GMOs: The Untold Story
No biotech blog can be complete without addressing the giant elephant in the field – GMOs. As a biotech graduate, I’m a big fan, but as a member of the general public you probably have some blind, deep-seated hatred for them without even understanding why. This is probably a result of bad press because, unfortunately, the media (and some celebrities) thrive on negative publicity because spreading false rumours can be far more fun than just telling it as it is. Well, I obviously felt it was my responsibility to highlight some strong positive truths about Genetically Modified organisms (GMOs) and hopefully get everybody questioning their beliefs.
- What’s in a Name? “Genetically Modified Organism (GMO)” has somehow come to be synonymous with “inorganic” and “unnatural”. But if you think about it, we are all a genetically modified version of SOMETHING (our parents and ancestors) and we aren’t that bad now, are we? In fact, we were genetically modified by random recombination that could have made us better or worse than our parents. But with the genetic modifications that scientists do, there is almost near certainty that the product will be better than the original – so why not? We could just as easily call them “Genetically Better Organisms (GBOs)” or (as some biotechnologists are doing already) call them Genetically Engineered Machines (GEMs).
- GMOs are NOT “inorganic” foods: In my opinion, not classifying GMOs as organic is one of the biggest fallacies of the modern “organic-conscious” world. If you go down to the fundamentals of it all, a genetic modification has been made to the DNA of the crop in question. You are not about to sprout leaves and thick outer skin if you eat a GMO because the DNA of your food does NOT affect you in any way!!! What does affect you is all those chemicals that get sprayed on to your vegetables and accumulate as foreign substances in your body. GMOs have, in fact, been created to reduce the amount of inorganic chemicals farmers need to use so that we can eat more wholesome, ORGANIC food! Don’t believe me, watch this TED Talk.
- A Genetic Modification is like an evolutionary helping hand: Evolution is based on the principle that genes naturally alter themselves over time in response to environmental stresses. This genetic trial and error eventually leads to “survival of the fittest” where the best genetic make up ensures higher survival rates. However, human beings have undeniably shifted the natural balance of the environment and evolution cannot always keep up. Genetic modification is our way of helping organisms cope with the new and fast growing stresses that we have introduced. It is directed evolution where the trial and error happens in the lab and only the best alterations are introduced into the environment after rigorous due diligence.
- Non-food GMOs are what is helping to cure cancer: Genetic modifications are part of so many other aspects of our lives, and they are all useful in their own way. Nobody complains if a genetically modified strain of yeast is used to produce a higher yield of beer. Because nobody hears about that or cares, as long as they get some good beer. A lot of the new-age biopharmaceutical drugs that are used for treatment of life-threatening diseases (like cancer) are also obtained from using genetic modifications in bacteria, mice etc. Those products of genetic modification are introduced directly into patients’ blood streams and have saved thousands of lives. So what is scarier GMOs or cancer?
- Anything is possible: With the use of the right genetic modifications, the possibilities are endless. We can engineer life in much the same way that we engineer computers and smart-phones to get smarter and better equipped to deal with today’s demands and needs. I participated in the i(international)GEM competition in 2014 and it is amazing what can be achieved with a few bacteria and a handful of genetic manipulation techniques. Every team creates a GEM (or GMO, technically) that is capable of solving a world problem. Teams have turned junk metal into gold, micro-plastic into islands and bacterial biosensors that can tell you when you are sick. Every team also focuses on the bigger issues and ethics behind the practical use of such organisms. As does every biotech company that intends to plant a genetically enhanced vegetable.
The fact of the matter is that not too long into the future, we are not going to have enough land to sustain the agricultural demands of a growing human population. GMOs are part of the SOLUTION, not a part of the problem. So keep reading, keep learning and next time you see the term “GMO”, just think “What a GEM!”