Did you hear the news about genetically modified Salmon being approved for consumption? Did it make you feel a bit uneasy?
Maybe you are undecided if it is very bad, or not that bad? Thanks to WHO everyone is a bit nervous about red meat, should we be nervous about fish as well??? I am sure you have not jumped up and said: yes finally!!! Did you? And why? Because probably you know what GMO stands for but you do not understand what it means in real life.
Shall we try to look into available information? I promise, I will try to make it as painless as possible.
Genetically Modified Organism – an organism that has been modified genetically. Ta da! 😉 Somehow a very smart engineer, trained in molecular biology, has managed to alter the natural DNA code of a living thing and changed it, usually by swaping the original piece of DNA, for a piece coming from another living thing. Remember the analogy: DNA as organism’s library, RNA as notes taken from the library and then notes (RNA) used to make your cake (protein)?
(if you want to re-read here is the DNA post)
The concept is to alter the instruction so eventually the cake comes out somewhat ‘better’. It is a super complicated process, you do not just throw sh…t on the wall and hope it sticks. You have to find the perfect book, the perfect chapter, paragraph, sentence. If you are swapping something, the number of letters has to match, otherwise it simply won’t work. The book still has to be as masterpiece as it used to be. The change has to be super smooth.
Why on Earth would we do that?!?
To make things ‘better’, according to our human standards. Before you freak out, remember one thing: life has been getting ‘better’ for millions of years (if you do not believe in evolution I will lose you here). Natural selection has been putting forward ‘better’units and mixing them with other ‘better’ units, that adopted better to current circumstances. How? By keeping them alive and breeding. At the same time humans for thousands of years have been unintentionally altering gene pools by eating cows that were not giving much milk and keeping the ones that were. Are you, your friend or neighbor a happy owner of a pedigree pet? Well, there you go. So the environment and humans have been influencing things all the way back. Yes, GMO is different, it is taking things to another level, however I am trying to show here, that we are not jumping from 0 to 10. We are probably going from 7 to 11.
So what do we want to make better and why?
Most common reason to make a genetic ‘improvement’ is to get more of something with less effort: whether it is growing bigger tomatoes, that will take longer to go off. Or bigger corn with less pesticides. Or more heat resistant weed. That is in the food department.
There are even more crucial applications in medicine such as making bacteria produce human insulin, or plants producing human growth hormone. These applications are truly amazing and making huge improvements in people’s lives. I bet we do not have a problem with that. However we do have a problem with GMO food, right?
So is it dangerous and how?
Currently there is no proof that GMO food is any way more dangerous to us than non-GMO food. Full stop. There might be a small chance that changed organism might produce a slightly different protein and that could cause an allergy, but there are plenty of non-GMO allergens nowadays, so I would not blame the genetic engineering for it. Moreover genes once integrated into the genome do not just jump off and get attached somewhere else. Especially if a product has been released to the market, it is stable.
However there is one massive risk associated with GMO: natural balance of our environment. By introducing a new modified organism into the wild there will be an impact on other species. It is very difficult to completely separate new crops or animals from the outside world, even if rules are quite strict. We are humans. We make mistakes and even if the rules are out there, we do not always follow them. The new altered species could mix with the naturally occurring ones and consequences are difficult to foresee. Some species could suddenly gain advantage over others or have unexpected impact leading to a shift in the ecosystem. For example a new hybrid of a grain could be toxic to a certain bird, or a new breed of fish could be better at clearing the nutrients and lead to extinction of the original species. Going back to our book analogy: if you changed some sentences mid way through a novel, you might unintentionally be influencing the story a few chapters down the line.
Another controversy is connected with the fact that if you create a new organism with altered DNA you can patent it and claim it. It is yours to have for a while.
Just to clarify: I am not trying to give you a good or bad answer here. I am not even sure myself how I feel about GMO food. But it should not stop me from trying to understand the topic, so I can follow the developments, and when needed, come up with a yes- no opinion. And if I feel one day that things are not the way they should be, I will be confident enough to raise my voice. Because there will be more developments: a lot of companies have been watching the salmon journey through WHO approval holding their horses. Things will not happen overnight, but I bet we will hear that type of news more often.