genetic engineering comes back into the picture.
Genetic modification is neither new nor recent. Since the advent of agriculture (if not before that), humans have been modifying organisms through the process of artificial selection (also called selective breeding) to improve the quality and output of the various organisms that end up on our dinner plates. Genetic engineering is simply a catalyst, speeding up the process of artificial selection to a rate that is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve otherwise. In the earliest days of agriculture, some astute farmer surely noticed that planting the seeds from a wheat plant that produced more grains resulted in offspring that also produced more grains, and thus artificial selection was born. As we began to understand how plants actually reproduced, this lead to making “crosses” of plants with different traits that were desirable and easily identified. For example, crossing a variety of wheat with larger grains and a variety that produced more grains might lead to an increase in overall yield. As our understanding grew, so did the complexity of the traits that we considered, as well as the tools employed to manipulate them. Today, instead of just crossing a drought-resistant variety of wheat with a variety that shows resistance to damage by the hessian fly and then hoping for offspring that show both traits, we can look at differences in gene expression between the two plants in order to characterize the molecular basis for those traits. With that knowledge, one could cross the two varieties of wheat and then screen the offspring for those possessing the desired traits, greatly increasing the efficiency of the breeding process. Companies like Monsanto already use this approach to avoid the stigma of “GMO”, demonstrating how such technology can even benefit organic farming practices. Of course, our technology has now advanced to the point that we can introduce a desired gene from one plant variety directly into another, skipping the actual breeding part (see the over-simplified image below).
In both of the previous scenarios, we have simply sped up the process that has historically been accomplished by selective breeding. Suppose, however, that you identify the basis for an existing resistance mechanism to a common fungal pest in a food crop like wheat. What if you could engineer that same resistance mechanism into barley or corn? What if it could also be used in melons or potatoes? If that transfer of genetic material occurs, the recipient would become transgenic, and that is when the discussion becomes serious. In my first article on the topic of GMOs, I pointed out a key distinction that I hope you will bear in mind: there is a difference between saying that something is genetically modified and saying that something is transgenic. To summarize, genetically modified simply means that the genetic material of the organism in question has been altered in some fashion, whereas transgenic indicates that foreign genetic material has been introduced. One further distinction that I will make is to point out that the term genetically engineered (GE) is also commonly used when discussing this topic, and typically indicates that an organism has been modified using modern biotechnology, as opposed to traditional plant breeding. Therefore, if something is transgenic, then it has been genetically modified, and almost certainly genetically engineered, but if something is genetically modified, it is not necessarily transgenic, nor is it necessarily genetically engineered. I point this out not to quibble over semantics, but because this issue is not as binary as it may seem, or is often portrayed. The term genetically modified has come to have a very negative connotation for many people, betraying a fundamental lack of understanding about the issue. What people often fail to realize is that we have been consuming genetically modified foods throughout most of human history, and genetically engineered foods for at least the last twenty years. Furthermore, all such food products are federally-regulated:
“FDA regulates food from GE crops in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for protecting agriculture from pests and disease, including making sure that all new GE plant varieties pose no pest risk to other plants. EPA regulates pesticides, including those bioengineered into food crops, to make sure that pesticides are safe for human and animal consumption and do not pose unreasonable risks of harm to human health or the environment.”
Now, if you have a fundamental distrust of government and large corporations (which is probably not such a bad thing), this may not fill you with confidence. What should fill you with confidence is that GE foods have a solid track record thus far, and that there is no credible scientific evidence that GE foods pose a health risk. To quote the WHO, “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” This does not mean that there will never be a GE food that does not pose a health risk. There are many factors that must be taken into account and investigated when modifying organisms to suit our needs, and it is incumbent upon all parties involved to be aware of this. Regardless of your feelings about large corporations, they are typically driven by one primary motivation: the bottom line. While this can often result in shortcuts and unscrupulous practices, there is a lot at stake when it comes to producing products meant for human consumption. There is clearly no motivation to intentionally produce dangerous food products, while considerable motivation exists to adequately test for unintentional dangers. That, coupled with federal regulation and increasing public awareness provide a certain threshold of scrutiny that must be overcome before a product comes to the market. Added to that, in my opinion, is the fact that most GE organisms are pretty boring. Yeah, that is a fact. The primary focus of most modification efforts in plants is to do one of three things: 1) increase insect resistance, 2) increase virus resistance, or 3) increase herbicide resistance. Not especially exciting, but certainly useful for increasing yields, which is not a bad thing. More important, however, is that these objectives also serve the purpose of perpetuating our current agricultural practices, and I think that is the biggest problem with GE foods right now.
What do I mean by that? What I mean is that all of our actions have consequences. We are part of a very complicated network of interactions between living organisms and natural forces that we like to call nature, or the environment. This network responds to our actions. Cut down a stand of trees to make a field, and you change the interactions. Habitat is lost for some species and gained for others as food sources and options for shelter change. Carbon cycling and the consumption of nutrients in the soil changes, as does water retention and the degradation of soil quality. Erosion patterns change due to altered wind and water flow patterns. There are consequences to converting vast swaths of land into fields of nothing but corn and soy beans, or pastures for endless herds of cattle. We call this monoculture, and while this approach has proven to be beneficial in terms of increasing food production, there are many unfortunate by-products of this type of agriculture. Instead of using biotechnology as a tool to help move away from these types of practices, all too often the products of this technology serve to reinforce our current behaviors. Plants are engineered to be resistant to a herbicide so that farmers can spray entire fields with chemicals that are designed to kill off all other plant life. Thus, we can continue to plant large swaths of corn or soy beans and then spray pesticides that indiscriminately kill not only the intended pests, but also helpful species as well. What needs to change is not the use of GE organisms (or GMOs or transgenics or whatever phrase you want to use), but how we use them. Unfortunately, that is a challenging proposition. Why? Because people typically vote with their wallet. For the most part, people are not especially excited about increasing food prices, and so the most cost-effective agricultural practices will likely prevail. Here in the United States, however, many of us actually have the luxury of choice, thanks to our relatively high standard of living. We have choices, whether it be the ten-pack of frozen chicken breasts that doubtless came from an industrial farm, the certified organic whole wheat crackers that we want to eat with imported manchego cheese, or the organic vegetables and locally-raised, grass-fed beef that we bought at the local farmer’s market. Some of us can afford to cast our vote for the option that allows us a sense of moral superiority.
When you have a national standard of living that permits such choice, it is easy to look upon GE foods with disdain. If you are a subsistence farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa whose children barely get enough calories each day to go on living, your opinions on biotechnology might be a little different. I suspect that many people around the world would agree with the idea that we would all be better off converting to a diet that consists of nothing but locally-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, insecticide-free, small family farm-sourced, organic food products. That sounds great to me! How sustainable is this in reality? Well, I can tell you that here in the U.S. right now, certified organic production accounts for less than 1% of the acreage and 1% of the livestock raised (the USDA provides a lot of interesting data, if you feel inclined to take a look). Even more telling is the fact that many of the organic food products that you find on your supermarket shelves are produced by industrial agricultural practices that are not so different from the methods used to produce the non-organic products that share the same shelves. It is also quite likely that both were shipped across the country to reach you. Michael Pollan, who has published numerous books about food and food production, wrote an article that I think summarizes this point nicely. Truly “organic” food production is more expensive, and more time and labor intensive, than our current practices. It is also subject to the same market forces of supply and demand, and so it should come as little surprise that organic production is evolving into the same sort of industrial process that we are already using. Again…people vote with their wallets. What all of this tells me is that organic production, as we know it today, exists to cater to a niche market, and is certainly not accounting for the overwhelming majority of food production in the United States. Does this mean that I think “organic” is a waste of time? No, but neither do I think that it represents a significant change to our approach to agriculture. I think that the primary accomplishment of the label “certified organic” is to make people feel better about themselves in the grocery store checkout line. I am also fairly certain that the organic model that we get so excited about here is going to be even less appealing in countries where food is already scarce, and likely to be more scarce in the future.
As I said earlier, we are a part of the environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and our actions have consequences. The environment responds to our practices, and we must in turn adapt. One could liken it to an arms race. As we industrialize our agricultural practices to increase food production, we impact soil quality, change habitats, facilitate the spread of diseases, speed up the population growth of plants that we call weeds and animals that we call pests, and so forth. We respond by developing fertilizers to make up for poor soil quality, but our excessive use of fertilizers pollutes waterways and has other unintended effects. We develop chemicals to control plant and animal pests that thrive in monoculture conditions, but this also selects for resistance in those pests and produces detrimental effects in off-target species such as honey bees. These are only some of the challenges that we face when navigating this complicated network of interactions. In our country, we have the luxury of being able to consider other approaches, and (in most cases) can even afford to pay a little more for such descriptions as “organic” and “free-range”. Such is not the case everywhere. Economics and immediate need will dictate the agricultural methods used, even if that means fertilizers and dangerous pesticides. Why should those be the only options, if biotechnology can engineer crops that are more hardy, more resistant to drought, less susceptible to disease, and better able to withstand assault from insects? Why would we not seek to lessen our reliance upon fertilizer and chemical sprays as well? If that were the national consensus, would we then feel obligated to push this doctrine on other nations as well? How arrogant to promote such a view, especially when coming from a land of plenty and directed at people who lack food security. If our actions were driven by common sense and a broad vision based on long-term planning, we would likely be doing things very differently. Unfortunately, our actions are more often dictated by economics, our goals oriented towards short-term rewards, and our opinions too easily swayed by fear and propaganda.
This is what bothers me when people talk about the evils of GMOs. Such statements demonstrate a fundamental ignorance of the basic science behind biotechnology, and speak to fears and uncertainties that are often propagated by the media, and even by well-intentioned but uninformed individuals and organizations. Arguing that biotechnology is at odds with sustainable agriculture is no better, and frames the issue in a very narrow context that is dominated by the perspectives of people in developed nations with a high standard of living. This is not a question that can be answered by saying “Yes, GMOs are good,” or “No, GMOs are bad.” If those are the answers you want, then you are asking the wrong question. Biotechnology is not the problem. Biotechnology is a tool, and like any tool it can be constructive or destructive. The real problem is how we use this technology. The question that we should be asking is “How can we sustainably change our agricultural practices to reduce or eliminate our negative impact upon our environment, while also dealing with the issue of food security?” That is a serious, and truly challenging question to address. Our global population continues to grow rapidly thanks to the development and continued refinement of intensive agriculture practices. Unfortunately, the payoff for these practices comes at a significant cost to the environment that supports us and all other life on this planet. Humanity is faced with the choice of either finding new ways to provide for the future, or else dealing with the catastrophe that inevitably awaits us. I question our ability to effectively solve this problem if we elect to discard the most powerful tools that we have at our disposal.
If you made it all the way to the end of this, then I salute your patience and endurance.
Thanks for reading!