Genetically Modified Organisms

by Allen Leigh, contributor

A few weeks ago, I brought up the subject of genetically modified organisms (GMO). I thought I would do a post on GMO so I could go into more detail about it. As a background on GMO for those not familiar with it, the April 2013 issue of Discover magazine has an interesting article on GMO. That article is also online.

To begin with, let me explain my attitude towards GMO, because my background means I’m biased in certain ways about GMO. I’m in favor of the concept of genetically grown plants. I was trained and worked in industry as an electrical engineer and a computer software engineer for over 40 years. It seems natural to me to modify the DNA of plants such that they develop desirable characteristics. For example, plants are being developed to not be affected by the use of Roundup. This means that farmers can spray their fields with Roundup to control weeds and not reduce the growth of their crops. GMO also means that plants can be modified to be resistant to insects, thus reducing the need for those plants to be sprayed with insecticides. One of my concerns, however, about GMO is that pollen from GMO plants may spread to non-GMO plants and cause contamination of the DNA of the non-GMO plants. I’m also concerned that some GMO plants are sterile thus forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year. A third concern is that GMO scientists are modifying DNA without giving plants sufficient time to adjust to the changes. DNA changes do occur in nature, but those changes occur over millions of years, while GMO changes occur over months or a few years. Through GMO, we are introducing into our food supply genes that have never been in food, and we don’t know how our bodies will react to those genes. We don’t know if negative side-effects of those genes will occur.

Now, lets look at the Discover article. According to the article, 93% of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified. In addition, a high percentage of the corn grown in the US is via GMO. GMO has drastically increased food production throughout the world, and people who support GMO say this is important, because the population of the world is increasing, and new methods of growing food must be developed to feed the new mouths. American scientists and engineers are, in general, in favor of GMO. In Europe, however, many (most?) scientists and engineers are against GMO. Organic farming is popular in Europe, and organic farmers are worried that fields of GMO plants will contaminate their fields of organic crops. Several European countries have made it illegal to grow GMO plants, and at least one large food corporation has agreed to move its GMO research out of Europe and to not use GMO in food intended for European markets.

Decades of the use of GMO techniques have taken place without measurable impact of our environment. However, new evidence may be emerging that shows that GMO is having an undesirable impact on our environment. A report was issued this week about GMO modifications of rice spreading to relatives of the rice which are considered weeds. The weedy-rice showed signs of GMO even though the plants were not subject to GMO. Time will tell if additional scientific research brings out more examples of negative influences of GMO on plants, especially those providing our food supply.

Another scientific discipline that is similar to GMO is the creation of synthetic DNA, that is DNA not naturally occurring. Scientists are doing this by taking small snippets of DNA and combining them into workable genomes. The October 2013 issue of Discover has an article that discusses this. The online version of this article is here. As explained in the article,

At its most basic, synthetic biology is about making DNA from scratch, on scales from individual molecules to cells, tissues and even entire organisms. The field’s raison d’être is to design and build brand-new biological systems to eradicate deadly diseases, manufacture better materials and reduce reliance on nonrenewable resources.

An example of synthetic DNA is the work of scientists to develop plants that glow in the dark, such that these plants could provide lighting for buildings.

My concerns about synthetic biology are similar to my concerns about GMO: control of the output of synthetic biology such that the new organisms are beneficial and not destructive to mankind. In piecing together snippets of DNA into new organisms, or as in the case of GMO, the taking of genes from animals or plants and placing them into other animals or plants, scientists are doing in a few months or a year or two what evolution might do in millions of years. I worry there might be undesirable side effects of this work by scientists and engineers.

It’s important for each of us to become familiar with GMO and DNA synthesis, because GMO foods are becoming more common in stores, and we have to decide if we will buy and consume those foods, or not. Especially, as we struggle to feed the less advantaged peoples of the world. In addition, many (most?) of us will experience synthetic organisms that were developed by scientists not by nature. I don’t know if the LDS church has taken a position about GMO and DNA synthesis. These may be topics in which the Lord expects us to intelligently study the issues involved and make our own decisions about those issues. At any rate, problems from GMO and synthetic biology are a class of problems never experienced before.
Allen’s write up was re-posted at ieet.org.

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5 Responses to Genetically Modified Organisms

  1. rogerdhansen says:

    These issues looks directly into man’s relationship with evolution (and ultimately to God, if you believe in Him). Humanity, since it has become sentient, has dramatic changed the face of the Earth, And with science and technology moving ahead at an ever increasing pace, the changes our children and grandchildren will see are almost unimaginable. Man is becoming very much the co-creator of the Earth with God (and certainly master of the future of the Earth). Whether this is good or bad, I leave to theologians, philosophers, etc. But in essence, mankind is increasing playing god.

    Be that as it may, you and I are given a reality. Too many people are going to bed hungry. Part of this can be solved by improved global farming techniques, more efficient use of water, better methods for preserving food, etc. But some of it will require more technologically innovative solutions. I view science and technology (including GMO and DNA synthesis) as one important solution to issues like famine and hunger.

    A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with the Head of the International Rice Research Institute (located in the Philippines), and he felt that GMO was critical to meeting the future food needs of the world. It was interesting that you used rice as an example in your cautious tale. Whether GMO and/or DNA synthesis research and application occur in Europe and the United States, it will most certainly happen in Asia. We need to understand science and technology.

  2. Allen says:

    The October 2013 issue of Discover (online version is here) has an interesting article about rice containing Arsenic. The levels may be several times higher than the EPA standards for drinking water, and the problem is world-wide not just in the US. One researcher stopped buying rice-based cereal bars and began making her own rice-free bars. Another researcher stopped eating energy bars sweetened with rice syrup when she found out the bars had 5 times the EPA standard for water. So, GMO/DNA synthesis aren’t the only problems with our food.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    The following comment was made on this article at ieet.org by RJ Crayton:

    Really enjoyed your post. GMO is an issue that sticks in my craw. Making massive changes to the genes of plants (to do things like resist Roundup) is alarming.

    Improving farming techniques is important, but I think it’s more important to know what the long-term effects of these changes are before introducing them into the food chain in such a dramatic fashion.

    Beside the global issue of GMO (contaminating other plants), there are individual issues. The most important of which, in my opinion, is labeling. Yes, some plants that are not GMO are being affected by GMO plants. But, people have a right to know if the products they are purchasing are directly GMO and US Government officials don’t seem to be interested in helping consumers figure that out. If people don’t believe GMO is bad for them, they’ll buy GMO products. If they don’t want it, they should have a choice about whether or not to get it. But, other than some of the higher end grocery stores (like Whole Foods) promising to label, there’s no way for consumers to know. To me, that’s the real ethical issue here. You can’t have true consent unless it’s informed consent. In the US, consumer have very little opportunity to get the information they need to make informed consent.

    Again, great piece. You illustrate the issues with GMO and DNA synthesis well.

    • Allen says:

      Here is my reply to Crayton’s reply, as published in ieet.org.

      About a week ago I purchased an item that contained an icon on the wrapper about the food not being GMO. It looks like some manufacturers may be doing what the government isn’t doing.

  4. rogerdhansen says:

    The following comment was made by gary brief at ieet.org:

    I have followed the GMO issue for many years and here is what I know. Monsanto, the big leader has done many things that are beyond unethical and puts anything they say unable to be trusted. Their ex employees are on the supreme court and at almost every other level of government – so how can the public get a fair shake? They have released pollen from their crops which has contaminated thousands of unsuspecting farmers crops and seed then they sue the farmers and put them out of business. This is CRIMINAL and unbelievably evil. It was their fault that the pollen drifted, not the farmer’s fault. Since the dna molecule is not visible with the naked eye how could a farmer know his crop is contaminated? Well their lawyers bankrupt these farmers. They do this on purpose to push out non GMO farmers. In India many farmers committed suicide over their actions. The heavy use of roundup has been directly linked to the collapse of the Monarch population and bee die off. Europe banned them and have recently caved to their legal tactics.

    Next Monsanto has bought up the majority of small seed companies ON EARTH, keeping non GMO seed varieties hostage. Monocropping is just settin gup the human race for disaster. As insects and disease organisms will find the weakness in their creations and when the soybean or corn or gm wheat collapse, billions will go hungry. Since they have wiped out the thousands of varieties that used to be grown human existence will be in trouble, and what for? Profit is their only motive. If it wasn’t they would not spend billions to sue or to control the worlds seed. No company should have the right to control the majority of the worlds biodiversity of seed. No one.

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