There's nothing sinister about GMO foods; we eat them every day

In terms of food, technically everything we eat is “genetically modified”. [iStockphoto]

The frequently dreaded three letter initial, 'GMO' has been doing rounds since the government opted to allow importation and cultivation of crops derived from this technology in the country.

Does the unease surrounding this technology stem from rational doubts about their safety or is it just much ado about nothing? To many, the concept of genetic engineering by which GMOs are derived is a mystery, resulting in the inability to confidently embrace the technology.

The good news is that there is nothing sinister about GMOs. As a matter of fact, the process of genetic modification has been occurring naturally and spontaneously without human intervention for as long as life has been on earth.

In terms of food, technically everything we eat is “genetically modified”, in the sense that they don’t occur in the same state as they did in the past. Most people would not recognise the ancestral forms of common foods like bananas, maize, rice and so on.

The only way that these crops transformed over time to be what we recognise today, is through changing their genes. These changes occur naturally, and are an integral mechanism for survival of living things in challenging circumstances. For instance, if a new disease emerges, or the climate changes drastically, only those crops that can change their genetics survive.

The rest go extinct. A second way that plants (and even animals) have been genetically modified over time is through selection by farmers. This occurs when farmers pick out the best or novel-appearing crops and preferentially save them for planting in subsequent seasons.

Since observable differences between plants are due to differences in their genetic make-up, the selection of preferred plants over long periods time, inadvertently results in crops that are genetically modified for improvement relative to the initial plants.

It is fair to argue that current reservations are not against crops modified by selection over time, but rather, with crops modified by introduction of genes from other organisms, a process known as transgenesis. However, this is also based on naturally occurring phenomena. For instance, the swellings typically seen on branches and stems of plants such as tomatoes and mango trees are a prime example of natural transgenesis at work.

When a plant is injured, common soil bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens usually detect the chemicals released by these plants and rush to invade the plants. The bacteria transfer part of their DNA into the DNA of the plant cells. This transferred DNA contains genes that re-engineer the plant cells to produce food for the bacteria, resulting in enlargement of the plant cells to form the characteristic galls that are visible.

By carefully observing this process, scientists have been able to utilise this natural process to genetically engineer plants for human benefit. A popular technique involves using the A. tumefaciens bacteria to deliver useful genes that confer traits such as disease resistance, insect resistance or enhanced nutrients such as vitamin A.

The famous Bt maize and Bt cotton were made by inserting a gene from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. The gene enables the plants to resist caterpillars making them vastly superior to non-engineered plants.

Other than improving crops, GMO technology has been used to produce important pharmaceutical products such as insulin, that we can’t do without. In the past, treatment of diabetes necessitated harvesting of insulin from cattle, pigs or even sharks. Imagine the number of animals that were needed to produce sufficient quantities for human use. Other complexities included purification and the fact that animal insulin varies slightly from human insulin.

As soon as the genetic sequence of human insulin was deciphered, scientists were able to engineer bacteria and fungi to economically produce high-quality insulin for human use. Currently, GMO technologies are routinely used to produce vaccines, antibiotics and novel biologics such as monoclonal antibodies that have revolutionized human healthcare.

There is hardly any controversy regarding the use of GMO technology in producing healthcare products, but debates arise when the technology is applied to food production. The scientific weight of evidence suggests that genetic engineering is among the safest technologies available. However, for the past decade, this claim has been consistently undermined based on the findings of the infamous Seralini study.

In 2012, Seralini published a paper claiming that consumption of GMOs caused severe cancer in mice. This claim was swiftly debunked by the scientific community as the study was clearly demonstrated to be deeply flawed and incredible. Subsequent studies failed to reproduce his output but instead bolstered the claim of overall safety and benefits of GMOs.

With a clearer understanding of what GMOs are, it may be wise to evaluate the merits and demerits of introducing them into the country with less regard to the sensationalised and unfounded claims of dangers posed by GMOs.