GMOs: Food for Thought

BY ANNELIESE MOLL
For the UAS Whalesong
A GMO is a genetically modified organism. These have been in the news quite a bit in the last few years, and there is always a high level of controversy that accompanies the topic. However, while many people believe genetically modifying an organism is a relatively new ability the concept is actually thousands of years old.
It really all started as humans began to domesticate animals and with the start of a more agriculture based existence. They started breeding animals to fit their needs, and the same can be said for their crops. By selectively choosing individuals with specific traits, such as larger kernels for their grain producing plants or higher amounts of milk production within goat offspring, humans were able to modify the world around them.
Fast-forward to present day: most of us would not recognize an ancient corn plant, and the same can be said for many other plants like cotton or soybeans. Currently, all of the food and all of the animals that we come into contact with daily are a result of the selective breeding that our ancestors started. The main differences have to do with the technology involved. Today we are able to create GMOs by inserting a specific gene into an organism.
The fears surrounding GMOs have to do with their impact on human health and on the natural environment. In regards to human health, the concerns range from the production of new allergies, to higher levels of toxicity, a decrease in nutritional value, or resistance to antibiotics (Bernstein et al., 2003).
Currently, there are six pesticide and GMO corporations dominating the agricultural market: BASF, Bayer, Dunpont, Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto, and Syngenta (USDA). In June of 2015 one of our favorite science educators within the  media made a visit to Monsanto. In the past Bill Nye has stood against GMOs because of his belief that researchers and scientists had little to no knowledge of the impact they (GMOs) could have on the environment. However, after his visit with Monsanto his opposition seemed to have vanished. A public statement was made when he made an appearance on StarTalk Radio about this. This included saying that his change of heart did not have to do with Monsanto, but rather with the ability to sequence genes faster than they had been able to do previously, which allows them to quickly reject plants that would not be suitable for farming or have higher susceptibility to pests and diseases. Another large factor was being able to see how genes to be altered are selected. He also mentioned that it takes at least five years of testing before it can be submitted to the FDA who then conduct another three to five years of testing before they will approve it. It’s also relevant to mention that on this visit Bill Nye was not paid by the corporation, and on StartTalk radio, he even brings up that he paid for this own plane ticket.
The top USDA approved genetically modified crops currently being produced are corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, alfalfa, canola, papaya, squash, apples, and sugarbeets. In regards to just corn, there are 33 modified variations patented by mostly the corporations listed earlier. Soybeans come in second with only 22 variations, and then cotton with 16.
Potatoes and most of the others are in the 1 to 6 range, but that is quickly changing.
Two other genetically modified products that are widely utilized around the world are insulin and Aspartame. Insulin is a hormone that is produced within the pancreas that allows the body to use glucose, which allows your body to keep your blood sugar levels in check. However, people with diabetes are not able to make their own. The insulin that people are now using was created from an insulin gene from within the intestines of pigs. Genetic modification allowed scientists to take that gene and insert it into a bacterium that develops and eventually produces insulin. From there the product is purified and given to people who are diabetic. Aspartame is a vital part of sugar free foods because of its ability to be roughly 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
Overall, it appears that the general idea of genetically modified crops is to create variations that are more resistance to viruses and other pests, drought resistant, or are larger. In the past mistakes have been made, some of which can be seen from the green revolution. However, many studies have been conducted and are continuing to be conducted in regards to the affects that GMOs could have on the environment and to humans.

References:
Bernstein J.A., Bernstein I.L., Bucchini L., Goldman L.R., Hamilton R.G., Lehrer S., Rubin C., and Sampson H.A. (2003).  Clinical and laboratory investigation of allergy to genetically modified foods. Environmental Health Perspectives, 111(8), 1114-1121.
USDA – APHIS – Biotechnology. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2015.
Uzogara, S. G. (2000). The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology Advances, 18(3), 179-206.

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