Recently in American popular culture, criticism of genetically modified organism
has become commonplace and an easy marketing strategy for companies to exploit.
A genetically modified organism is anything that has had its sequence of DNA modified. By this generally accepted definition, many organisms become modified by the processes of nature outside the influence of humans. Yet, the real fear is of scientists using genetic tools to modify the genome of plants and animals, creating organisms more conducive to human needs.
Such a task is necessary in the age of climate change and unchecked population growth. If we are to feed a planet in growth, the fauna and landscape must change to suit our needs. Even something as simple as rising global temperatures can make tracks of previously fertile land unable to grow crops and we need plants that can grow at higher temperatures in order to feed the world. As it stands now, genetically engineered crops are becoming a necessity of survival and a reality we will all one day face.
Genetic modification starts with the hereditary information carried in everyone’s body – your DNA. Sequences of DNA make up hereditary units known as genes. A gene is the element of genetic expression and determine the characteristics of an organism. All of the genes in an organism collectively make up its genome.
Genetically modified organisms are made using restriction enzymes – precise biological scissors to cut at specific places in a genome. These restriction enzymes are found in nature and every organism on the planet already has them. At the point of the cut, a string of DNA containing the intended changes is inserted into the gap made by the restriction enzyme. Forthwith, the cell has been transformed and now contains the gene of interest – say, a change that allows corn to grow at a higher temperature or avoid predation by insects. These tools have been used for a very long time and are in almost every industry. For instance, the insulin taken by people with Type 1 diabetes is produced by a genetically-modified bacterium to express the gene for insulin production.
In the United States, we have a very rigorous and effective regulation system in place for the food we eat. Usually and almost certainly, the things we eat are vetted. Yet, there are examples of genetically-modified organisms having side changes that prove deleterious to the human body.
A common problem is the restriction enzymes mentioned above cutting in multiple places in a genome and producing undesired side effects. This is the reality of any science still in its infancy and is no reason to reject a potentially species-saving process. When looking at and thinking about eating genetically modified organisms, don’t think about them as a monolith. Instead approach the issue with nuance and a case-by-case decision.
When it comes to your own food habits, of course this will take more effort than buying the brazenly non-GMO protein powder at Whole Foods. Still though, such a nuanced approach is required in the world where everything is a GMO whether or not humans made it. This is one of my last columns before graduation, and this article touches on a key theme of “Tomato Pie.”
Namely, your diet is worth effort and the food you eat is worth effort. Blanket statements are easy and flashy, but it’s a far better thing to take the time to really research the food you are eating. You are worth it, and your diet is worth it.
Louis Smith is a senior studying Biochemical and Molecular Biology. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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