GMO – Yay or nay?

by Ema Konjevod S2DEA

Genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs, have been a controversial topic on the world stage for a while now. But what exactly are GMOs? Britannica defines them as: “Organisms whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the generation of desired biological products.” This definition is a bit complicated, and honestly it took me some time to understand, so let me try break it down for you. This basically means that, scientists take a complete set of DNA in an organism, the genome (almost every human cell contains the genome, but this may differ in other species), which holds all the information needed for an organism to develop and grow, to then alter them in a laboratory, at molecular level, in order to get specific result, like a stronger type of apple, or a bigger, more resilient strawberry. (It is important to note that while reproductive cloning is a type of GMO, it isn’t the topic of the article, as here we will be focusing on recombinant DNA technology mostly.) Now, the difference between GMO and selective breeding, is that selective breeding has strong limitations, like the fact that making a tiger and a horse have a tigerhorse baby is literally impossible, GMO is far less limiting. It allows very distantly related organisms to combine, making many new things possible. But now the question arises: Are GMOs safe?  

Now this is where the controversy comes in. You see, GM crops can be great, really. This technology can work wonders for certain crops, but it poses lots of questions. Let’s look at the statistics. By 2015, about 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton planted in the US were genetically engineered. And this had a reason: scientists had found a way to make these plants practically entirely bug resistant. And it was all thanks to this one little bacterium. The Bacillus thuringiensis. This little organism contains a gene which produces a natural insecticide called Bt toxin. And it really worked wonders. But all good things must come to an end, and so did this. Well not entirely, but let’s compare: GM cotton farmers in China, who acquired the crop in 1997 reported that pesticide use had decreased by 50-80 percent and that their earnings had increased by about 36 percent. Life was Vegas for a while. But then, those farmers, who had been farming this Bt cotton for several years now, started reporting that the benefits of this “magical” cotton was eroding, because secondary insect pest were increasing, forcing farmers to start using pesticides again, in order to protect their crops. This was already bad, but the cherry on top was, that many major cotton pests were evolving Bt resistance, meaning that this technology had become entirely useless. The world, scared by what it witnessed, started to resist GMO. Fears of the evolution of insecticide-resistant “superbugs” was spreading. Other people, impressed by the strength of these plants, started arguing that while they are useful, they may start spreading amongst native flora and thus destroy biodiversity, because they’d outpower the native plants. 

But environmental concerns weren’t the only ones. What would happen in the long-term when humans started consuming GM crops? The EU wasn’t happy with that uncertainty. In the late 90s, the EU declared a moratorium on the use and import of GM food and crops in general. However, this ban led to numerous trade disputes with other countries, especially the US, where GM foods were openly accepted. The World Trade Organization considered this unjustified, which led to the EU allowing the import of certain GM crops. The European Union then implemented strict labeling laws, requiring the labeling of all foods if they contained or consisted of GM products by more than 0.9 percent. The US did not require labeling at all, but there have been debates on national level regarding this issue.  

In conclusion, I believe that GMO can be as much of a curse as a blessing, but when put in the right hands with the right research, it can be a great tool, pushing humanity onward.