To GM or Not to GM: A Few Words in Defense of Genetic Modification

Novinite Insider » SPECIAL REPORT | Author: Angel Petrov |May 17, 2015, Sunday // 00:13
Bulgaria: To GM or Not to GM: A Few Words in Defense of Genetic Modification Many countries are actively pursuing GM research, but regulations are hindering further progress and worldwide application, Mr P?draic Flood says. Photo by Angel Petrov

"It's the poor who suffer" due to European reluctance to GMOs, since solutions which could help meet needs of the poor "are stopped by the rich"...

"We'll almost run out of wheat by 2050" and genetic modification will be part of the solution, pushing humans to go where evolution won't...

It's also "part of the solution" to a range of problems stemming from overpopulation...

"Regulation, costs and fear" of GMOs are resulting in a business monopoly of certain producers...

What do you think of the statements above? These are an important part part of the inventory of pro-GMO (genetically modified organisms) lobby that has been gathering pace for the past years... aren't they?

Yes and no.

For Mr P?draic Flood, who works at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research and who was once opposed to genetic modification (until getting familiar with during his university studies), these is a matter of science, and also of debunking myths by telling what he as a scientist believes is the truth. On Saturday noon he held an event called Why We Need GMOs at the Sofia Theater, as part of the British Council's Sofia Science Festival, to make his point.

Speaking in front of a predominantly anti-GM audience (author included), he sought to confront some popular beliefs about an issue that is taking a more and more prominent place in social debates as more information about EU-US talks over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are being made public. In this particular case, GM critics were certainly more vocal if not that outnumbering the others.

But as Mr Flood opined (though he did so using other words), there is widespread ignorance about what genetic modification is: it has nothing to do with "tomatoes with tentacles", "lemons with eggs on the inside" or "apples that kill your children" or even fruits injected with anything. Most of what he wished to argue was relating to one of the aspects of GM: transgenics.

A number of genetic modification activities are already known to us, Mr Flood underlined. This is the case with artificial selection people "have been modifying thousands of years" through artificial selection the teosinte plants [the group uniting species from the Zea genus] to develop the maize we know today.

As for mutagenesis, another process which has to do with GM, pasta is an example of a product which in most of its forms has been undergoing it for a long time. The sweet tomato, to go further, is a naturally transgenic plant.

"All of these are GMOs", alongside genome editing, he pointed out. And after 20 million US farmers have used genetic mutation for 16 years and experiments in the last quarter of a century have shown no risk for humans, there is no reason to attribute more danger to it than to trans breeding for instance.

Answering to a question during the discussion that followed, he criticized the numerous reports of mice developing tumors after GMO testing, arguing the study was flawed due to the use of animals who were more disease-susceptible. He also sought to fend off claims of GMOs' negative impact on the environment, giving the example of monarch butterflies in America which a study showed were not being killed by the use of GMOs in agriculture but by the use of a herbicide which harmed milkweed, monarch butterflies' main food.

"What you change [DNA] for may not be safe. If you change it into toxic, the plant will be toxic. The act [itself] is safe," but the risk "depends on what we're trying to achieve," he warned, insisting that a wider use of genetic modification required full transparency on behalf of companies.

The plant scientist also gave various examples where genetic mutation was quite useful, including a safer production of insulin for diabetics (without using pig muscles) and of cheese and reduction of dengue fever in countries such as Panama.

He pointed to an opportunity that many countries in the world are missing: to prevent vitamin A deficiency in 3 million children through in increased consumption of golden rice which takes "forty grams every day" to address the health problem but "due to regulation is not on the market." Enumerating a host of countries which have developed substantially genetic modification (the US, France, Israel, Cuba, Indonesia, Japan and many others), Mr Flood added further effort was being blocked by regulation.

All that said, one thing remains unanswered – though this is not the speaker’s fault.

Even if GMOs' negative effects are one day officially disproved, the problem of public trust in corporations has to do with public trust in corporations. This is part of the concerns underlining resistance to GMOs;  and it is a question Mr Flood needn't answer because he is a scientist. But since he was there to point out the positives, I felt compelled to ask him what he thought anyway. How do we ensure safety and transparency when it comes to big companies

"It's very hard for me to answer you with a good solution; if I could, I'd probably be in another business," Mr Flood said, and then added: “But this is not unique to GMOs, this is something that is the case for so many technologies. You need to be able to trust regulatory authorities, you need to be able to implement these regulations in large businesses. That's something we need to do in general."

"Regarding the scientific aspect of it, you can relatively easily tell if something is GMO because the DNA will tell you - you can use a very standard, very common techniques to find these markers that will tell u whether or not it is GMO and how it was made. It's not that hard. It's just the code, the blueprint is in the plant, you just need a piece of the plant and you can find out. Of course a normal person will not have those techniques, but at some point you have to trust the authorities. And this is a totally different question."

Asked about TTIP, whose critics often point to the use of GM to warn against the agreement currently being negotiated, he was cautious, saying he had "nothing against GM being cultivated in Europe" as a supporter of modification but also reminding "there's more to TTIP than genetic modification", since "there are things that are probably quite unpleasant about it, big companies gaining control on markets". 

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Tags: GMOs, GMO, GM, genetic modification, TTIP, transgenics, Sofia Science Festival, British Council, companies

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