Some claim we should distrust GMOs and scientists' assurances of their safety because they are "unnatural" and that "GMOs" or "genetically modified organisms" are something new and unfamiliar. But nature tells a different story.|
"Genetically modified organism" or "GMO" is the term widely used to describe the products of modern, precision breeding. In concrete terms, these are improved varieties of seeds or livestock breeds. The term GMO is not used by scientists because it is imprecise and inherently misleading, in that it falsely suggests such seeds or breeds differ from conventional and heirloom seeds in a way that makes them less safe or predictable. The opposite is true.
The European Union funded a 25 year research program by more than 500 independent research groups to examine this issue. They concluded "that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies..."
Sir David King, as the chief science advisor to the United Kingdom, said -
"...because the technique is so sophisticated, in many ways it is probably safer for you to eat GM products - plants that have been generated through GM - than normal plant foods, if you have any sort of reaction to food, because you can snip out the proteins that cause the negative reaction to certain parts of the population."
These comments flow from the global scientific consensus on the safety of crops and foods improved through biotechnology. They lead, also, to the unavoidable conclusion that the regulation of GMOs, particularly in Europe, is unjustified.
So the safety of GMOs is not in doubt. But are they "natural"?
There are many different points of view as to what "natural" means. One that is difficult to argue against is that it means "found in nature". On that score, "GMOs" must be accepted as natural.
In modern, precision breeding, scientists will often use an enzyme, or several different enzymes, to carry out a series of steps through which they move a gene or DNA sequence from one organism, link it with genes from another (to manage how it will be expressed) and then insert this combination into a different organism. This result, whether it is plant, animal, or microbe, is what is commonly referred to as a GMO.
The DNA sequences scientists move from one organism to another, like the enzymes they use to do so, are taken directly from nature, where they were discovered, and where they are found everywhere. Scientists discovered the techniques they use to make these changes by finding them at work in nature, where they have been active in moving genes between species throughout the history of life on earth. Examples are abundant.
Ferns are the result of an ancient genetic modification that improved their efficiency at making food from sunlight, which allowed them to flourish in the shade under tree canopies.
Researchers have discovered that fully a quarter of the genes in cows came originally from snakes. Sweet potatoes are an entirely natural and inarguable GMO, and the oysters many people eat with delight are derived from a common but still dramatic type of genetic modification that seems to worry nobody (nor should it). In a particularly fascinating finding, scientists have discovered that wasps have used viruses to transfer genes to the butterflies and moths they parasitize, to "domesticate" them! A beetle has evolved to attack coffee plants using "a gene stolen from bacteria," and microbes exchange genetic material widely and constantly, making great use of our own species as a convenient rendezvous point and exchange platform.
Humans are more than just a convenient venue for some of the myriad natural means of genetic modification that mark all life on earth. We are also, very plainly, genetically modified organisms ourselves, in every sense of the word. Our genomes incorporate hundreds of genes from other species that we know about, meaning the true number is certainly much larger. Indeed, the single most common DNA sequence in our genome, known as AluI, comes from a virus. National Geographic has driven the point home with an illuminating tool to explore the nature of shared genes among species.
The conclusion is inescapable: We are all GMOs, made so by the same techniques modern biologists use to improve crops and livestock for our use, which we've learned to use by observing what we have found everywhere in nature, all around us.