The Double-Edged Sword of GMOs


GMOs are a contentious issue for many. Mallika Venkatramani outlines their benefits, and some reasons for being cautious 


Most of us have heard of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). What first comes to your mind when you hear this acronym? Many think of fluorescent mice or purple-coloured carrots, but GMOs also encompass less dramatic examples: plants and animals that have been genetically engineered for disease tolerance or improved quality. Many people actively advocate against GMOs while a significant number of scientists are conducting extensive research to ensure that GMOs are not harmful to human health. Let us consider the issue from both sides of the coin.

The 21st century has not been tranquil for humankind. From chronic diseases to impoverishment, many of us have been facing the worst of nature over the last few decades. However, this era has also involved great strides in technology, a weapon that can be used to tackle these problems. With biological technology, scientists are now able to manipulate specific gene sequences in plants and animals, forming GMOs. The implications this has for our physical wellbeing are unprecedented.

“Golden Rice, a genetically modified (GM) rice variety has helped to address the pressing issue of vitamin A deficiency due to food scarcity in third-world nations.”

GMOs can be beneficial to human health. You might have heard of Golden Rice, a genetically modified (GM) rice variety. This has a greatly enhanced proportion of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in humans. This GMO has helped to address the pressing issue of vitamin A deficiency due to food scarcity in third-world nations. It was later improved to a higher-yielding variety Golden Rice 2, 72 g of which could provide around fifty percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin A for a 1-to-3-year-old child. For years, the International Rice Research Institute, a global organisation specialising in research for finer rice lines, has developed several varieties of this crop. Golden Rice has been of tremendous benefit to the developing world.

GMOs are used for more than just battling malnutrition; there is ongoing research on the large-scale cultivation of transgenic plants for the synthesis of plant-derived pharmaceutical proteins (PDPs). PDPs are thought to be able treat myriad ailments. For example, a GM potato could contain a protein that treats Hepatitis B. Along similar lines, a classic example of applying genetic engineering to solve health problems is the commercial production of insulin using genetically-modified E. coli bacteria. This has made insulin affordable for millions of diabetics. These examples illustrate some of the substantial advantages to human welfare that can be derived from genetic engineering.

“GM food items which do not undergo proper testing could trigger allergic reactions or other undesirable side-effects in the consumer’s body.”

On the other hand, it should not escape our notice that GMOs are risky endeavours, scientifically. GM food items which do not undergo proper testing have the potential to be harmful to our health. A study conducted by Australian National University scientists showed that certain GM peas which provide protection against certain pests, caused lung allergies in the mice used in their experiment. They concluded that these peas would thus pose a health threat to humans.

This underlines the potential health risks of unscrupulous GMO research. It goes without saying that these dangers are not inherent to GMOs. That said, they do highlight the need for those working in this area to exercise extreme caution when modifying and testing these organisms. The hysteria of the anti-GMO movement is not warranted by the existing scientific evidence, but this does not mean we shouldn’t be highly scrupulous when meddling with nature.

The results of GMOs have been largely positive, but not without caveat. Many contend that gene manipulation has already been happening since humans began agricultural activities 10,000 years ago. Given this, we can view our modern genetic modification techniques as a sophisticated version of a process that humankind has been using for millennia. However, large numbers of people are sceptical of GMOs. Many question whether the large companies producing these modified organisms are doing so responsibly, and not just to turn a profit. The financial incentives to create superior plants and animals are huge. Others ask whether the rapid pace of current modification is wise, given our ignorance about the effects of small changes on our delicate ecosystem. These are perennial issues in this area, and their importance is only likely to grow as our technology becomes more sophisticated. It is in the hands of scientists then, to ensure that every experiment is carried out stringently and every GMO produced is tested rigorously such that it is for the greater good of humankind.