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What is GMO?

GMO stands for genetically modified organism(s). The WHO (world health organization) explains them as follows:

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and also between non-related species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods

It may be a controversial topic, but the technology and research behind GMO is mind blowing. Humans are now able to re-direct the evolutionary path of organisms, plants and animals and maybe even humans in the nearby future. Until now, there was no species that was capable of doing so. GMO can be seen as a technological breakthrough, although it stands or falls on the parameters in which it is applied. Arguing if GMO is good or bad is not black and white, and maybe we can't even give a well educated answer at this moment. So we leave it to the readers to decide what their stance on this topic is.

Positive effects GMO

Genetically modified organisms have multiple benefits. The office of science at the U.S. department of energy states: crops can hold an increased level of nutrients, be more resistant to diseases and pests and gain more tolerance towards herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. These are serious improvements in terms of crop protection. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states: farmers are able to grow more food on less available land with GM crops. This is especially interesting with the decline of topsoil and soil depletion. Fewer farmers are needed to produce more food on less land for the upcoming years and GM crops might be a solution to this. 

Bio-fortification

The idea of (bio) fortification is the concept of increasing the nutritional value of crops. There are several ways of doing so. One is the conventional way, which is selective breeding or by genetic engineering (bio-technology). Bio-fortification is different because the plant is engineered so that it will become more nutritious during the period the crop grows. Unlike conventional fortification, where nutrients are being added in at a later stage or a processing stage. This manner especially, is an improvement for rural populations where commercial conventionally fortified foods or nutrients are scarce or too expensive. For that reason, bio-fortification might be a solid strategy for dealing with (severe) deficiencies in nutrients. This applies in particular to developing countries.

 

The WHO estimated that 2 billion people worldwide could be cured from nutrient deficiencies such as iron and vitamin A by using bio-fortification strategies.

A good example of a genetically modified crop is Golden rice. This crop is selected for its nutritional characteristics. The latest version of Golden Rice contains genes from a soil bacterium called Erwinia as well as maize and contains higher levels of Beta-carotene. The human body can convert Beta-carotene into Vitamin A. Distributing Golden Rice in rural areas or developing countries can decrease deficiencies in nutrients. Whether or not GMO is debatable; bio-fortification can offer a possible life saving solution to the (poor) people who need that help.

The negative effects are considered potential. The reason for mentioning this as potential is that there are no long-term scientific studies that show dramatic negative effects on humans. But altering the genetic code of a crop has only been applied on a commercial scale for just a couple of decades, which, in turn, is not that much in an evolutionary time frame.

Potential negative effects

Outcrossing:

The migration of genes coming from genetically modified plants into normal (conventional) crops can have an indirect effect on food security and food safety. This migration is labelled as outcrossing, which means: the blending or mixing of genes from different (wild) crops. The chance of crossing engineered genes with wild crops is very real. This can result in a reduced spectrum of wildlife plants and a loss in biodiversity. Some plants can become more resistant to insects or small organisms, changing the ecological equilibrium. There have been cases known where GM crops approved for animal feed were detected in low quantities in food products intended for human consumption.

Gene transfer:

The transferring of genes from genetically modified food to cells in the body or even bacteria can adversely affect human health. This is relevant in the case of antibiotic resistant genes, which are used as markers during the creation of GMOs. The chances of transferring these to other crop genes are low. As such the use of gene technology that does not involve antibiotic resistant genes is favoured and encouraged. However, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the separation between different types of genes.

Loss of farmer’s access to seed material:

The research behind biotechnology is carried out predominantly by the private sector. There are some concerns about market dominance and monopolies in the agricultural sector by a couple of very powerful companies. This could lead to a negative consequence for small-scale farmers who are located all over the world. The concern is that farmers have to pay for different crop varieties, which derive from genetic engineering. It becomes particularly sour when the crop originates from their fields. Concerns are being thrown into discussions about the world trade organizations agreement concerning Trade –Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Some people in the discussion argue that the WTO is encouraging the trend of biotechnology and the sales of its patented seeds.

We have just scratched the surface in terms of understanding what GMO is and what the consequences are or might be for humans and the environment. One thing is for sure, GM crops are here to stay and they might find their place in the European Union as well with the coming TTIP agreement. Citizens should know what is in the food they purchase, and luckily the EU has made strict laws for that.

 

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