Hostility to Genetically Modified Organisms is Lazy and Misguided, by Scott Merlino

Hello dear readers!

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been absorbed in getting ready for a gallery show of my quilts and other sewn objects Between that and holiday preparations, birthdays, and so forth, I’ve been neglecting my writing (and missing it too!)

So in the meantime, until I get more time to write again, I thought I’d share this deliciously provocative, well-written essay on genetically modified foods that I just came across. It’s by Scott Merlino, who taught the epistemology class I took a couple of years ago. Deeply informed in the biological sciences and in philosophy, Merlino presents our current state of knowledge on the subject within an orderly and logical argument in favor of GMOs and their life-enhancing and life-saving potential.

Here it is, mirrored (unmodified) from the philosophy blog Cave of Reason. I’m curious to know what you think:

Hostility to genetically modified organisms is lazy and misguided

by Scott Merlino

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” – Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (2002)

Every week thousands of people protest genetically modified (GM) organisms, and not a few vandalize research sites where GM crops and animals are developed or tested. Many European countries and regions of Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia ban some or all GM products. Greenpeace, for example, has a zero-tolerance stance towards GM. However, co-founder of Greenpeace Patrick Moore now advocates ardently for GM crops for humanitarian reasons: GM remedies for dietary deficiencies save lives.

GM refers to any organism whose genotype has been altered and includes alteration by genetic engineering (GE) and non-genetic engineering methods. GE refers to changes in the genetic constitution of cells resulting from the introduction or elimination of specific genes via molecular biology (i.e., recombinant DNA) techniques. All GE is GM, but some GM is produced by GE and some GM is not.

GM corrects micronutrient deficiencies endemic where rice is a staple food. Vitamin A provides humans with an essential nutrient for vision, growth and reproduction; its deficiency is a public health problem in more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia. The World Health Organization finds that over 250 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency and over 1 million die each year from it. Diets low in vitamin A produce over 300,000 irreversible cases of blindness annually, mainly in children, half of whom die within a year. Most of these people live in poverty, their diet is mainly a daily ration of rice. Lack of vitamin A also compromises immune system integrity and thus increases the risk of severe illness and even death from such common childhood infections as diarrhea and measles.

Wild rice grains contain a negligible amount of beta-carotene, a key metabolic vitamin A precursor. In the 1990s, molecular biologists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer designed the “Golden Rice” cultivar by inserting two additional genes into the rice’s DNA, thereby producing beta-carotene in the grain. The presence of beta-carotene, which makes kernels of corn bright yellow, also makes Golden Rice grains yellow. Beta-carotene derived from Golden Rice converts to vitamin A in humans.

If GM organisms such as Golden Rice can save human lives, then why are so many people upset? What exactly is it about GM rice or GM in general that people oppose? As many see it, GM is (a) unnatural, (b) untested, (c) unsafe, or (d) over-industrializes agriculture. This last concern is important, especially to proponents of sustainable agriculture, but it is not an objection to GM as such, it is an objection to when, how, and to what extent we should use GM cultivated crops. I won’t address this issue here, but see this 2001 Economic Impacts of Genetically Modified Cropsreport. Each of the remaining three objections warrants serious consideration, because they are popular and thus undermine much that such technology offers. What interests me is both how weak each objection is and how little available evidence counts for (and against) each.

Suppose that someone accepts GM for crops such as Golden Rice but not for others. It is difficult, then, to sustain an objection to either GM or GE in general. To be sure, GM is mostly used so far to design into massively cultivated crops traits such as selective herbicide or insect resistance. Objecting to this use of GM or GE amounts to objecting to the specific traits produced, not the method by which such traits were produced. But if one objects to specific GM traits, then GM is not the problem, and we change the subject from whether GM is acceptable to when it is unacceptable. This is another conversation worth having, but it is a different issue. Again, either one objects to GM, in general, or specific GM traits. One need not reject GM, as a process, out of concern for any potential unintended, bad consequences of specific traits that GM (either GE or non-GE) produces. We don’t reject a whole technology simply because we because fear some of it products.

(a) Is GM unnatural? Yes, and so what? As I see it, one cannot oppose GM organisms produced by non-genetic engineering, since this amounts to a rejection of traditional/conventional agriculture, which was invented by our ancestors at least 10,000 years ago who cultivated plants and domesticated animals to suit their needs and wants. Cows, sheep, goats, pigs, sheep, horses, corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and potatoes have all been genetically modified via selective breeding. We don’t reject all or even most human agricultural manipulations of these species, so we don’t reject all GM organisms. Of course, all GM is unnatural, but then all artificial selection is unnatural. Civilization depends upon artificial selection. We are living in and dealing with the consequences of human interventions (or expressions) of the natural order already. We innovate, observe consequences, and alter our ways so as to avoid the most demonstrably negative outcomes – this is nothing new.

What about genes moving from one species to another? Non-deliberate gene flow is possible when GM crops are grown in areas where interspecies contact occurs with non-GM crops or weedy species. It already happens in nature in wild populations, and in cultivated crop plants resulting from conventional selective breeding. However, rice species, and species, in general, with their different genotypes, have significant reproductive isolation, which makes them unlikely to hybridize with each other.

To be fair, there is something more specific to which many GM opponents object, namely genetic engineering (GE), which is a kind of GM. So, to call these GM techniques unnatural distinguishes molecular techniques from conventional plant and animal hybrid production methods such as outcrossing, crossbreeding, and inbreeding. GE is essentially biotechnology applied to genes. But we already accept such technologies in medicine. Since the 1990s, gene therapy researchers have been using “genes as medicine” in treatments for cystic fibrosis, diabetes, cancer, and even enhancing musculoskeletal tissue regeneration or inhibiting disease progression in brain disorders, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Creating novel gene combinations in organisms is not without possible perils but this is a reason for careful design, controlled observations and tests, and above all vigilance. So many unfortunate people stand to benefit from such genetic engineering that it is inhumane and anti-science to block such innovations from fear alone.

(b) Is GM untested? No, even a superficial literature search reveals that GM products and consequences have been and continue to be subject to peer-reviewed, controlled, tests designed to reveal likely hazards to human health and the environment. People voicing this objection need to overcome their intellectual torpor and do their homework on this. I recommend starting with the 2004 National Academy of Sciences “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects,” (2004). And the most recent 2013 systematic review of tests published in the Critical Review of Biotechnology concludes that “scientific research conducted so far detected no significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.”

(c) Is GM unsafe? Possibly, but that a process or product is possibly unsafe is a good reason for us to proceed with caution, and never a rational reason to forego research, development and testing, especially when profound improvements in human health and welfare are demonstrable. It is quite difficult to prove that something is safe, especially when people disallow or destroy research facilities. But tests for actual unsafe consequences have been done (see above).

Further, when studies designed specifically to detect adverse effects find no statistically greater risks using GM, opponents overlook or deny these results. In the US, FDA approval requires that each new GM crop be tested. If a new protein (trait) has been added to the genome, the protein must be shown to be neither toxic nor allergenic. The European Union invests more than €300 million in research on the biosafety of GM organisms. After a decade of research its recent 2010 report (p.16) concluded “GMOs are not, per se, more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

Yes, some investigators conclude that some GM organisms are unsafe. But few published studies survive expert scrutiny. One spectacular case worth reviewing fully is the 2011 Seralini studyalleging that herbicide-resistant corn caused cancer in rats. Its problematic experimental design and low statistical power provoked this 2012 European Food Safety Authority review.

By the way, one cannot assert consistently that GM is unsafe or dangerous and untested in the same breath, since the only way we may reliably show that any specific GM is a danger or unsafe is by testing under controlled conditions. If there is no such test, then there is no evidence that GM is either safe or unsafe. Speculation, anecdotes, and poorly designed studies that fail peer scrutiny will never satisfy burden of proof requirements even if they satisfy the lazy among us.

Scott Merlino
Senior Lecturer
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

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