GMOs: Unjustified Fear or Actual Danger? (Part 1)

In All, Consumer products, Environment, Food Products, General, Guest Article by Irene Park


Author: Irene Park, PhD Candidate in Department of Human Genetics, Wilson/Glover Labs, University of Michigan Medical School

It seems like “Non-GMO Project Verified” labels have been popping up on more and more food packages. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are on the public’s mind, and food manufacturers, restaurants, and the government are reacting.

For example, the restaurant chain Chipotle recently promised to ban genetically modified ingredients, naming three main reasons: the long-term health effects of consuming GMOs are unknown; GMOs harm the environment; and GMOs do not meet the restaurant’s standard of “high-quality” food.

In July, President Obama signed a bill requiring that food containing GMOs be labeled as such. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has two years to design the label and to establish criteria for determining which products must be labeled.

In a 2015 survey, 77% of Americans strongly favored a proposal to label food containing GMO ingredients. This opinion crosses party lines: 92% of Democrats, 89% of Independents, and 84% of Republicans favor labeling.

Maybe this anti-GMO phenomenon is just another health-food obsession, like the recent mania for gluten-free food. Research tells us that a gluten-free diet is only necessary for those of us with a dangerous intolerance for the protein gluten—for example, people with celiac disease. For the rest of us, a gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthier choice. In fact, without careful planning, going gluten-free can lead to malnutrition, since it excludes whole grains and fortified foods, sources of fiber and vitamins, respectively.

Is the current backlash against GMOs just another example of fear-mongering without a scientific basis? Or are GMOs as dangerous as Chipotle claims? To answer these questions, we need to first examine what GMOs are and determine the reason for the backlash.

Genetically engineered HoneySweet plums are more resistant to the plum pox virus. Photo courtesy of the Agricultural Research Service Office of Communications [public domain].

Genetically engineered HoneySweet plums are more resistant to the plum pox virus. Photo courtesy of the Agricultural Research Service Office of Communications [public domain].

What Exactly Are GMOs?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term “genetically modified” encompasses any genetic alteration to an organism, including traditional hybridization and crop breeding techniques. However, by this definition, most cultivated food crops—and even purebred dogs—must be considered genetically modified.

News articles and blogs about GMOs do not criticize dog breeds or crops like corn that were selectively bred throughout human history—only what was created by a technique called genetic engineering. So when the popular media uses the word “GMOs,” it is not referring to all GMOs, but rather to genetically engineered (GE) organisms—which are a specific type of GMOs.

GE organisms are produced by moving a gene from one species to another in the laboratory. Genes are recipes for making proteins, which are not only responsible for the organism’s wellbeing but also for traits such as height and color. One example of a GE crop is called HoneySweet plums, which was developed to be more resistant to the plum pox virus (PPV). PPV is known to be one of the most devastating viruses for plums and other stone fruits such as apricots, cherries, and peaches. HoneySweet plums were made by inserting a gene for PPV coat protein into the plum (Prunus domestica) DNA, and researchers believe that this gene insertion is responsible for the GE plum’s increased resistance to PPV.

Selective breeding and genetic engineering are two different methods for the same end goal: introducing desired traits, such as increased resistance to disease or better taste into an organism (Figure 2).

Traditional selective breeding and genetic engineering have the same end goal of introducing a desired trait to the organism. By FDA graphic by Michael J. Ermarth (Methods of Plant Breeding) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional selective breeding and genetic engineering have the same end goal of introducing a desired trait to the organism.  FDA graphic by Michael J. Ermarth (Methods of Plant Breeding) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

To avoid confusion, the FDA encourages the food industry to distinguish between organisms that were created using more traditional methods like selective breeding and those that were created using GE. Labels with phrases like “not bioengineered,” “not genetically engineered,” and “not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology” are more accurate than simply “non-GMO.”

Debating Whether GMOs (GE Organisms) Are Unnatural

Why doesn’t the public readily accept GMOs/GE organisms? One possible reason is the public sees them as unnatural. Vani Hari, author of the Food Babe blog, wrote that GMOs are created using unnatural methods involving DNA from bacteria, viruses, plants, and animals. Other media outlets have also illustrated GMOs as unnatural, calling them “Frankenstein” food.

Some, like the Non GMO Project, have stated that GMOs are unnatural because they are created with foreign genetic materials: “This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”

One blog compared creating GMOs to breeding two completely different species, an unnatural and dangerous practice: “Just like you can’t breed a mosquito and cat, you can’t breed a bacterium with a squash plant … Instead of adhering to the safety checks inherent in nature and evolution, genetic engineers take genetic material from one organism and splice it right into the DNA of another.”

Some beg to differ. A New York Times article by Doug Van Hoewyk, an associate professor of biology at Coastal Carolina University, questioned the fundamental definition of what is natural and what is not: Is there a substantial difference between selectively bred crops and GE crops? If we consider any genetic modification to be unnatural, most food crops—not just GE crops—would be considered just that.

“If the ‘natural’ label on foods cannot apply to GMOs, it would have to exclude nearly all foods, considering how they have changed from the undomesticated plants from which they were derived. Most of those truly wild and ‘natural’ plants aren’t even available at farmer’s markets, let alone grocery stores,” Van Hoewyk wrote.

Another argument for GMOs being classified as natural centers on an idea called gene flow—movement of genetic material from one population to another—how it is perfectly natural, and it actually has happened many times in our evolutionary history too. Journalist Swaminathan Aiyar wrote that all of us carry genes that originated in other organisms like algae, bacteria, and fungi. In fact, a recent study has found 145 foreign genes in humans! So accepting foreign genes during genetic engineering might not be so unnatural after all.

What Is Really Causing the GMO Controversy?

The psychologist Robert Sternberg once stated that we consider what’s familiar to us as more natural than what’s novel since we need time to wrap our head around new concepts. Perhaps people’s perception of any new technology as unnatural when it is first introduced to society is normal, so one can argue that with time, maybe GMOs will lose their unnatural label and become an integral part of society.

Calling GMOs unnatural does not seem inaccurate, though. For example, developing the HoneySweet plums might not even be possible in nature; researchers had to use an artificial environment (i.e., the laboratory) to create it. So maybe the association of seeing something as unnatural and seeing it as also unsafe because it is unnatural might be what is really causing the GE organism controversy.

Scientific American article stated that it is not a large conceptual leap from the idea that GMOs are unnatural to the idea that they are unhealthy and dangerous. After all, when we meddle with nature, we are “bound to bring enormous disaster upon ourselves.” Similarly, Van Hoewyk in his New York Times article stated that calling GMOs unnatural wrongly suggests that they are unhealthy.

Are GMOs safe? Or are they as “unstable” and “safety check”-violating as the anti-GMO groups claim? The next part of the series will examine arguments against GMOs, such as whether GMOs adversely affect the environment and human health, and the science community’s response.

This post was originally published on the Mi Sci Writers blog. Read more posts by Irene Park on the Mi Sci Writers blog here.

Featured image: A “Non-GMO Project Verified” product label. Photo by Irene Park.