Walk down the aisle of any grocery store and you will find an array of products labeled “genetically modified.” While consumers have a right to know the contents of their food, this labeling can be misleading, suggesting GMOs are inherently unhealthy because they aren’t traditionally organic.
Food labeling may seem trivial, but it impacts public views on genetic modification. The vast majority of scientists believe GMOs are safe, including endorsements from The National Academy of Scientists and the American Medical Association. However, the UK has held a strong and steady resistance to genetically modified crops since the late 1990s. A genetically modified organism refers to any organism whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered using bioengineering techniques, or altered in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination. Basically, scientists cut out the DNA of an organism in order to control traits. This results in the cell automatically repairing its genetic structure, except for the targeted gene. In agriculture, scientists use genetic engineering to yield traits such as producing twice the amount of crops, making crops more nutritious, or producing crops that are immune to common viruses.
Crispr is one of the more popular gene-editing tools of today. Groundbreaking 2012 work by biochemist Jennifer Doudna revealed that bacterial immune systems employed a system (dubbed CRISPR) that can be repurposed to easily and precisely edit genes. (hwww.whatisbiotechnology.org/index.php/timeline/science/CRISPRCas9) Through Crispr, scientists first identify a gene responsible for a certain trait, and then use RNA and an enzyme to target and “edit” the gene.
Next, a restriction enzyme which can sever DNA is introduced to the cell. The DNA is then cut at the targeted location via the restriction enzyme, known as Cas9 in Crispr. After this “genetic-scissor” snipping, a mutation is introduced and a trait is added by removing a gene or adding a variation. The cell then repairs its own DNA sequence, and the guide RNA and Cas9 enzyme are removed. The resulting organism can be naturally crossed with the original plant, and the DNA of the modified plant is then passed on to the rest of the crops naturally. Scientists have not found any adverse health effects of GMO crops on consumers in the 25 years agricultural scientists have been using biotechnology such as this. Nevertheless, genetically modified foods have been the subject of countless protests and boycotts for decades. Crispr differs slightly from other gene-editing tools, as it achieves the same effects without transferring “foreign” DNA to another organism, or DNA from viruses or bacteria, as was common procedure in early GMO production.
Commonly expressed concerns with GMOs include unwanted changes in nutritional content of products, the creation of allergens or toxins resulting in damage to organs, and otherwise unforeseen consequences this relatively new technology could have on the human body. The concerns of the general population do not seem to be shared by scientists, however. GMOs and gene-editing tools like Crispr haven’t been around long enough for us to fully examine their long-term effects, but studies suggest that they pose no more health risks than that of traditionally farmed crops. The probability of unintended effects from genetic engineering is consistently within the range of unintended effects that result from conventional methods of crop breeding. The differences between GMO and Non-GMO crops are negligible, falling within the range of naturally occurring variation found with traditionally bred crops. Perhaps the study of biotechnology should be taken with a more nuanced approach rather than an unequivocal perspective. Genetically modified foods hold some risks and unknown factors, but so do all new technologies; they seem to hold no more potential risk than traditional crop yields.
By Dalia Kirshenblat