Genetically modified food

In our first article we concluded: as long as modified genes do not end up in the final product, nobody will oppose genetic engineering; even opponents of the technology will not mind it. Problems arise only when genetically modified food is the issue. Or won’t they?

This is the second of two columns on genetic engineering and sustainability. They appeared on 10 January and 24 January 2018.

Golden rice genetically modified food
Golden rice. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Much debate on genetically modified food

At stake: genetically modified salmon, that grows faster. Genetically modified potato, resistant to potato blight (phytophthora). Genetically modified soy, resistant to pests. Golden rice, that can enrich the diet of Asians with much-needed vitamin A. The remarkable thing: it’s mainly lay people that discuss these issues. Scientific researchers almost invariably judge: no problem in these applications.

Why would public opinion take seriously the opinion of the involved researchers on genetically modified food? After all: they can be prejudiced, all the more if they are directly involved in research in the field. Their job may be dependent on the technology, or they may be influenced by general opinion in their labs. But then, one would underestimate the seriousness of discussions among researchers. The environmental movement of the ’70 has brought about an important and irreversible change in the attitude of researchers; they are concerned now about the social and environmental effects of their work. Nuclear physicists have taken the lead here. Already in the fifties of the last century, concerned researchers gathered in the Pugwash Committee, that warned against the utter destruction that would result from a nuclear war. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the clock at 5 to 12 (and changed this from time to time, according to their appreciation of international threats). Researchers in chemical industry observed the detrimental effects on the environment of their industry’s toxic waste. Even seemingly innocuous products like refrigerators could do much harm – in this case because propellants of the cooling machines, the CFKs, escaping into the atmosphere, affected the ozone layer. All this resulted in a profound change of the scientific mind-set; most recent discussions on social and environmental effects of new technologies have been started by the involved researchers themselves. Like in the case of nanotechnology. So, in order to return to our subject, it is meaningful that biotechnological researchers much less mind the production of genetically modified food than the general public. And this is all the more significant as the public is not correctly informed by the very organizations representing its interests, as we saw in our first article.

The present chicken is miles removed from the original forest bird. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

‘If we concede this, the earth will slip from under our feet’

We therefore have to return to our first question, the question hardly answered by the opponents: what are the real objections against genetic engineering? That we modify the genome of plants and animals, causing us to eat genetically modified food? That cannot be true. For since times immemorial, mankind has modified the genome of our crops and our cattle, and therefore eaten ‘modified genes’. In what measure can we call these modifications to be ‘natural’? The present chicken is miles removed from the original forest bird. Our wheat even further from the original mountain grasses. Much work is done up to the present day on cross-breeding potatoes, a practice that boils down to genome modification, just like in the preceding examples. We eat modified genes every day. Even more so: in nature, plants and animals continually swap genes, and new genes are continuously being created by spontaneous mutations. The new dimension carried by genetic engineering is that we can now direct changes in plants and animals much more precisely and faster than before. Cheaper, and with less side effects. Hello Greenpeace, do you mind precision? Having arrived at this point in the discussion, many conscientious objectors argue that this technology can be used for very bad purposes, like changing the human genome. That is true; but then, they overlook that in arguing this way, they made an important step: the argument is not any more about the technology as such now, but about its applications. And all technologies can be used for very bad purposes. And yet, in many discussions it is precisely this position that is forcefully argued: if opponents of genetically modified food would retract from this position, their principles might go up in smoke. (Maybe this is just another way of saying that the argument is of an emotional, rather than of a rational nature).

Strictly speaking, we only discussed cisgenesis so far: transferring genes among the same species of plants or animals – this is equivalent to the old-fashioned improvement of plants and animals through cross-breeding. In view of the stalemate on genetically modified food, at least in Europe, many researchers make a plea for at least releasing all bans on cisgenesis. So far, with very little impact. People opposing genetic engineering mostly oppose it on principle, so they reject each manifestation of it, and successfully so, so far. But properly speaking, starting from the principle, there is no argument at all against cisgenesis, except the argument dealt with ‘that this technology can also be used for very bad purposes’. Could the opponents reflecting on their position, please think again?

Transgenesis is a natural phenomenon as well

From principle, a much stronger argument might be made against transgenesis, the technique that transfers genes from one species to another one. The most important example of genetically modified food is golden rice, a rice variety that produces beta-carotene (or provitamin A) in the rice kernel, directed by three genes from other organisms (among which a bacterium). Anyone eating this golden rice will ingest these genes. We will have to weigh that problem against its effects: according to World Health Organization estimates, some 250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Every year one quarter to one half million children become blind, and half of them die early. The principal cause of these effects is a one-sided diet rather than the non-availability of golden rice – but yet, they can be rather simply made undone by allowing golden rice. It is effects like these (together with the fact that no harmful effects of genetically modified food can be stablished at all) that have led Hans Tramper to his judgement that it is ‘morally irresponsible’ not to allow genetic engineering. But popular resistance against golden rice is gradually fading away. In 2016, 107 Nobel Prize winners published an open letter to Greenpeace, asking them to stop opposing golden rice (and genetically modified food in general). Unsuccessfully so, however.

If anywhere, then here in the area of transgenesis the argument holds that in genetic engineering, mankind is ‘playing God’. And yet, in the past few years evidence has surfaced indicating that transgenesis too, is a natural phenomenon: in nature too, very different species exchange genes. In other words: even in the case of transgenesis, it would be untrue to argue that genetic researchers are in the business of ‘manipulating genes in a way that does not occur naturally’ (Greenpeace’s ultimate objection). Cassava for instance, many Africans’ staple food, has become edible somewhere in its evolution by the incorporation of genes from the soil bacterium Agrobacter. And there is evidence that the power units in our own cells, the mitochondria, originate from a primal bacterium, captured by our ancestors. At the end of the day therefore, the ‘unnatural’ character of genetic engineering does not exist. Researchers can only modify genes by using in smart ways natural processes. For instance, the most powerful mechanism available now in genetic engineering, the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, has simply been copied from the way bacteria cope with viruses. Genetic engineering consists of nothing else than letting nature work for us – the basis of all technology. The ‘unnatural’ character that Greenpeace attributes to genetic engineering, does not exist at all. Or, more aptly put: genetic engineering is no more, or no less ‘natural’ than the processes that mankind used to breed wheat from grass, by selection for many centuries.

Reason and emotion in the genetically modified food debate

Will reasoning, like I did in these columns, have much effect on people who reject genetically modified food primarily for emotional reasons? It may – after all, my column is not just about reason, it is also a tale of my personal voyage from rejection to benevolent contemplation. These insights now clear the way for a discussion of issues surrounding genetic engineering as perceived by the researchers involved. As said earlier, this is where we find the really critical points of view. Hopefully, these will permeate into public discussion. For without a well-informed and adequate public opinion, projects like gene drives will move ahead uncritically. Opposition against any form of genetic engineering won’t do here. In order to be effective, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth will have to differentiate among detrimental and innocuous genetic projects.

Interesting? Then also read:
GMO debate, nuclear power, and the concept of absolute evil
Synthetic biology in food production
Duchenne muscular dystrophy CRISPR cure: just for the rich and well-connected?

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