Frankenfoods gonna get your momma!

I recently engaged in an informal discussion group that dealt with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) – a topic that elicits an emotionally-charged response from quite a few people these days. The actual science behind these “marvels” of modern science and technology often gets relegated to a status of insignificance. On the other side of this issue one can detect a whiff of what might be considered arrogance as some folks completely pooh-pooh any negative comments about GMOs. I suspect the “truth” lies somewhere between these extremes.

For the detractors GMOs are evil and are an attempt by Big Farms and Big Pharma to make vast amounts of money and destroy the world in the process. For those true believers that find nothing wrong in the rapid creation of engineered organisms there are no such things as unintended consequences. We are the masters of the universe and can bend it to our will.

While there may well be some harm lurking in our use of some GMOs the balance seems clearly in favor of their being a boon to humanity. As the climate changes make it increasingly difficult to grow crops in some areas, our ability to insert genes for drought resistance will be invaluable.

Once upon a time diabetics had to rely on pig insulin to manage their symptoms; now we have coaxed microorganisms to make large amounts of actual human insulin. Hemophiliacs used to need clotting factors extracted from potentially tainted human blood; now they don’t.

The negative side of GMOs is a lot less clear. While there may be some odd effects of engineering plants to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, so far we have little solid evidence that this is true. Similarly, there are problems attributed to BT plants (plants with genes from a bacterium that makes them toxic to insects that might eat them); again, the connections are not clear.

One problem that anti-GMOers bring up is the predatory and monopolistic character of some of the purveyors of some GMOs. I might agree that some of these corporations are egregiously awful; however this is a completely different matter than whether GMOs themselves are awful. The willingness to conflate these different things shows either a lack of logical rigor or cynical dishonesty.

Interestingly (to me, anyway) the next day after the discussion I ran across mention of a new use of a GMO. In this case a soil bacterium related to the botulinum organism has been engineered to fight cancer. This normally flesh-eating germ was altered so that its appetite would be for cancer cells. Trials on dogs were quite successful in some cases – so much so that researchers were emboldened to try it on a human subject. The patient had some negative side effects, but the tumor that was treated was destroyed. A small step, but one made possible by our ability to engineer organisms to do our bidding. Discover magazine has a brief account of this effort; click here to read it.