Scitech | Tampering with the genetic code

Benefits and concerns for bioengineered food

Since Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA structure in 1953, tools to genetically engineer the fundamental code for life have been in development. Technology has always been used to manipulate the living environment, and now, for the first time in history, we can actually use it to genetically alter our food and bioengineer what we put on the table. We can enhance desired traits of crops, such as resistance to pests or nutritional content. That’s the promise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But now that companies are patenting genetic sequences – the very code of life – there are risks that need to be addressed.

Making a GMO is as simple as taking one gene from a plant or an animal and inserting it into the genome of another organism. But their potential is significant. Genetically modified (GM) plants are currently used in 25 countries, 15 of which have cultivation areas bigger than 50,000 hectares. Widely viewed as the future of food production, they could be incorporated into highly sustainable practices.

An article by Peggy G. Lemaux in the 2009 Annual Review of Plant Biology explains, “Plants can be created that increase water use and fertilizer efficiencies, that remediate soil contaminants, increase no-till or low-till practices to help reduce greenhouse gases, and produce higher yields without increasing land usage, particularly in developing countries.” Hopes for genetically modified foods include being capable of alleviating world hunger and sustaining population increase. One of their biggest potential benefits is resistance to cold temperatures and droughts, making them perfect for regions where growth of traditional crops is difficult and subject to climate obstacles. In terms of the environment, GMOs could potentially help produce more food from less land, reduce the environmental impact of food production by eliminating the need for chemicals, and rehabilitate damaged or less fertile land. Another application is the production of fruits and vegetables with longer shelf lives, which could reduce waste incurred in transport and supply.

DNA recombination, the process of GMO creation, consists of transferring the desired gene into the target plant or animal, essentially by invading the target cell and depositing the desired gene. In order to successfully invade the target cell, a transfer vector is used, most commonly a bacteria or a virus, with the DNA of the vector recombining with the cut-off DNA sequence of the desired gene. Because of the higher success rates of bacterial transformation, this is the most widely used method today, and a source of the primary concerns with GMOs.

The potential negative effects of GMOs are hard to overlook, and scientists still cannot agree on the consequences of releasing GM material into the environment. Nature is used as a laboratory. There is concern about the dangers that the uncontrolled spread of GMO cultivations can impose on the world’s biodiversity. The current genetic diversity of life on earth has evolved, and thrived, for millions of years. We have successfully domesticated numerous species of plants and animals through breeding. Now, through genetic engineering we are introducing genes into crops that will compete with the existing code of the crop; the seeds developed through conventional breeding, which are already starting to disappear, could be lost forever. GMO crops will be grown in the same regions as non-GMO crops of the same species, which leads to another major problem: interbreeding. The gene transfer to non-target species can happen between crops planted next to each other via pollen dispersal, and there are already several cases where farmers have been accused of cultivating GM patented crops on their farms from pollination without paying for them. Such transfer of GMOs in the environment can create possible problems for their traceability, and widespread use of herbicide-resistance genes, for example, could lead to the development of resistance in insect populations exposed to the genetically modified crops.

The effects on human health are also problematic: most notably, the introduction of new allergies from traces of bacteria and viruses used during the transfer of the DNA sequence, mixing of GM products in the food chain, and making plants antibiotic-resistant through accidental crossbreeding. The 1989 outbreak of L-tryptophan in the United States was triggered by toxic impurities from traces of GM material, and caused the deaths of 37 people, leaving 1,500 with permanent disabilities.

The methods that are currently used to test the potential health risks with GMOs are ineffective because they are based on the concept of substantial equivalence, which maintains that a novel food should be considered just as safe as a conventional food if it demonstrates the same characteristics and composition as the conventional food. Most of the time, however, the product is tested with regard to general composition of the plant, with no special tests for human and animal safety, as with the case of L-tryptophan.

The effect of GMOs on small farmers in developing countries should also be considered. Small farmers could lose their competitiveness in the market due to the patents of the big multinationals, and traditional practices in agriculture might be driven out because of their inability to cope with the GM plants’ higher yield. Since GM seeds are composed of intellectual property, access for public research may be restrained and patent laws could be enacted to act nationally, thus leaving whole countries at the mercy of biotechnology companies.

That’s what happened in the United States when GMOs were officially patented in the ’80s with regulations stating that the provisions created by the three state agencies – USDA, FDA and EPA – are enough, and no potential health or environmental effects need to be taken into consideration.

The situation in Europe has been different from that in the U.S. for two reasons: the increased presence of ecological parties in the European parliament since the end of the ’80s, and a major outbreak of mad cow disease in Great Britain. The demand for GM food products has been significantly lowered because the European public has general mistrust and caution with regard to such products. So that’s why when the freshly appointed European commissioner on health, John Dalli, announced earlier this year that a new GM potato as well as three sorts of GM maize were approved, the public cried foul, citing research showing that releasing these GMOs into the environment could raise bacterial resistance to life-saving medicines.

Nobody knows what the future offers for GMOs, but the prospects are far too great to be neglected. We need more than ever to ensure the safety of GM products through unbiased, multinational testing. But before all that, we should examine the consequences of biotechnology companies having patents on the code for life so that they do not stiff public research. If there is anything that’s our common heritage, it’s the genetic diversity of nature.