Time To Reconsider GMO’S

ByRichard Davis

A number of years ago there was controversy over the use of food that had been modified by genetic engineering. People believed we were heading into unknown territory and that if we manipulated the genes of the food we eat we might have to deal with dangerous unintended consequences. As a result, some states required the labelling of food that might be considered to be Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s).

I have been making a self-guided educational effort to understand the current revolution of genetic engineering for the past four years. There have been monumental scientific breakthroughs in genetic engineering and they revolve around something called CRISPR, an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. The CRISPR technology allows scientists to alter the genetic makeup of cells. It is a complex process, but the bottom line is that CRISPR has the potential to change our ability to fight disease in plants, animals and humans among other processes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines genetic modification as the production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods. When GMO’s first became controversial the primary technology for gene editing was the recombinant DNA process, or gene splicing. We have come a long way since then and that means that the definition of a genetically modified organism is now quite different than it was when GMO’s were first introduced.

The first GMO plant approved for humans was the Flavr Savr tomato variant. According to Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel prize recipient for her work with CRISPR, in her book, “A Crack In Creation”, “ In 2015, 92 percent of all corn, 94 percent of all cotton and 94 percent of all soybeans grown in the U.S. were genetically engineered” with recombinant DNA technology.

She goes on to note that, “The altered crops offer considerable environmental and economic advantages. By planting crops that have enhanced abilities to protect themselves against pests, farmers can attain higher yields while reducing their reliance on harsh chemical pesticides and herbicides.”

The agricultural world has moved beyond the use of recombinant DNA and now many of the organisms that have been modified have been improved by using CRISPR technology. Doudna puts the current state of GMO’s into perspective. “One of the biggest challenges facing agricultural companies, farmers, consumers and especially government officials is how to classify and regulate gene-edited crops. Many scientists classify them as products of new breeding techniques, of NBT’s, whereas protesters feel that the gene-edited crops are nothing but hidden GMO’s and that scientists are trying to sneak them into grocery stores through the back door.”
Reaction against forms of gene editing are based on “what if” scenarios. Some people believe these new organisms will take over other crops and make one type of vegetable all the same. They also believe we should not be changing the genetic code that has been given to us and that it is human folly to think we can change things without dire consequences.

To date, there is little evidence that gene-edited crops are causing dire unintended consequences. Doudna has given all of these issues a lot of thought and she has come to the conclusion that gene-editing of foods is safe and something that will improve our lives. It is worth noting her perspective as a scientist. She explains, “Conventional GMO’s contain foreign genes randomly inserted into the genome…Gene-edited organisms by contrast, contain tiny alterations to existing genes that give the organism a beneficial trait by tweaking the levels of protein that were already there to begin with- without adding any foreign DNA…scientists have used methods to avoid leaving any traces of CRISPR in the plant genome once the gene-editing task is complete.”

It is time to revisit GMO’s and become educated about how they change our world. We need to understand that CRISPR technology has changed the world and we have to learn at least a little about it if we want to understand where the human species is headed.

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