In its broadest sense, a genetically modified organism (GMO) refers to an organism whose genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. Genes change naturally, either by mating or by natural recombination. But in this case, genetic fragments are scientifically inserted into the DNA of another organism to transform its collective genetic makeup, a process known as gene splicing. In plant and animal biotechnology, there are three fundamental areas that genetic modification is concerned with; the quality of agricultural production, pharmaceutical production and environmental applications. So far, only a few applications of GMOs have been realized at production level and an even smaller number has gone further to achieve commercial success. The reasons are plenty.
In the olden days, we used yeast on wheat to make bread. But today, modification of food, and organisms at large is much more advanced than ever. We are capable of enhancing and eliminating certain characteristics in organisms, to arrive at a desired result. Additionally, the world population is increasing and according to UN estimates, we will be 8.5 billion by 2030. We need to increase food production and medical solutions to match the demand. Many people have suggested that that it’s time to look at alternative means for sustenance; GMO to be exact.
As a topic of discussion, GMO has been met with love and hate in equal measure. Very few countries have come out openly to embrace GMO production, United States and Argentina among them. Brazil and Canada have also seen increasing GMO adoption, mainly applied to corn and soybean. The vast majority of people still remain sceptical with regards to adopting genetic engineering. Still, the continued development and use of biotechnologies is raising many eyebrows and uncomfortable questions. And because the adoption of GMO seems to be a matter of when rather than if, People have been forced to look carefully into the merits and demerits of GMO adoption. What is the true cost of adopting GMOs? Do the risks of genetic modification of organisms outweigh its benefits or is it vice versa? In this debate, we discuss and outline all the complex and contradictory implications of GMOs.
All the Yes points:
- Production of Edible Medicine and Vaccines
- Production Foods With Added Nutrients
- Plant Adaptation to Unfavourable Climate and Pesticide Reduction
- GMO in Medical Research
- Economic Effects
Production of Edible Medicine and Vaccines
This is perhaps the most innovative application of GMO. This process involves the modification of animal and plant genes in order to yield edible output with preventive molecules, for example milk, eggs and fruit. Edible vaccines, produced in milk or fruit could ease manufacturing and distribution costs by making it globally accessible to people. Vaccination through injection has many disadvantages, including the need for medically trained staff, high costs, not to mention constant cooling during transportation and storage. Use of needles also increases the risk of infections. In these cases, an edible vaccine comes in handy. In recent years, there have been examples of transgenic plants developed by researchers to help developing countries. Transgenic potatoes which contain cholera toxins have been developed to immunize against diseases. In 2004, the Pharma-Planta Programme was granted 12 million euros to develop genetically modified plants to help grow vaccines against tuberculosis and rabies.
It is important to note that development of edible vaccines is still at very early stages. So far, the benefits outlined are only human-centric. It has not been articulated clearly how implementation of this project would affect insects and other animals that feed on them. Moreover, it is not clear how appropriate dose control would be effected. For example, one cannot specifically deduce how many apples could be considered enough for treatment. Also, fruits are not the same in size or content, and plants could change from one generation to another. Oral ingestion of the medicine creates another problem because of the different environments it passes through before final absorption into the bloodstream. For example, the stomach is highly acidic. There is also a high risk of potential contamination of non-GMO plants due to pollination. Lastly, there’s no clear visual difference between regular fruits/milk and vaccinated ones. The medicinal one might be unknowingly consumed, creating problems.
Production Foods With Added Nutrients
The objective of creating food with more balanced chemical compositions is to satisfy nutritional needs in human beings and farm animals. The next generation of genetically modified plants would have less anti-nutritional elements and higher nutritional content. Scientists will genetically engineer plants with high availability of elements such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals, which are considered beneficial to health. Development has been making headway with the most famous of such crops being the Golden Rice, developed with an additional supplement of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is the pre-cursor to Vitamin A. In developing countries, Vitamin A deficiency has been very detrimental to the health of children, causing up to 3 million deaths of children annually and hundreds of thousands of cases of childhood blindness. Bio-fortification of these nutrients could help save lives.
The process of natural selection and other evolutionary mechanisms is reflected in the diversity of wild plant species. GMO is thought to interfere with these processes by endangering biodiversity. It would be best for the world to have diverse varieties of say rice, rather than depend on one type. If a new pest surfaces by way of natural selection, in the absence of biodiversity, we would be staring at famine on a massive scale. Moreover, GM seeds change the biological structure of the plant, something that came as a result of long evolutionary processes. Inserting certain genes into crops will change the metabolism of plants and stop production of certain elements, like lignin in Soybean which physically sustains the plant. After genetic modification, Soybean stems break down when exposed to temperatures above 45 degrees. As seen from this example, the increase in genetic load on the plant reduces the adaptability value of the plant. Meaning that GM plants will tend to be less adaptable to the environment, as they try to maintain the genetic load in proportion.
Plant Adaptation to Unfavourable Climate and Pesticide Reduction
GM technology on crops may offer solutions to control pests, fungal infections and growing crops in particularly harsh environments. To achieve this end, scientists are developing pest-resistant, fungal-resistant and herbicide-tolerant plants. Some crops have been genetically modified to be tolerant of high soil salinity and resistant to drought. In Africa for example, climate varies from region to region making it very difficult to breed crop varieties for each region. Thus, the ability to design crops suited to specific climatic conditions is much more effective, and is beneficial to developing African countries. It also helps to control pests and fungal infections. GM crops have been modified to target specific types of pests like rootworm, unlike traditional pests which kill all kinds of insects without discrimination. They have been estimated to save on fuel because fuel is needed for farmers to operate machine spraying pesticides. This also reduces carbon dioxide emissions. In China for example, GM rice has made labour, energy consumption and costs reduce significantly because the amount of treatment normally required has reduced. This effect has compounded to a safer environment as less farmers are exposed to pesticides. The impact on other organisms like insects also decreases.
On the flipside however, there has been lots of criticism levelled at these pesticide-resistant strategies, raised by fears that in the long-term, it will lead to evolution of pest resistance. It is also not clear how pests will react and adapt to this change, placing humanity in a very precarious position. This could greatly impact conventional agriculture and strides that GM has already made so far. According to the principle of natural selection, if an organism is submitted to pressure in terms of survival, its probability of evolutionary adaptation increases. Nature, for purposes of survival induces a genetic change in organisms. An example is how bacteria developed its antibiotic resistance. With this regard, development of herbicide-resistant crops could eventually result in the emergence of resistant weed varieties, as well as resistant pests. If these effects take place in developing countries, where the ability to adapt to these challenges is limited, the damage could be irreversible.
GMO in Medical Research
A majority of consumers are used to hearing about GMO application to food, but otherwise remain vastly unaware of its implementation in medical research. GMO is playing a massive role in the development of new medicine and treatment options. Scientists have been examining the effects of genetically modifying viruses and bacteria to target and destroy unhealthy cells in human beings. Gene therapy, which makes use of genetic modification, is fast becoming a viable treatment option for many people against many disorders including cancer. Many people suffering from anaemia are treated with a hormone (epoetin alfa), produced through genetic modification. For example in UK, scientists have been experimenting with GM viruses to target lung, ovarian, pancreatic, and liver cancer, in vitro. In tumor bearing mice, the modified virus replicated, spread and killed the tumor cells. Additionally, because bacteria is easy to grow and scale-up for production, it is a preferred option in genetic engineering. Genetically modified bacteria has been observed to secrete useful elements like soluble CD4 (a protein), which has been observed to block laboratory strains of HIV from affecting human cells. These are all examples of the benefits and promise that GMO holds for the future.
There could be unforeseen health risks associated with this, including unexpected gene interaction and horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Genetic material that is transferred directly to a living cell, followed by its expression is called horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Normally, when DNA is transferred naturally from parent to offspring, it’s called vertical gene transfer. HGT can occur within species and between species. As of now, it is widely accepted that many human diseases have come up because of genetic factors. Using modified viruses and bacteria could interact with human genes causing some to be repressed, expressed or turned off completely by these modifier elements. This could increase human susceptibility to diseases. Using genetically modified viruses/bacterium could result in HGT, which could manifest as mutations or worse.
GMO in MedBio-Remediation
Bio-Remediation refers to the process of introducing external elements to breakdown environmental pollutants and detoxify contaminants. In this particular case, it refers to using genetic modification to break waste material to reduce its toxicity. The increase in number of pollutants in the environment is alarming, especially those resistant to degradation. Of all measures that have been employed, both biological and physiological, bio-remediation has stood out as the most promising strategy. Bioremediation is often preferred because it has several advantages over its conventional counterparts. Natural occurring organisms like bacteria, yeast and fungi have always been used for this technology to work. But if they could be genetically modified before implementation, it’s suggested that the effectiveness of the bio-remediation process could increase manifold. Various bio-molecular and metabolic engineering techniques are designed and employed to modify microorganisms, which in turn modify pollutants to become less harmful elements. Applications include industrial effluents and accidental oil spills. Usually, when the bacteria is released into the toxic area, it spreads, breaking down the toxic material into non-toxic wastes like carbon dioxide. The more toxins it breaks down, the more the bacteria reproduce and multiply and the faster the contaminants are destroyed.
With bioremediation, if the process is not properly controlled, the consequences could be worse than the initial contamination. If the organic contaminants are not fully broken down, the by-product could be much more toxic, more mobile and easily dispersed. The process is also specific to an environmental state, for example certain temperatures, and pH, among others. Wind and pollinators can transport GM seeds into unintended areas, contaminating native vegetation. If such environment factors vary, the results could be unpredictable and might be dangerous. Lastly, an organism might have a high affinity for other elements in the contaminated area, choosing to metabolize them over the contaminant. This might prove difficult to control and if the by-product is toxic, it will pose health risks.
Any logically sound business would want to make profits from GMO development. Farmers want a profitable return and at the same time, the consumer wants less costly food and medicine. The economic impact of GMOs is going to be felt on all levels whether we like it or not. There’s a complex array of varying factors which influence the pricing of GMO products, including labelling regimes in the global and local markets, marketing margins, consumer attitude towards GM products, and price effect enjoyed by non-GM products, among many others.
It is said that GM crops result in better crop yield. From statistical estimations, it has been seen that corn and soybean yield could increase significantly, consequently increasing farmer income. Scientist believe that with GM crops, the world could grow more food than ever before in its history.
It takes long time for GM foods to be developed and brought to the market and this increases cost. At the end of the day, bio-technology companies that spearhead genetic research want to make a profitable return on investment. To do this, they have to patent their products. Patent-infringement has been a huge concern for agri-businesses involved in GMO. In a humanitarian gesture, consumer advocates pressure them not to patent their seeds, so as to help small farmers and third world countries afford them. But on the other hand, no patent means they will lose out on big opportunities to make more money, which also ends up widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Patent-infringement has made agribusinesses develop GM crops with a “suicide gene”. This gene makes plants viable for only one growing season, producing sterile seeds that don’t germinate. Farmers would be forced to buy fresh seeds after every harvest, potentially placing them in slavery, at the mercy of these companies. Without a doubt, this would be financially disastrous to farmers, especially those in impoverished nations.