GMOs are constantly making the news. There is constant ongoing debates about the bioethics of GMO products in the food & biotech industry. There are very vocal proponents of the issue on both sides of the topic. So, what does the term GMO stand for, and why is it such a controversial issue?
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What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) can be plants, animals or microorganisms. It is different than Genetically Engineered Microorganism (GEM), which specifically refers to microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, yeast and others. These terms refer to living organism that have been genetically altered using molecular genetics techniques such as gene cloning and protein engineering.
(Read More: 7 Important Tools of Genetic Engineering)
Recombinant GMOs can be produced by gene cloning methods in which a non-native gene is introduced and expressed in a new organism. Generally the new protein has also been somewhat modified, or engineered, for proper expression in the new host. In particular, differences between microorganisms and eukaryotic cells must be overcome, such as the presence or absence of introns, occurrence of DNA methylation and certain post-translational modifications to the protein itself for proper transport within or between cells. The advent of PCR and gene sequencing methods have opened up the door to all sorts of manipulative techniques for changing the structure of proteins through genetic alterations.
Why are GMOs controversial?
1. Bacterial Pesticides
Introducing bacterial genes into cash crops to enhance their growth, nutritional value or resistance to pests is becoming rather commonplace. A frequent and attention-grabbing headline has been the possibility of replacing harmful chemical pesticides with a GMO alternative. For this, a bacterial gene can be introduced into the plants/crops and will act as a natural pesticide.
While this may eliminate the need for chemical pesticides, the general public has remained skeptical over the consequences of ingesting these altered crops. In order to alleviate this specific concern, it might be useful to explore the site-specific expression of the gene, or control the gene expression throughout its lifecycle. The bacterial genes could be made to express in the leaves of younger plants to avoid foliage, but without affecting mature fruits.
2. Fear of ‘Superbugs’
In the early 1990s, scientists envisioned the creation of GEMs or “superbugs” for bioremediation. These superbugs would be able to withstand extreme environmental conditions and help rapidly breakdown the recalcitrant chemicals plaguing our waste sites and brownfields.
However, unsolved concerns over our ability to control the spread of these superbugs, to avoid an ecological upset, has hindered its further development. Numerous ideas such as programmed cell-death mechanisms and bioindicators to track their spread has been tested. However, due to limited success of these methods, we have yet to fully take advantage of this technology.
3. Fear of Unknown Outcomes
“People fear what they don’t understand…” As we haven’t yet fully discovered the consequences of GMOs and GEMs, there is a general public reluctance in embracing these technologies. Despite efforts to control gene expression there are many unanswered questions and issues that arise and stand in the way of full acceptance of GMOs by the public. Every time a technological experiment goes awry, there is widespread media coverage, which further fuels the public debate about the wisdom of using these technologies.
4. Disadvantage Small-scale Farmers
Arguments against the use of GMOs include fear of over-industrialization of agricultural products and possibly pushing out small-scale farmers in favor of mass production of crops. Small-scale farmers are especially vulnerable due to legalities surrounding IP and ownership of seeds. For instance, Monsanto sparked widespread debate over ownership issues regarding the crops harvested from their GMO seeds, when they demanded that they control the harvest.
5. Less Industrialized Markets Will Suffer
Another argument against the GMO products is that exports from less developed countries will lag and their economy will suffer. An example is the increased use of bioengineered sweeteners instead of sugarcane products from the Third World countries.
5. Mass Production of GMO Drugs
Those opposed to the use of GMO products are also against mass production of pharmaceuticals using cloned genes in plants, or fermentation products of yeast, bacteria or fungi. However, using these advanced technologies can result in drug costs and hopefully wider dissemination of the medication for greater good.
In addition to these aforementioned arguments, there are countless claims of toxicity and carcinogenicity of biotech foods and products. Some of these fears are well-founded, while others are simply due to lack of awareness. For each cautionary tale about GMOs, there are countless others which provide a useful application.
We know that animal cloning has proven to be a complicated and risky endeavor. Cloned animals have experienced illnesses and complications that resulted in premature deaths. However, strong opposition to all types of GMO cannot be based on these alone. Transgenic plants could be used to create specific drugs, while transgenic pigs could be used for their heart to replace a failing human heart. There are a lot less risks associated with the plants than with animal cloning. Likewise, bacterial pesticide genes in food crops can be considered more harmful. These GMO crops could potentially affect the local insect population, upset the ecological balance of nature, and adversely affect individuals who consume it. Therefore, individuals who advocate mandatory labelling of foods containing GMOs cite risks from unknown toxins or allergens as their primary reason for caution.