By: Brad Dieter, PhD
Read Time: .65 cups of coffee
Tl;dr: Genetic modification of organisms (GMOs) should be viewed as a technology and blanket statements about how they are bad for human health are not supported by over 30 years of data. GMOs should be viewed on a case-by-case basis and careful thought should be given to their use and application.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a hot bed of discussion amongst the blogosphere, internet forums, and the scientific community. For a long time it was a topic one could consider a minor issue and didn’t need that much attention. However, given the recent changes in the trajectory of human population, our climate, and advances in genetic engineering this topic needs to be at the forefront of scientific and moral discussions. Historically the conversations surrounding GMOs has involved scare rhetoric, faulty logic, appeals to nature, and caused a substantial polarization (i.e. GMOs are good or GMOs are evil) of the topic. What we really need is an honest, nuanced conversation about the topic because it is as far from black and white as one can get.
The Empirical Evidence Against GMOs
A thorough and critical examination of the scientific literature reveals zero, let me repeat that ZERO, evidence that GMO foods pose any measurable health risks. There is over 30 years of research regarding GMO foods and health and safety concerns and there is no consistent, coherent body of literature to indicate that there are measurable detrimental health effects in humans. I remain open to evidence so if you have any data in humans please send it my way. Thus much of what we will cover in this article relates to the philosophical and logical arguments about GMOs as those are what we can actually have a well-founded, well-reasoned, rational discussion about.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
The first order of business is to address one of the most common logical fallacies that occurs during a conversation about GMOs, the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy introduced by British philosopher G. E. Moore in his 1903 book Principia Ethica, essentially states that because something is natural it is good is fallacious. This is the “appeal to nature” argument stating that natural is good and artificial is bad. Easy examples to highlight this fallacy are the bubonic plague, AIDS, and natural toxins. Additionally, things like polio vaccines, organ transplants, and emergency medicine are also not natural but definitely fall into the “good” category. GMOs are claimed to be inherently bad because they are “not natural”. Clearly, this charge is guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy and I think we need to move on from such a parochial argument.This is one of primary argument used in the “GMOs are not healthy” argument.
Additionally, there is the topic of transgenic organisms in which genes from one species are inserted into an entirely different species. For example, a gene encoding a fluorescent protein might be inserted into a fish making the fish glow (This is actually super cool and doesn’t appear to have any negative health consequences on the fish). Now this has also been leveraged as an argument against GMOs, stating that genes from a different species ought not to be incorporated into a different one. This is also not a reasonable argument. The human genome contains a massive swath of genes from organisms, mostly viruses. Transgenic manipulations of genomes occur all the time in nature and are a part of evolutionary biology and may even be involved in beneficial adaptations of the human species.
The Status Quo Bias
One of the other main arguments used against GMOs is the status quo bias. The status quo bias is an emotional bias; a preference for the current state of affairs. The current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss. I prefer to discuss the status quo bias as stated by Kahneman, “The status quo bias” – individuals’ tendency to prefer to remain at the status-quo – is similarly attributed to loss aversion: It is assumed that the loss of the status-quo option looms larger than the gain of an alternative option”.
Departure from the status quo can be either disastrous or prosperous; often times remaining in the status quo is not in the best interest of the human race. For example, Homo Sapiens Sapiens lived in what can be described as abhorrent conditions for millennia: lack of food, inability to avoid the elements, infection, death in child birth, etc. If substantial changes had not been made (e.g. control over fire, domestication of food sources, building of homes, invention of clothes, the enlightenment, and the germ theory of disease) our species would be in objectively a worse situation than it is now. When we examine the “GMOs are a departure of current food practices and there are unknown future consequences” we fall victim to this bias. This also does not paint GMOs in a correct light, nor is it a useful argument for or against them.
GMOs as Information Technology
The third main issue that arises in discussions about GMOs is that they are often not well understood. There are important aspects of GMOs that we need to flesh out in order to understand them. The first concept is that GMOs are in essence an information technology, specifically gene selection and modification, which we have been applying for millennia with the caveat that we have had an exponential growth in our control and application of this technology in the last 20 years. Let us explore this concept further.
Historical genetic selection
Humans, as a species, have been genetically modifying organisms since their inception and we need to acknowledge that genetically modifying our food sources (and ourselves) has been an integral part of our evolution as a species. It began when they selected mates based on certain traits and expanded when they domesticated animals and plants and beginning selecting the specific, favorable traits of their livestock and agriculture.
The natural, organic, non-GMO apples, broccoli, lettuce, and corn you buy at the store have gone through millennia of trait selection through selective breeding practices. By definition, those foods are genetically modified from their original form. The genetic modifications of our food sources for 99% of human history occurred by selectively breeding plants or animals with desired traits hoping for specific outcomes. These changes often took several generations to manifest to an appreciable, meaningful degree in an entire species. These modifications also occurred within the same gene pool and relied on the manipulation of either existing mutations or the exploitation of an advantageous de novo mutation. This stands in stark contrast to current approaches to genetic modifications of organisms; specifically the use of transgenes and newly synthesized artificial genes.
Current genetic manipulation
The recent discovery of DNA, genes, and advances in molecular biology have given us control over the genomes of organisms not previously available to mankind. This has resulted in an exponential increase in our ability to modify the genomes of plants and animals, accelerating the changes of our food sources. Whether the rapid changes are beneficial or maladaptive will be discussed later but for now it is sufficient to say these changes occur on a time scale incongruent with the rate of our own evolution as a species.
One of the most overlooked aspects of current gene manipulation, especially given the recent advances in gene editing technology via the CRISPR-CAS system (I have experience working with this and doing actual gene editing myself), is the degree to which our control over gene manipulation effects the outcomes. It is often stated that traditional gene manipulation (i.e. selective breeding) is somehow safer than direct genome manipulation. This is a false conclusion. The difference is that selective breeding or mutagenic techniques tend to result in large swaths of genes being swapped or altered. GM technology, in contrast, enables scientists to insert into a plant’s genome a single gene (or a few of them) from another species of plant or even from a bacterium, virus or animal. Supporters argue that this precision makes the technology much less likely to produce surprises. Most plant molecular biologists also say that in the highly unlikely case that an unexpected health threat emerged from a new GM plant, scientists would quickly identify and eliminate it. “We know where the gene goes and can measure the activity of every single gene around it,” says Dr. Robert Goldberg, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles “We can show exactly which changes occur and which don’t” (cite). I resonate with the idea that selective breeding is much less in our control than direct genome manipulation and that advances to be made in the future ought to implore direct gene manipulation; however, I don’t feel that we know enough about 2nd and 3rd order effects of gene-to-gene interactions that we can safely claim, “We can show exactly which changes occur and which don’t”.
One of the arguments were hear against GMOs is that the introduction of a novel chemical or protein will proof harmful as we are not “used to metabolizing it”. This is a highly innacurate, ineffective claim. A thought experiment fleshes this out quite easily. Imagine someone of virtually pure African ancestry, their entire genetic lineage is from the African continent. This person, nor his genes, have been been exposed to foods that originate in South America or North America. If said individual moves to the United States and consumes blueberries (a plant touted for its health benefits) is it a valid assumption that the blueberries will cause this person to be stricken with disease? No. The introduction of a novel compound or protein is not an issue per se, it is the specific nature of that compound.
Fair Criticisms of GMOs
When I started writing this article I knew I wanted to be as intellectually honest as possible and I spent more time reviewing the arguments against GMOs than I did for them. As one can imagine I came across a swath of arguments ranging from stupid and dangerous, to cogent and thoughtful. I want to focus on the arguments that were substantive both philosophically and scientifically.
Uncontrolled Propagation (GMOs contaminate forever)
Modifying the genomes of organisms and releasing them into a population without a “genetic kill switch” is the equivalent of firing a gun, you can’t take it back. When you introduce a novel genome into a population and it is bred with current organisms you introduce that genome into the gene pool forever (unless some fluke mutation renders it inactive or inert after the first generation). While we can predict the effect of the gene on the initial phenotype and likely the phenotypes of the F1, F2, and F3 generations we lose our ability to predict how that gene will interact many generations down the road.
Now we need to really assess what this means. It may be that our intervention leads to some catastrophic collapse due to unforeseeable circumstances. This has been argued by Nassim Taleb in his paper on the Precautionary Principle. I think he makes a salient point about the fact we ought to be cautious in how we use this technology, but I think he misses some key points that render his argument not quite as solid as it is sold in his paper (see paper here and counter arguments here). Conversely, it could produce a phenotype that provides greater crop yield and becomes a staple that saves a large part of the world’s population during a famine. Additionally, we don’t know that following the natural course of the current crops evolution that it dies out due to some fluke phenomena. Based on what we currently know I find it foolish to make a bold, strong decision about what GMOs will do a priori. Speculations at this point ought to be tempered and carefully thought out. Scare rhetoric, doomsday proclamations, nor life saving claims about GMOS are well supported by any of the current data. The most honest assessment of this argument is that we need to acknowledge that “contaminating the gene pool” forever is something that we need to think very careful about before we introduce a novel gene and do due diligence in attempting to project as far out as we can.
Monopolies over seeds with IP
Perhaps one of the most compelling issues with GMOs is the misuse and abuse of intellectual property. Genetic manipulation can substantially reduce the cost of farming and increase crop yields (cite), increasing the quality of life of farmers and reducing the cost of goods for the public. However, corporate and individual greed cannot be overlooked and many companies that manufacture sees for GMO plants often raise prices and make plants “sterile” so farmers must repurchase seeds at exorbitant costs year after year. There are cases opposite of this where GMO technology has been designed with noble intentions and government regulations and red tape have prevented its wide spread “gifting” to third world countries. Golden rice is an excellent example of this. Golden rice was created in a lab to be high in beta-carotene to help ameliorate nutrient deficiency in third world countries. It took roughly a decade to get through the government regulations in order to be distributed in places like Africa. Issues like these might be solved through legislation and laws that regulate GMO technology, their uses, and enact statues much like those in drug production where special cases can be fast tracked.
Over confidence in meeting food supply
It has been argued that GMOs will be the only way to meet the growing demand for food supply. Based on current technology and an analysis of all the contributing factors I think it is safe to say that GMO technology alone, as it currently is, will not solve a food shortage problem if the world population continues to grow at the same exponential rate and our usage of fossil fuels, land, water, and other natural resources continue at its current rate. Overconfidence in GMO technology may be a contributing factor to a future food storage. This is pure speculation on my part as there is no good, solid evidence to support either side.
How we really ought to view GMOs
Categorizing GMOs as either bad or good is a rather near sighted perspective. GMO technology ought to be view just as that, a technology. It can be utilized to help buoy the human race forward as we begin to encounter unforeseen obstacles. For example, GMO technology may be critical in adapting to climate change as the climate may change faster than plants and animals can naturally adapt. We may require GMO technology to create plants that thrive on Martian soil if/when we become an interplanetary species. Conversely, engineering plants to display massive herbicide resistance or to profit off of GMO IP at the expense of farmers may be an abuse of the technology. In reality GMOs need to be viewed as a technology and how it is applied on a case by case basis.
This paper also provides an excellent technical read of many of these issues