A Cost-Benefit Look at GMOs

NUSCI prides itself on being a platform for all discussions of science, technology, and progress. Our writers cover fields as disparate as prion diseases and Fermi’s Paradox.

The only requirement is that it be done in the spirit of science. A scientific worldview is a powerful lens through which to view the world; unsubstantiated claims need proof, and everything is subject to scrutiny. This should happen for both sides of arguments.

Unfortunately, some trends and topics become so enveloped in misconception that accurate writing can become difficult. Stem cell research, nuclear research, and vaccines have all had their 15 minutes (or more) under public scrutiny — most often by well-intentioned but misguided critics.

NUSCI is not immune to well-intentioned but slightly skewed editorials. These stories all look the same. Diminutive concerns about an emerging technology will be given exorbitant attention and proposed in arguments that make them seem equal to the benefits of the new technology. Good science writing should avoid such ambiguities, but it’s a difficult balance.

For example, vaccines are great. They will save an estimated 3.7 million lives over the next ten years. There are known side effects to vaccines: 0.006 percent of vaccinated people will experience some type of adverse event (most often a rash, fever, or soreness), but that cost is outweighed by the unthinkably large benefit.

Everyone should be vaccinated. Whether the government should be allowed to mandate vaccination is a separate issue, but the numbers clearly indicate that vaccines are a powerful medical advance. Unfortunately, it’s (incredibly) easy to write an article that plays on the fears, ignoring the significant benefit.

It’s commonplace to focus on the sensationalistic side of an argument. Science writers, especially if they are intrinsically biased or lazy, have a tendency to “stir the pot.” For example, writing, “vaccines protect from disease, but have accounted for 128,717 adverse events over the last ten years,” is technically accurate, and might get some shares on social media, but is misleading without a mention of how many people were vaccinated during that time period (1.9 billion).

Going further, a writer could say, “scores of children will experience allergic reactions towards the eggs and gelatin used to produce the vaccines.” This is also true but is a necessary evil when considering how many children will die without vaccination. In the end, any science writer covering controversial subjects without providing perspective is either incompetent or partial.

Which brings us to the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are a controversial subject. In fact, GMOs might be the most controversial of all Americans-pretend-to-understand-science debates.

Last year PewResearch conducted a study comparing the opinions of the American public to American scientists, which they defined as the community connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They found marked differences in all the areas one would expect: global warming, evolution, animal use in research, etc.

When asked whether vaccines, like MMR, should be required for children, 68 percent of public agreed vs. 86 percent of scientists. Of all the questions asked, however, the greatest difference was in answer to whether GMOs were safe to eat. Surprisingly, only a third — 37 percent — of the American public seems to think that GMOs are safe (vs. 88 percent of scientists). Were GMOs put to the referendum they would have been outlawed completely by now

When asked whether it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, even fewer agreed: 28 percent vs. 68 percent of scientists (note: not all of these scientists have knowledge of food production and its link to health).

Like GMOs, fears of pesticides far outstrip the reality. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are more cancer-causing mutagens in a single cup of coffee than from all the pesticide residues a human will eat during an entire year. Furthermore, 99.99 percent of the cancer-causing pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants as a natural defense against insects and other predators.

The question is, then, are fears that GMOs will be more harmful than conventionally bred plants grounded in a scientifically valid viewpoint?

No.

Is public fear of GMOs as unfounded as the suspicions associated with pesticides and vaccines? Yes, perhaps even more so.

Regardless of this fact, NUSCI published an editorial several years ago titled “Genetically Modified Foods: The Ethics of it All.” The writer took shots at GMOs with a non-scientific approach and hid behind the umbrella term “ethics”: a catch-all phrase that was used in this instance to avoid a more rigorous investigation of the subject.

They wrote, “Though the psychosocial and cultural issues surrounding GM products are great, the issue has not been studied thoroughly enough by the companies of which [sic] produce these products. Perhaps this is a lesson for all companies to embrace, that every cause has an effect.” Going further, they argued that, “Scientifically GM crops are done so [sic] by altering nature to out liking and consequently destroying the humanistic ties between man and nature.” Finally, they branded GMO crops as a product of corporate greed and severed ties with any attempts at impartial journalism.

It’s not hard to understand that the non-scientific public will fear a phrase like “Genetically modified organisms,” even when they fail to realize that’s what the acronym stands for. But NUSCI isn’t a platform for the propagation of baseless, bias-riddled editorials. Below is a more in-depth exploration of GMOs, including a summary of what the literature tells us, an explanation of the across-the-board support from scientists, and a comparison of GM vs. non-GM crops.

WHAT’S A GMO?

It’s an organism that’s had its genome altered.

We, and all other organisms, are technically genetically modified organisms. But “genetically modified” in its modern usage is an organism with a specific and intentionally introduced gene, usually from unnatural origin. Humans have been genetically engineering their food crops for over nine thousand years. Long before we understood the genetics of organisms, early farmers were selectively breeding plants with desirable traits, like increased food yield and resistance to drought. They also selectively bred animals, which explains why Chihuahuas today look slightly different than their wolf ancestors.

The centers of origin, shown above, are places where modern day food crops came into existence. Without intentional selective breeding — a repeated generational selection for the crops with desired properties — we would be without modern day corn, strawberries, apples, rice, oranges….The list goes on.

Many of the crops taken today to be “natural” — i.e. not touched by a scientist — are actually the product of thousands of years of human selection, an unintentional form of genetic engineering. The image above shows the creation of corn; a cross between two completely distinct organisms, Trisacum dactyloides and Zea diplopernennis. Any arguments claiming it’s unnatural for humans to alter the germline ignore the fact that humans have been become masters in this art over the past millennia. If humans are breaking their “humanistic ties between man and nature,” as the writer would suggest results from genetic modification, then we broke the tie some 10 thousand years ago.

The term “GMO” doesn’t include products of selective breeding. It refers to intentional breeding and the introduction of non-native genes. The more informed critics of GMOs argue that the practice is doesn’t account for all possible outcomes. Something bad might happen. Reputable studies, referenced below, show this has yet to happen, but it’s important to realize what a crop must go through in order to be approved.

Modern day GMOs are developed against a range of factors that might interfere with plant growth. Genetically modified crops are developed to fight insects, funguses (see: mycotoxins), and to increase stress resistance (like drought and flood).

The USDA conducts a review on all GMOs to prove that they are safe, and as a result, the average GMO crop takes $136 million and 13 years to bring to the market. The crop is also subject to reviews by both the EPA and the FDA.

WHAT’S ORGANIC?

Organic food means that the food crop was not genetically engineered (i.e. with direct insertion of non-native genes). It does not describe a plant with an un-tampered genome. As previously mentioned, humans have been looking for more efficient strains by generational breeding for ten thousand years. In the most recent 50, we’ve become more creative.

The image above is of centers for radiation mutagenesis. In the domes there are strong sources of radiation surrounded by rows of crops. The theory was that over enough time, some crops would, by random mutation, express greater yields of their crop or have higher levels of stress resistance. While getting a strain to express a mutation at an exact point in the genome needed to confer a positive advantage is very rare, useful strains did come out of this approach. The most well known are Rio Star ® grapefruit and Amaroo, a rice variety that makes up more than 60 percent of the rice in Australia. Were a crop with larger fruit to come out of that facility, it would be known as “organic.”

An alternate method for induced mutation is by chemical treatment. Chemical mutagens like Ethyl methanesulfonate can create a large number of mutant crops in a manner similar to ionizing radiation. Over 2,250 plant variants have been produced by the mutagenic approaches outlined above, but none of these plants qualify as “genetically modified.” All of these crops qualify as “organic.”

To restate the point: humans have been genetically engineering, in one form or another, for thousands of years. In more recent decades, we became more creative but, where genetic engineering of food strains was once random and unintelligent, today’s engineering is targeted and direct.

THE COST-BENEFIT

Meta-analyses are papers that take a statistical approach to increase the ability to accurately interpret effect by aggregating the findings of other papers. They are particularly useful for large and complex problems. Given the interest and public backlash against GMOs, there have been a number of meta-analysis studies examining the relative benefit of GM crops.

A 2014 meta-analysis by Wilhelm Klümper took a look at the vetted data from 147 papers related to the outcomes of GM crop use. On average, they found that the adoption of GM crops correlated with a 21.6 percent increase in yield and a 36.9 percent decrease in pesticide use — again, pesticides are not a real risk to human health, but decreased use will alleviate the chances of resistance. But, most importantly, the crops correlated with a 68.2 percent increase in farmer profit. Increased profitability might make food sovereignty a possibility in developing countries, where small margins make competition with low cost imports difficult.

The need for higher yielding crops has only begun. The world is expected to need 70 to 100 percent more food by 2050 to support the drastically increasing world population. At the same time, global warming and increased human activity has led to ever-increasing rates of land degradation and desertification. Land degradation rates are currently 30 to 35 times greater than historical rates.

Meanwhile, global warming has already been linked to increases in severe weather, like droughts and floods. It seems counterintuitive that at the same time that the global population is dramatically growing and the emerging climate conditions are making the growth of natural crops difficult to impossible, GMO skeptics are claiming that the science behind GMOs is immoral.

There has not been a single reputable case of illness tied to any GMO, and genetic modification leads to less total genetic changes than conventional breeding. Furthermore, humankind’s need for more robust food sources has never been greater. Despite these demonstrated facts, there are environmental organizations completely against genetic modification that refuse to bend the other way, no matter how convincing the evidence. For example, Greenpeace’s website says: “GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.” This statement is, of course, completely untrue. Not unlike the vaccine skeptics, their well-intentioned caution misses the point.

There are hundreds of anti-GMO groups worldwide that advocate the necessity of banning GM products and research. Their ideology is that the exercise of genetic engineering has dire consequences on the environment and human race, and has to be stopped. They use both social and mainstream media for propaganda, demonizing GMO. By organizing protest and lobbying politicians, they force governments to legislate restrictions on GMO product and GM related research.
With the severe lack of facts and scientific approaches toward their victims, anti-GMO organizations draw their conclusions based on either fabricated experiments or bias studies. In fact, none of the researches done that are used to prove the harmful effects of GMO has received positive feedback from the science community.

In 2012, French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini published his research results on the GM maize NK603 developed by Monsanto, claiming that the feeding of GM maize along with the glyphosate, an herbicide, can cause cancers in rats. His publication soon caught media’s attention, and became one of the most cited sources for anti-GMO campaigns. Its legitimacy, however, was soon questioned heavily from peer review. In fact, only a few people saw the paper before its publication, and had to sign the confidential agreement to not discuss it in public. Independent researchers and investigators pointed out multiple insufficient factors in the study. For instance, the study was conducted on a rat species that are prone to cancer over a period that last over 2 years. The cancer development in the rat body is more likely to be natural aging process, but rather triggered by what were fed to them. The research result were therefore severely inconclusive.

Such scenarios of incompetent research results used by anti-GMO organizations for fear mongering were commonly seen in the past few decades. Like guerilla warfare, without any sufficient study and discourse within the science field, it appears in public out all of a sudden. Even though the scientific community have all it takes to prove its shallowness, the damage of trust was done way before it can be fixed.

On the left hand side of the equation — costs — there is a debate over the morality of genetically tampering with the environment. There’s also concern over whether scientists truly know what kind of chemicals might be produced through genetic modification, although many reputable sources demonstrate the opposite.

On the right side of the equation — benefits — genetic engineering produces crops that, on average, result in 22 percent greater yield and a 34 percent reduction in pesticide use. And that’s with present-day technology. Independent researchers and companies are continually searching for possible advances to combat emerging problems like drought, flood, and desertification. GMOs might also be used to combat illness, like Vitamin A deficiency, with the addition of new metabolic pathways (Golden Rice).

All groundbreaking technologies come with possible consequences, vaccines included. It is important for the public to realize that GMOs are a powerful tool that can make our food supply more robust and more efficient, and for science writers to realize that those working to harness that power are more newsworthy than the naysayers. It would be immoral not to take advantage of this emerging technology, both by supporting the progress that’s been made thus far and by encouraging further research.

This article was written by Joshua Timmons, Fei Gao, and Gwen Schanker.