Thursday, 27 September 2012

FCC: To Be (or Not to Be) Informed about GMOs

As Natural Sciences Liaison Moriana Garcia of the Denison Library prefaced at the start of the fourth in this year's Food and Culture Colloquium, she approached her presentation and personal study of genetically modified organisms from the point of view of an informed consumer. Indeed, knowledge of the pros, cons, success and challenges as they pertain to GMOs aids in helping us all to make the most rational decisions possible when it comes to what we support and what we choose to eat and feed others. So, to be (or not to be) informed about GMOs? That's our question.. what's your answer?

Above image www.thefurtrapper.com. B.N. Neither the above image nor the YouTube link suggested below were originally part of Moriana's presentation.
Moriana first began, as most introductions do, from the very beginning which in this case was a brief history of food production. From the early days of domesticating plants and animals, hunters and gatherers eventually created agriculture, recognising that if seeds were chosen from stronger crops, those seeds would yield similarly stronger harvests. Indeed, it seems the early days of agriculture (but more specifically selective breeding) birthed the first steps of GMOs, as exemplified in the evolution of teosinte to corn. (Check out this YouTube video uploaded by user DNAgeek for more information.)

As we've evolved throughout history, a clearly complicated layer to consider is the rapid growth of the world's population (coupled with an overall low death rate) which needs to be fed. In 1950, the world's estimated population was 2.55 billion, this stark number (at the time) prompting a need for changes in agricultural production. Cue then the Green Revolution, marked by the selection of new varieties by scientists in the 50's and 60's and the promotion of dwarf plants which were easier to keep and grew at much faster rates. It should be noted, though, that the progress of that era came at great environmental cost. More land was taken over to grow the needed food supply, while the heavy use of herbicides, pesticides and the development of greater irrigation measures forever changed the world's landscape. For a few decades, crop yields grew and kept with the times and the continued growth of the population-- that is, until the 1980s when production more or less flat-lined and again something needed to be changed. And so came about the Gene Revolution and the discovery that all life shares a similar genetic code. Experiment after experiment proved it was very easy to play with this code and essentially "cutting and pasting" to create transgenic organisms became the norm and the solution to the world's food crisis.

The best success first arrived in the form of replicating the enzymes that are responsible for turning milk into one of my favourite ingredients, cheese, which was collected from the stomach of cows. From dairy, the collective "we" moved onto trying to genetically modify plants; with great success, today's most prevalent GMOs come in the form of fruits and veggies. Today, over 69 million hectares are planted with GMOs--with larger populations requiring more GMO land to keep up with food needs--so it's quite likely (whether you eat organically or not) that you've consumed some type of GMO in your life. But is this a bad thing? Very briefly I'll share that there are numerous positives for GMOs, a large one being that most GMOs are modified to be resistant to pests and tolerant to the planted climate thus reducing/eliminating the need for pesticides and herbicides. GMOs can also be "manufactured" in such a way to have increased shelf lives or to last longer transports (e.g., tomatoes), to have higher starch concentrations (e.g., potatoes) or to provide nutrients that would not otherwise exist (e.g., golden rice vs white rice). For folks around the world who don't have access to the kinds and numbers of choices we may have, GMOs can be their saving graces. The potential for GMOs is also great, given that they've only really been around for about the past 15 years; one such positive promise is the use of GMOs to function as vaccines, e.g., consuming a banana with health attack agents rather than needing to worry about infections via costly injections.

Having said all this, opposition to GMOs comes mainly in the form of hearsay, as there have been no proven negatives-- not to say there aren't potential problems. Anti-GMO claims typically fall into one of two categories: health (e.g., unsuspected allergies, though GMOs go through testing phases for allergies before being released to the public sector) and environmental (e.g., plant pollen killing untargeted insects, the unknowns should genetically modified plants breed with non-genetically modified plants, and the great loss of biodiversity and traditional agriculture). For another portrayal of the dangers of GMOs, check out the above video which may also be found on the "More Food Online" section of my blog (I'll note here, this was also not part of Moriana's presentation).

As Moriana concluded, there are still many years ahead of us to develop the technology and refine the process of genetic modification, but the greater question becomes whether or not we have the time to get the work done. We must be careful in making decisions based on our local position, and look at the larger picture, as our (defined globally) decisions affect each other and the rest of the world.

With all of this information (albeit presented here in limited form), how true is the hype over GMOs? Is there a real need to have fear of the unknown, as it pertains to GMOs? How logical/illogical are the arguments, given the current research? What is our moral obligation as we consider tampering with nature and our ability to control it? As we think about Frankenfish and the messy layers of regulating GMOs among the EPA, FDA and USDA, for example, as well as the vast differences in what needs to be labeled (or not) in different nations, it is very clear that we are continuing to face worldwide hunger as our population continues to climb up to the projected 10 billion stabilisation point and climate change continues to threaten biodiversity and the future landscape of agriculture. So perhaps now the question is to determine whether the answers we seek exist with GMOs...or not?

Suggested readings for this session:
"Food: How Altered?" (Jennifer Ackerman, n.d.)
“The Debate over Genetically Modified Foods” (Kerryn Sakko, 2002)
“Harvest of Fear” (PBS/WGBH, 2001)
“Learn Genetics” (The University of Utah, 2012)
“An Overview of Atlantic Salmon, Its Natural History, Aquaculture, and Genetic Engineering" (U.S. FDA, 2010)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here.

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