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Is the food you ate today natural or modified? Very likely that it’s been modified. Humans have been modifying their foods since the dawn of time through different means: firstly, selective breeding, then, chemical modification, and most recently, genetic modification.

Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are organisms whose DNA has been modified through genetic engineering, in most cases with DNA from another organism (bacterium plant, virus, or animal).

GMOs (more particularly GMFs – food) provide an array of advantages, such as larger yields which allow farmers to maximize land use, use of fewer herbicides, increase in shelf life, and growth in infertile soil that diminishes starvation in developing countries, which concentrates most of the population growth. Also, some foods were genetically modified for medical purposes, as in the case of Golden Rice. The modified golden rice is able to produce more Vitamin A, which prevents kids from going blind due to Vitamin A deficiency [1].

Therefore, one might wonder, since GMOs can be a solution to critical issues such as world hunger and curing neutrinos deficiencies, why do they have such bad reputation as portrayed in the media? For example, GMF were called “Frankenfood” in parallel with “Frankenstein” to quantify how evil people think GMFs are [2].

Many of those concerns surrounding GMFs are health related. Since GMF are literally “manmade mutations”, the effects of those mutations can be hidden until many generations down the line. In other words, even if a GMF is tested to be safe for human consumption, some of the risks that were not identified in those tests might surface in a few generations later because they were hidden in the new DNA structure. In fact, there are examples of GMFs that caused health issues to humans immediately, and not after many generations. For example, soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% in the UK, soon after GM soy was introduced [3].

Moreover, many common foods that we consume regularly such as salt tolerant rice, triticale flour and Rio Red grapefruit were modified either chemically or through radiations, yet they are consumed by the public without concerns [4]. Why is one form of modification deemed more dangerous than others? Is one type of modification more natural than others? Or is it just the stigma behind “new technologies”?

GMF is a technology like any other technology. It has its advantages and disadvantages and most of the time new technologies are deemed dangerous and inefficient (self-driving cars for example). Any technology can be used for harm if it was left unregulated. However, over-regulating new technologies and portraying them as dangerous to the public can lead to losing funding to develop those new technologies and potentially losing many valuable solutions for the problems we face today. One must take a moderate stand and not lean to any extreme opinion.

In fact, the future of modifying foods is widening. Scientists are exploring new methods such as RNA interference, which is the process of silencing a gene from expressing itself. It is a naturally occurring mechanism that offers control over genes without modifying the plant’s genome. Scientists exploited this to design RNA corresponding to a plant cell’s unwanted genes as well as to provide resistance against new types of viruses, insect infestations, droughts etc. For instance,RNA interference makes Arctic apples produce less of an enzyme that usually makes them turn brown [4].Sprays are quickly tailored to adapt to those changes, and are very targeted (“enough to kill potato bugs but spare their ladybug cousins” [5]). However, some concerns have risen regarding RNA interfering with the consumers own genes (since their role is to silence genes). Also, with little research about the ecological impacts, it is hard to assess their potential consequences.

To conclude, is modifying foods actually as “scary” as it sounds? We have been modifying our foods for thousands of years using many different technologies. Those technologies evolve and change over time, so why are we very concerned about just another new technology that we call GMO? Think about those questions during your next meal.

Reference:

[1] Marie Brown, N. and Fedoroff, N. 2014. Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods

[2] Miller, H. and Conko, G. 2004. The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution

[3] Townsend, M. 1999. Why Soya is a Hidden Destroyer [https://www.iatp.org/news/why-soya-is-a-hidden-destroyer]

[4] Kastrinos, A. 2016.Delicious mutant foods: Mutagenesis and the genetic modification controversy [https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/06/13/pasta-ruby-grapefruits-why-organic-devotees-love-foods-mutated-by-radiation-and-chemicals/]

[5] Regalado, A. 2015. The Next Great GMO Debate [https://www.technologyreview.com/s/540136/the-next-great-gmo-debate/]

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