Genetically Modified Organisms Probably Won’t Hurt You

by Izaak

I saw this article, which talks about a segment in Jimmy Kimmel’s show where he asks people what a GMO is, and why they avoid it. It’s funny, and shows how people have opinions on issues that they don’t know about and blah blah blah. But plenty of people do know a lot about GMOs, and still claim that they are dangerous. Are they?

I.

Let’s go back to the first time humans started to artificially constrain the habits, genetics, and growth of plants (and animals) for food. Most historians estimate this began around 14,000 years ago, though some estimates extend further, to 30,000 years ago.

Not the answer you were expecting probably. But since 28,000 BC, humans have possibly been using various methods to alter the way plants grow, and beginning in 12,000 BC, humans started to participate in real agriculture. And we changed the genetics of these plants, wildly!

Domesticated wheat has larger grains which are more firmly attacked to the ear by a toughened rachis, which makes the seeds more easily picked and less able to spread themselves naturally. This was not random; while historians of agriculture debate how much of this evolution was intentionally engineered by humans, there is consensus on the fact that it happened because of humans.

Domesticated corn is even more wildly different from wild corn. Wild corn grows a single inch-long cob per plant, but the indigenous peoples of North America utilized artificial selection to genetically alter the plant in order for it to produce a higher yield, with multiple and longer cobs on each plant.

But my favorite story of genetic modification is of the cow. Or rather, the aurochs. The aurochs was one of the earliest species in history that humans brought about the extinction of. Surprisingly, before they went extinct, a conservation effort was in place, with the killing of an aurochs punishable by death. Nevertheless, the conservation effort was too late, and the last known aurochs died of natural causes in 1627. But that was after humans had already domesticated and heavily altered the aurochs, and turned it into many of the species of cow we still have.

The aurochs was bigger and had larger horns than most cattle, with longer legs, a larger head, and a bulkier shoulder. The udders were barely visible on female aurochs, even while carrying. And we took the aurochs and turned it into the many varieties of the modern cow within the two species Bos Taurus and Bos Indicus. 

And this hasn’t stopped! Ever since we’ve been farming, we’ve been creating new species, subspecies, and strains of plants and animals. Literally every animal and plant that we use for any purpose has been genetically altered by humans using artificial selection, breeding, and for the first time in 1972, genetic engineering.

II.

Okay, fine. Genetic engineering, the correct term for how scientists create GMOs, was coined in 1951, by science fiction author Jack Williamson. In 1952, Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase confirmed that DNA had a role in hereditary traits, and in 1953, Rosalind Franklin confirmed that DNA had a double helical structure.

Genetic engineering first succeeded in 1972, with the first time two strands of DNA had been combined, and in 1973, a genetically modified E Coli bacterium was created. In 1974, the first genetically modified animal, a mouse, was born.

In 1986, the first field trials of genetically modified plants was happening in the US and France, with tobacco plants that were resistant to herbicides. China became the first country to actually grow genetically modified plants for commercial purposes, in 1992, and since then, many more countries have started to allow commercial use of genetically modified organisms.

Some of these crops have better resistance to herbicide or insecticide, allowing farmers to use more of it without damaging the plants, or have resistances to the organisms that the herbicides and insecticides kill.

Some of these crops have bigger, tastier, or longer lasting yields, in the case of Flavr Savr tomato (I know, the name is stupid), which has an extended shelf life compared to unmodified tomato breeds.

And some of these crops have humanitarian interests in mind. Plenty of attempts to genetically engineer crops for the developing world are underway, either in the stage of distribution or in the stage of engineering. Take for example the Golden Rice project, which is a strain of rice with a much higher content of vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiencies are responsible for the death of nearly 670,000 children under the age of 5 every year.

III.

But wait, you say, I’ve heard about all the terrible health risks of GMOs! Aren’t they terrible for you?

Short answer: No.

The changes that scientists make to a genome are pretty simple. Every genome is made up of a list of 4 different nucleobases, which are abbreviated as G, A, T, and C. Scientists make changes to this genome by either adding, subtracting, or changing specific sequences of these nucleobases. This is the only change that is being made.

The thing is, this happens all the time in nature. In your own body, every day, your genes are changing randomly. In every living thing on this planet, genes are randomly being altered by transcription errors, by sunlight hitting your skin, or by random chemicals inside of your body.

That is the process that evolution depends on; without it, evolution could never happen, and no living thing more advanced than the first cell would exist.

So if you found a completely new strain of wheat on a undiscovered island, it would have many many random genetic changes that differ from the wheat you normally eat. And when you find a completely new strain of wheat in a laboratory, it has many many controlled genetic changes that differ from what you normally eat.

Do you trust randomness more than scientists whose reputation rests on the success of the wheat?

I certainly don’t. Based on what I’ve said above, I shouldn’t expect that GMOs should be more harmful than any other food. To use an analogy—GMOs are certainly, in some sense, “unnatural”. But then again, so are the giant rectangles of crops grown in straight lines. Nowhere in nature does corn grow in rows, or apple trees in a grid. But the claim that these rows and grids make plants harmful would strain credulity. So the claim that these extra gene sequences would make plants harmful equally strains my credulity.

But this is science, and so experiment is the arbiter of our beliefs, not abstract logic. What do the experiments say?

Most of our tests in this area come from animal studies, so let’s try and find a study with a large sample size and published in a well known journal….

How about this one? Published in the Journal of Animal Science, it’s a study that looked at 100 billion animals (you read that right) over 28 years to determine if they could find any correlation between GMO fed animals and some sort of unhealthiness.

They found no correlation between the health of animals and whether or not they were fed genetically modified food.

But that’s a single study, albeit very large. What we really need is a summery of many studies in the area, to compare slightly different methodologies….

Here we go! This study claims that, “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

Cut and dry, then. There’s plenty of other studies that I could go bring up here, and I’m sure that someone who has access behind paywalls could reveal even more.

IV.

It’s not that cut and dry. There are, to be sure, a lot of risks using GMOs. None of them, however, are risks to the people or animals who eat them.

There are some who are afraid that GMOs will outcompete wild species, growing faster and stronger and reducing the biodiversity of the native plants, like many other invasive species.

There are some who are afraid that GMOs will allow farmers to use more chemicals to protect their plants, which will pollute the ground and water.

There are some who are afraid that GMOs will push evolution of the insects and bacteria and fungi that feed on plants, which will then be able to easily overcome unaltered species and make many wild plants extinct.

There are some people who are afraid of large companies, like Monsanto, using the power of copyright to shut down small farmers who can’t prevent their crops from being pollinated by Monsanto crops.

These are all very real concerns, and concerns that we should be aware of, and possibly reasons why we should boycott GMOs. But there is no reason to avoid eating them because you are concerned with your health.

PS.

I mention a bunch of things above that aren’t universally true. For instance, when I said, “the claim that these extra gene sequences would make plants harmful equally strains my credulity,” I obviously concede that it would be entirely possible to genetically engineer corn that was poisonous. But the argument that anti-GMO people make is that any genetically modified organism is dangerous, regardless of the intent behind modifying it.

If there’s something else above that also isn’t universally true, please feel free to comment and I will explain why I thought the generalization was acceptable.

PPS.

It’s also really weird that most of the people who are against GMOs are liberals. Liberals usually like it when people mess with the “natural order of things.”

Liberals don’t like society, so they try to change it, whereas conservatives fear that changing it will make it worse, so they don’t want it to be changed. Liberals think the free market is unfair, so they try to institute socialism, whereas conservatives think that socialism impedes on freedom and don’t want to change anything. But in this case, it’s liberals who are afraid that changing our crops will lead to disease and death, and don’t want to change anything.

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