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We Can't Avoid GMOs

Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safe to eat? If you ask the American public, an overwhelming majority will say no. But limit the poll to scientists, and an even more overwhelming majority will say yes. 

GMOs have been controversial since the first genetically modified tomato reached store shelves in 1994. International organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have fueled public concern by publishing scary stories about "frankenfoods". Nineteen European countries have partial or total bans on GMO production. The Chipotle Mexican Grill chain of stores requires all of its ingredients to be GMO-free.

In 1998, protein scientist Árpád Pusztai announced that mice fed a diet of GM potatoes suffered immune-system problems and stunted growth. The case against GMOs had never seemed stronger. But when other scientists asked to see the data, Pusztai refused. It turned out that Pusztai had made the announcement before the experiment was completed, and that his potatoes had been modified specifically to increase their toxicity. On top of that, the control group—rats fed naturally-grown potatoes—also suffered stunted growth and immune problems. Pusztai was eventually investigated for scientific misconduct and removed from his research position.

In the early 2000s, the European Union gave more than $300 million in grants for genetic scientists to study GMOs, and concluded in 2010 that they were as safe as anything else we eat.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.

The study has not changed the minds of average Europeans.

In a recent paper, a group of Belgian scientists discussed a number of intuitive reasons people may object to genetic GMOs. For example, it's natural to believe that an organism's DNA defines the type of organism it is. Splicing DNA into one plant from another plant—or even from an animal—sounds like the sort of unnatural experiment that has "unintended consequences" written all over it.

But it turns out that sharing DNA between species is not something invented by modern geneticists. It is a time-honored natural process. Plants and animals found ways to trade DNA across species even before humans appeared on this planet. And with the discovery of the CRISPR technique, scientists are now able to inject foreign DNA the way nature does it.

CRISPR is actually a naturally-occurring, ancient defense mechanism found in a wide range of bacteria. As far as back the 1980s, scientists observed a strange pattern in some bacterial genomes. One DNA sequence would be repeated over and over again, with unique sequences in between the repeats. They called this odd configuration “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR.

This was all puzzling until scientists realized the unique sequences in between the repeats matched the DNA of viruses—specifically viruses that prey on bacteria. It turns out CRISPR is one part of the bacteria’s immune system, which keeps bits of dangerous viruses around so it can recognize and defend against those viruses next time they attack.

The procedure has become so simple, and so commonplace, that a majority of prcoessed foods in American grocery stores today contain genetically modified ingredients. And if you don't use a strict definition, a wide variety of natural foods could be categorized as GMOs.

For example, there’s a French variety of wheat called Renan which is especially useful to farmers who don’t use pesticides because it is very disease-resistant. It was bred in the 1940s and has passed on its traits to many other wheat varieties.…

Renan was made by breeders who coaxed the genetic material from wheat, and two other distantly related species, to combine. To do this, they bathed the plants in colchicine, which keeps chromosomes from hooking back up after they split during cell division — doubling the number of chromosomes in the plants. Later, they exposed the plants to X-rays to scramble some of the DNA, but eventually they got the combination of traits that they wanted.

If we dig too deeply, we can find evidence of genetic tinkering everywhere we look.

Think of a wheel of farmhouse cheese — it certainly doesn’t fit the GMO gestalt. But cheesemakers need an enzyme to separate the curds from the whey, and most today use a genetically engineered version of that enzyme.

The more we learn, the more we see the ubiquity of genetic modifications. So far, GM foods appear to be as safe as naturally grown foods. Although we can't say that no laboratory-induced modifications can ever have harmful effects on humans, the same is true about foods that have only been modified by nature. The more we continue to study GMOs, the better we will understand them and their place in our diet.

GMOs are here to stay. They are created through the same DNA swapping process nature has used for millions of years. Despite the fears raised by environmental groups, GMOs are already a big part of our diet. The only way forward is to recognize and embrace the role GMOs play in feeding the population, but at the same time to support further research so genetic scientists can get it right.

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