Kayla Shapero – GMOs: Proceed With Caution, But Proceed – February 22, 2012
It is true that genetic modification of plants may have the tendency to start controversial murmurs or perhaps even some rowdy protesting, but it also has the potential to help alleviate problems like malnutrition and environmental pollution.
First, a question for you the reader. What comes to mind when I say canola oil to you? You probably think of baking something sweet in an oven or cooking up something tasty in a pan. You may have even thought of how canola oil is one of the healthiest oils one can cook with. However, you probably didn’t think of how canola is a cultivar or a plant that is a product of the controlled breeding and growth of two plants (American Heritage), a process called selective cross-breeding.
Canola is the offspring of the rapeseed plant and the common field mustard and if human manipulation of them had not taken place we would not have that tasty, healthy oil that we have come to know and love. In fact, before Canola oil was made, humans were using plain rapeseed oil – that is, until they realized its highly acidic properties caused heart problems.
At this point you may be wondering about the correlation between canola oil and genetically modified plants. Genetically modified plants, or transgenic plants, fall into a category of plants called cultigens, and most cultigens are cultivars (e.g. Canola). I mentioned cultivars briefly earlier, but just to reiterate, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, cultivars are plants created by the controlled cross-breeding and cultivation of plants that would not necessarily breed again and again under normal circumstances.
Essentially, transgenic plants are an accelerated or more direct version of selective cross-breeding in which specific genes may be spliced from one organism into another. The difference is instead of planting a bunch of seeds, allowing them to grow, breeding these plants together and then mass cultivating their offspring, a plant may now be genetically modified by splicing its genes with that of a plant with similar properties and then grown.
Basically, what I am getting at is that canola oil was man-made with the intention to create oil that was safer for human consumption than the rapeseed oil that was naturally occurring and popular in the past, and we succeeded with flying colors. Humans have been tampering with their surroundings since the beginning of time, and why not? We would be most ill-equipped if we didn’t use our brains to help us craft tools to adapt to our ever-changing world.
However, we are quite crafty beings, and a little too successful for our own good. In our callous desperation to reach the top, we have overpopulated the world to the point that we can’t feed everyone, and have created so many machines to make our lives easier that we have polluted the Earth at the expense of the environment we live in. Without embracing our gift for adaptation, we will not be able to carry on in life with such continued growth.
Genetically modified plants may not be able to single-handedly solve hunger problems, but transgenic plants may be manipulated to possess more nutrients than a naturally occurring plant would, and this could certainly benefit developing countries that have problems with malnutrition.
Malnutrition is a major problem, and vitamin deficiencies are not uncommon in parts of the world such as Asia. Rice is a main staple of many people’s diets in the rural countries there, and typically rice is not very high in vitamin A. A deficiency in vitamin A can lead to problems such as blindness, but with transgenic plants, a new strain of rice called “golden rice” (Mellon and Risler) has been created that has much higher levels of vitamin A.
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is responsible for the creation of this new strain that contains an “unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A).” With the help of genetically modified plants, people in Asia can once again “expect to retain normal eyesight.”
Other advances in this technology include the introduction of plants that are resistant to pests. Much of a farmer’s crop can be lost to bugs, bacteria, and viruses. Humans have coped with these obstacles by spraying their fields with harmful chemical pesticides that can be dangerous to people, nearby species of animals, and the environment. With the help of genetically modified plants, new strains of plants have been created that possess proteins within the plant itself that are harmful when consumed by insects, such as BT corn, which has been infused with genes from a strain of bacteria. The corn does not contain the bacteria itself, but genes from it that are harmful only to certain insects (ladybugs are unaffected).
The only problem that has arisen from this infusion is that this protein cannot be made to target particular bugs and while some bugs are resistant, there are some such as the Monarch butterfly that were not meant to be targeted and yet are still affected by it.
Opposition to this crop has been raised by a study on Monarch butterflies that demonstrated that pollen from these plants in high concentrations could be harmful to the larvae or caterpillars of this species.
However, this study, conducted by Professor John Losey of Cornell University, has since been proved to have been a flawed study and Prof. Losey himself has since said, “It doesn’t seem like there’s an immediate catastrophic risk to monarchs.” This is because in his experiment, he dusted milkweed leaves with BT corn pollen at unrealistically high levels (Chrispeels & Sadava) and left those as the only source of food for the soon-to-be butterflies.
This experiment did not take normal field conditions into account. While milkweed is the only plant these caterpillars eat it does not grow in cornfields, but occasionally on the its outskirts. It more commonly grows by roadsides in the maize-belt and even so, only about “10 percent of the monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S maize belt is actually in maize fields” (Chrispeels & Sadava). The pollen from these plants is also too heavy to be carried very far and they shed pollen for only a margin of the time the butterflies are present in the corn-belt.
Ironically enough insecticides and pesticides also have no way of targeting specific bugs and since BT corn has been introduced, 30 percent of corn crops are now BT, the monarch butterfly population has been on the rise. Weather conditions during migration and logging regulations in Mexico (where the butterflies go in the winter) have proved to be more of an influence on this beautiful butterfly than the BT corn. This propagandized study has no factual evidence demonstrating the detrimental effects of such crops.
In essence, genetically modified plants will be helping the environment more than damaging it by lessening the amount of chemicals that we spray over our fragile ecosystems.
On the subject of our ecosystems, other oppositions to genetically modified crops include concerns that competing wild plants or weeds in the nearby areas will cross-breed with these genetically modified plants to create weeds that have the advantageous properties of the genetically modified plants. Essentially, these concerns voice fear that genetically modified plants will be introducing the development of new super-weeds to the environment or ecosystems, however:
“…hybridization between different species is extremely uncommon and it has never been observed between distantly related species. A tomato won’t cross with a potato, even though they are both members of the nightshade family. Yet the GE opponents would have us believe that just about any plant can hybridize with any other.” (Whitman)
Basically, it is highly uncommon for a plant to hybridize with another unless the plants share very similar properties. It is very rare to find plants in the wild environment that share such a close classification with transgenic plants, and therefore a hybridization between such plants to create a super-weed is not necessarily impossible, but it is highly improbable.
Not only can genetically modified plants help us with our hunger problems or malnutrition, but they have the potential to help clean up the environment that we have been polluting. Plants such as the poplar tree have been known to pull heavy metal pollutants from the soil (Whitman). They take these pollutants and convert them either to plant matter that can be utilized by the plant, or it converts these chemicals into something harmless that it then releases back into the atmosphere. The only hangup is that this plant does this at an extremely slow rate. However, with genetic modification, we can make this plant perform this function at an increased rate. This will help pull some of the harmful pollutants from the soil that we have introduced.
Perhaps the biggest opposition to genetically modified plants though comes from the general populace’s own inherent fear that corporations such as Monsanto will be splicing genes into our food that could be dangerous to us. This fear has been worsened by the fact that the FDA does not require produce to be labeled as a genetically modified product since the FDA considers genetically modified plants to be “substantially equivalent to unmodified natural foods.” (Whitman).
However, the FDA is not the only regulatory organization that has standards. Also, under the USDA, a program called BRS has been created to regulate genetically modified plant and animal organisms. These organizations and programs ensure that genetically modified organisms are as safe for human consumption as their naturally bred counterparts. For example, “When scientists realized a gene from Brazil nuts they were planning to splice into soybeans might sicken people harboring allergies to nuts, they discontinued the experiment. Similarly, when other researchers discovered that a protein in one type of GM corn might be allergenic, regulators approved that corn only for animal feed” (Mellon & Risler).
Transgenic plants have many potential ways to benefit our society. Not only are these plants capable of helping us solve hunger problems we have created for ourselves, but they are also capable of helping cleanse the environment we have been polluting with chemicals for our short-term convenience. Also, many concerns raised by environmental activists are rooted in propagandized statements based on no factual evidence.
If we were to fully embrace the science we have discovered and really utilize it, many of the problems we have created for ourselves in our hasty desperation for convenience could be potentially alleviated.
Genetic modification may be a new science, but if we proceed with caution, it will be a useful ally.
(1) Mellon, Margaret and Rissler, Jane. “Environmental Effects of Genetically Modified Food Crops—Recent Experiences.” Food and Agriculture on Union of Concerned Scientists. 12-13 June 2003. Web. 4 October 2011. ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_genetic_engineering/environmental-effects-of.html
(2) Whitman, Deborah B. “Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?” Discovery Guides at ProQuest. April 2000. Web. 4 October 2011. csa.com/discoveryguides/gmfood/overview.php#n1
(3) Briggs, Helen. “The Biotech Debate: the Monarch Butterfly.” BBC News Online. 27 April 2001. Web. 17 October 2011. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1298397.stm
(4) Chrispeels, Maarten J. and Sadava, David E. Plants, Genes, and Crop Biotechnology. Sudburry: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003. Print.
(5) Sprowles, Amy. Email Interview. 19 October 2011.
(6) “Cultivar.” The American Heritage Science Dictionary. 2005. Print.
Kayla Shapero is a student at Humboldt State University currently earning a Biology major.