By Gwen Schanker, Editorial Columnist
The debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is central to today’s scientific discourse. While scientists continuously investigate how genetic modification can be used to improve nutritional content, pest resistance and disease resistance of crops, anti-GMO activists are fighting back. Those against GMOs argue that modified foods may not be safe for consumers and the potentially dangerous consequences of consumption have not been fully examined. In reality, biosafety is a primary concern of plant biologists. The anti-GMO mentality has resulted in unnecessary fear of genetically modified (GM) foods, especially among those with minimal knowledge of the science used to create them.
This semester, I enrolled in plant biotechnology, an advanced biology elective taught over eight weeks by two experts from the University of Hanover – Bernhard Huchzermeyer and Hans-Joerg Jacobsen. Throughout the course, I learned of advances made thus far in the biotechnology industry and how these have coincided with negative responses from consumers, as well as from representatives at higher-ups like NGOs and Greenpeace. We explored everything from the evolution of “Golden Rice” – a rice plant that has been enhanced with beta-carotene to combat vitamin-A deficiency in developing countries – to the use of genetic modification in reducing damages from mycotoxins, secondary metabolites produced by fungi that can damage both plants and the people who consume them.
Other than the mechanisms involved in conferring traits like herbicide resistance, which in itself is pretty cool, the main take-home for me was the amount of critical thinking that goes into developing GM crops and how this directly contrasts with the fear consumers have. Genetic engineering is meant to reduce danger – for example, by making plants less likely to take up soil pollutants – and improve nutritional quality. The concerns that the GMO movement has steamrolled without regard for consumers’ safety are entirely unconstructive: GM products are actually safer and healthier than their unmodified counterparts.
As Jacobsen explained, the safety of every genetic engineering technique is regarded with respect to the alternatives and the project moves forward only when the GM product is preferable to the original version. An interactive GMO shopping game from Slate referenced a form of modified potatoes that can significantly reduce human exposure to acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. In this case, the GM potatoes are safer than the alternative. The same principle can be applied to all other GM products found on grocery store shelves
This begs the question of whether GM products should be labeled so consumers can distinguish them from their non-GM counterparts and make their own decisions depending on their preference. I’ve gone back and forth on this question several times as I have expanded my knowledge of GMOs. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, but this may exacerbate the unnecessary fear of GM foods that is currently so prevalent. Labeling should come with greater education of how GM foods are developed, why they are beneficial and the techniques that are applied to ensure their safety. Genetic engineering is a productive and necessary response to the changes in climate and conditions of the world, and currently, widespread negative attitude toward GMOs is impeding progress. Expanding the knowledge for those who consume GMOs would hopefully allow the field to move forward as conditions continue to shift.