GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are hugely divisive of public opinion. They’ve been around for years now, British consumers first had a chance to purchase GMO, in the form of tomato puree, in 1996. And yet despite over 20 years of public visibility, the debate around GMO is still here, and as confusing as ever. Essentially GMOs are organisms which, through some form of human intervention, have had their genetic makeup modified, perhaps, for example, to confer characteristics such as drought resistance. But it’s not quite that simple, because there are a number of ways in which genetics can be played around with. In his fascinating video, Stefan Jansson raises this issue, pointing out that common foods such as sprouts and cauliflower have all been selectively bred from wild cabbage, which is itself a form of genetic alteration. Without historical use of selective breeding, which we now know is the process of selecting genes which endow favourable characteristics, crop yield and nutritional value of many of our stable foods would likely be significantly lower. Other foods are created using a process called mutation breeding. An example is the red grapefruit, developed by exposing white grapefruit seeds to radiation, and cultivating the plants that showed favourable red (and sweet) traits as a result. This is clearly a form of genetic manipulation and yet these plants line the supermarkets and are consumed daily by a carefree public. It is only when more direct modifications are made, for example using a microorganism called agrobacteria (which can “infect” a plant with foreign DNA), that crops are considered to be GMO by current legislation, and thus subject to controls.
In the same video, Jansson makes a compelling argument for the illogicality of such thinking. He has developed a specific strain of a plant called Arabidopsis using three different methods. Despite the end results being genetically identical, some are illegal and others are not, based solely on how they were produced. EU legislation on GM has been criticised for being paradoxical, and as the sample above illustrates, political and economic value judgments are clearly influencing policy. The attitude to GMO within the EU has been summarised as “safe to eat, but only if imported”. This is despite expert scientific input calling for more tolerant GM laws. Political cynicism towards GMO has led to a brain drain, with many agricultural scientists leaving Europe to work in places with more welcoming policies. It has been suggested that should this wariness of GM food continue, both the EU and the USA (the main exporter of GM food to Europe) will likely suffer significant economic losses.
There exists considerable public distrust with GM crops within Europe with three in four Europeans surveyed stating they were opposed to GM produce. One of the reasons for concern about GMOs that is often stated is that we don’t know what effect altering an organisms’ genetic makeup will have. Such claims are not ungrounded, genetics is still only an emerging field and the interplay between genes is vast and complex. However, this argument seems somewhat confused, as any method of manipulating an organism’s characteristics, including selective breeding and mutation breeding, alters an organism’s genes. Where these more established methods differ from modern genetic engineering techniques is that they will alter hundreds or thousands of genes, as opposed to one or two specific genes. Despite this, these products are widely available for purchase, without controversy or fear of a risk to health. This is not a claim as to the safety of GMOs, although many have been made. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight an inconsistency in the reasoning about why they pose a threat. Despite Europeans expressing concerns about GMOs, it seems that when they take to the shops, they do buy GM labelled food, with price being the most important determinant of purchasing decisions. It seems then that there is a lack of clear and logical thinking about GMOs at many levels, so much so that nonsensical GMO-free branding is rife, with products such as salt (a mineral, notably lacking in any genetic material) being sold on that basis. Clearly then, it has become such a sensitive point in public and political discourse that sensible thinking is lost all too easily in the tumult.
So, is there hope of reaching a consensus? I would argue that in time, there is. GMOs aren’t going anywhere, genetic engineered crops have already been around for decades and their uptake is only increasing. In a future of uncertain food security GMOs are likely to be a powerful tool, allowing both an increased yield and more sturdy crops and so returning to a world without GMOs simply isn’t possible. As GM products become more prevalent, I anticipate that much of the concern surrounding them will dissipate. It is the unfamiliarity of a new product that is the root of much of the fear surrounding GM, and as the years pass, a clearer record of safety can be established, helping to calm public concern. GM also has some promising humanitarian applications. Currently in the Philippines there is an effort to introduce Golden rice, a strain that is fortified with beta carotene, a vitamin A precursor. This is an attempt to combat endemic vitamin A deficiency which can lead to blindness and death. There is considerable controversy surrounding this move, however, should such a scheme be successful, it could significantly raise the profile of GMOs in global public opinion.