Introduction to Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)
An organism with artificially manipulated genetic material through genetically engineered is known as a genetically modified organism (GMO). Scientists carry out the GM process to express any desired physiological traits in a particular product. Various organisms, including animals, plants, and microorganisms, have been genetically modified where genes are transferred from one organism to another. This transfer can be carried out within the same species or across species (transgenic organisms) and is not achieved through natural recombination.
Producing GMOs is a process carried out in various steps. The desired gene can either be isolated from a donor organism or an endogenous gene. Inserting the genetic material into the host genome can be achieved through multiple processes. These processes help in the uptake of a gene into the host, where it can express the desired traits.
Importance of GMOs
The introduction of novel genes in GMOs provides particular advantages to producers and consumers. For instance, genetically modified plants can ensure high food production mainly due to herbicides and insecticides tolerance. The increased yield and reduced production cost of GM plants come with economic importance where more food is available at reasonable prices. Thus, GMOs provide potential advantages to both the consumers and farmers.
Moreover, some studies support that GM crops may have a positive influence on human health. For example, one of the common examples of GM crops is bio-fortified Golden rice, which can help in overcoming the issue of vitamin A deficiency to a certain extent. Yet, this aspect of GMOs requires more studies for confirmation.
A Survey about GMOs from Pew Research Center
According to a survey conducted in 2016 by Pew Research Center, almost half of the U.S. adults consider that GM food is unsafe for human health. This group makes up 49% of the people, while only 5% consider GM food to be a better option. And 44% of the population thinks that they are neither beneficial nor harmful to human health.
Another noticeable thing from the survey was how the thought about GM foods differ based on gender. Around 56% of the women say that GM foods are worse for one’s health, while 43% of men believed that. This result shows that men are more inclined towards the consumption of GM foods, where women say they may cause serious health problems. In comparison to 16% of the male population, 27% of females think that GM foods can create environmental problems as well. These discoveries are about gender differences over the scope of food issues. For instance, ladies are consistently cautious of health risks from food additives than that of men.
Based on such studies, the question arises. Why exactly are people afraid of GMOs?
Reasons Why People Are Afraid of GMOs
Although GMOs are found safe for human consumption, yet the resistance and skepticism persist. The dread of the obscure is likely one reason for public hesitance to the utilization of GMOs. Another factor is that the long term impacts have not been well studied so far because GMOs were not very common lately. Several reasons that contribute to the GMOs related fear in public are:
1. Lack of Scientific Knowledge
One of the major reasons why people are afraid of GMOs is the lack of scientific knowledge. Those with elevated scientific knowledge are more likely to accept GMOs and have higher expectations from GM foods. Contrary to this, people with a lack of knowledge have more concerns about the health risk. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research center, only 24% of U.S. individuals have higher knowledge. And 49 % have optimum knowledge, while 26% of Americans have little knowledge about science. This lack of scientific literacy is directly associated with increased misconceptions about GMOs. The survey shows that 43% of the low scientific knowledge group considers that pesticides pose an increased risk to human health. On the other hand, just 20% of individuals from high science literacy agreed to the same thing.
2. Religious Concerns
Apart from various other concerns associated with GMOs, one of the major issues is the religious concern. Some consider that genetic modification is opposing nature, and it is against their religious beliefs. Even if the safety concerns are cleared, ethical issues will persist. According to personal or religious beliefs, GMOs come with a debate that it isn’t fair to “play God”. Some people believe that interfering with nature is completely wrong, and others believe that it is immoral to introduce a foreign gene into plants or animals. Those who feel that GM foods are against religion or nature demand proper labeling on GMOs so that they can be informed about what not to choose when buying items.
3. GMOs Are a Threat to Farmers
Biotechnology companies have produced their own genetically engineered seeds and have succeeded in getting them patented because of their novelty. In this way, only they can control the utilization and circulation of these GM seeds. Also, it gives them an official right to sue farmers who use GMOs in their fields. As a result, GMOs are a serious threat to farmers. Even if they get their fields contaminated by pollens from neighboring fields, they are at risk of getting sued. Apart from the farmers’ sovereignty, GM crops also pose a genuine risk to the national food security of any nation where they are grown.
4. Risk of Allergic Reactions
Transfer of genes from allergenic organisms to non-allergic organisms might pose an increased risk of allergic reactions. Although no allergic effects have been attached to genetically altered food so far, for example, allergens from peanut plants can be transferred to GM food. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has a protocol for the testing of GM crops to ensure safety. Moreover, before the transfer of genes, it should be confirmed whether the protein product of that particular field is an allergen or not. Otherwise, the transfer is not encouraged. Food safety organizations had made certain protocols for accepting GM food, yet the fear persists. However, it is important to understand that GM foods can reduce the risks of allergies as well. For example, if a genetic modification can turn off the protein, causing peanut allergy, then there is a possibility of introducing non-allergic peanuts.
5. Can GMOs Transfer Toxicity Over Generations
Another public concern associated with GMOs is whether they can affect fertility or not. Some studies show that GMOs transfers no toxicity over generation and pregnancy, so fertility or offspring are unaffected by them. A study was carried out by a group from South Dakota State University, which was in favor of GMOs’ safety. There was the introduction of genetically modified Bt corn as a feed for rats. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a microbe that produces insecticidal endotoxin. Scientists introduced a gene from this microbe into the genome of corn and tracked its effects on inheritance. The finding showed no buildup or inheritance of toxicity, even over several generations.
6. GMOs Role in Carcinogenesis
Herbicides are used to kill unwanted weeds and aids in the growth of crops. Some plants are genetically modified to make them resistant to herbicides. A study from 2009 shows that more than 80% of GM plants are resistant to herbicides. As a result, the use of herbicides has increased. The key ingredient of most herbicides is glyphosate, which is considered a probable carcinogen to humans by WHO. Moreover, few researchers believe that the intake of GM plants can play a role in cancer development. This result can occur because the introduction of a new gene into a human’s DNA can contribute to mutations. Thus they believe it is dangerous to edit genes. Although the American Cancer Society (ACS) says that no such evidence is available so far, it does require more research.
7. GMOs and Antibiotic Resistance
Globally, scientists have used antibiotic resistance genes as a marker to identify the success rate of genetic modification. This method brings in a debate that the transfer of genes from GM foods to the human body or bacteria residing in the human gut can end up in adversely affecting human health. Although the chance is low, it can aid in antibiotic resistance. For example, kanamycin is an antibiotic used to treat various human infections. It is also used as a marker for identification for plant modification. It is encouraged to not opt for the methods that involve antibiotic resistance genes. Additionally, scientists have developed markers derived from tobacco instead of bacteria.
8. GMOs and Loss in Biodiversity
To find out whether the GMOs are environmentally safe or not is quite challenging. GM crops come with several advantages like resistance to herbicides, which results in reducing mechanical tillage and soil erosion. But the GM genes have the potential to enter the conventional crops as a result permanently affecting the wild populations. Also, GM crops may support the expanded utilization of agricultural chemicals. Thus, there are concerns that GMOs may cause losses in biodiversity. Again, so much evidence is available so far that can prove that the hybridization of GM and non-GM plants can be harmful or can hurt biodiversity.
9. Cross-pollination of Non-GM Crops
One of the GM crops associated risks that have caused fear in the people is the cross-pollination of non-GM crops. This is done by mixing of conventional crops with the seeds from GM crops. And it involves the migration of genes from one to the other. Since the mixing is unintentional, it can result in indirect effects on food security and food safety. Thus it is important to develop strategies that can reduce the mixing, such as separating the GM crops fields from the fields of conventional crops.
Scientists’ Views about GMOs
Several organizations, including WHO, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences, have publically said that GMOs are safe to consume. Also, a majority of scientific groups support the same idea of GMOs being safe. According to a study conducted in 2013, there are no significant hazards directly associated with the use of GM crops. Furthermore, scientists debate that every food we consume today is genetically modified in one way or another. This is because farmers have crossed the traits they wanted in their crops for years.