Oh My Science: A Discussion on GMOs Part II

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) don’t necessarily have to be all doom and gloom. They CAN be helpful and aren’t inherently horrible for you and are not going to make you grow extra limbs or screw up your brain in a horrible horrible way. With that said, there are plenty of other reasons to say no to a lot of the GMOs on the market today. Why is consuming GMO products a generally bad idea at this point in time? We’ve gone over the science; GMOs probably don’t cause cancer. It’s less about health of the person and more about the health of the system of producing GMOs. As with all issues ever, there are multiple sides and perspectives to every case. My hope is for people to consider the story from the other person’s view, however controversial or emotionally charged that may be. Consider the following:

1. Monsanto

Monsanto is a company that does a lot of research and development in biotechnology and chemical endeavors. They were the ones to pioneer the genetic engineering of field crops to make sturdier plants and add nutrition. However, with most things that start out with good intentions, Monsanto ended up looking at GMOs in a pretty short-sighted and money-driven way. Monsanto is basically the only big company in America that deals with genetically modified plants, and they’ve made a lot of their money from biological patents and pesticides/herbicides. They are also the largest supplier of seeds to the entire world. Monsanto’s model of business is slowly uncovering a lot of problems for GMOs and patenting specific biotechnologies, making the company the umbrella entity that covers some of the next few problems (but not all).

2. Crop pollution and crossover problems

The problem here is double layered. In one layer, the outcome of using so many genetically modified crops that aren’t able to be well-regulated (meaning they can cross pollinate with other non-modified crops) is that we get a lot of “genetic pollution” in other crops. Ordinarily this may not be huge problem, but it results in less biodiversity if left uncontrolled, which comes with a host of other smaller problems. The second layer is the legal mishaps of accidental cross-pollination. Monsanto and other companies that produce GMOs are suing farmers that happen to get some of the GMO seeds/plants in their crops. A lot of news outlets like to dramatize the lawsuits in favor of the farmers, but other evidence points to a more reasonable view; Monsanto has gone to court with those who seem to be saving or stealing GMOs for their own profit without the proper documentation or payment. Of the 145 cases since 1997, only 11 went to court and Monsanto won all 11. I don’t know the details of each of them, but that is a relatively small number compared to how many seed sales occur every year. The threat of farmers getting sued for unavoidable accidental cross-pollination is a real threat, but not necessarily to the extent of inevitability.

3. Copyrighting life should be a no-no

Even if Monsanto doesn’t go to court with as many farmers we we think, there’s still the underlying problem that doesn’t sit

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well with me: we are copyrighting genetic material. We are literally saying, “This piece of universal genetic code is mine, and you can’t have it unless you pay me and do a bunch of paperwork.” Ethically, my perspective can be reduced fairness. It doesn’t seem right to say that one person has control over this specific part of life because they got there first technologically. Patents for non life-threatening biotechnologies should be available for other researcher’s purposes because science is a collaboration. Limiting a specific technology to a single company (or only a few) is narrow-sighted and doesn’t encourage collaborative progress, but I also don’t think people should be willy-nilly with their research pursuits and do stupid combinations of genes. It SHOULD be regulated, but in a less monopolized way.

4. Still not enough research!

We don’t know a lot about the long-term effects of genetically modified crops and plants on the environment. Many crops have been engineered to be resistant to pesticides, which in turn leads to greater pesticide use. The crops themselves may be decreasing biodiversity enough that it begins to mess with small but significant changes like nutrient levels or acidity of the soil. I could write about these issues for pages upon pages, but I sadly don’t have the space for that. I can only write about the most important parts and the big, overarching ideas that can help people make informed decisions about their positions on GMOs, or at least be inspired to follow the trail of evidence (peer-reviewed evidence from good sources, of course!). This leads me to the biggest question: Where do go from here? More research. I’m beating a dead horse, I know, but this is exactly what we need to be doing. Lately, research conglomerates are losing funding, getting subjected to arson attacks, and receiving a lot of bad press for researching genetically modified organisms. Stories of the mad scientist looking for the perfect biological weapon or the capitalist and money-hungry research director looking to get as much money out of GMOs as possible without regard to the environment circulate, and people end up scared and ready to pull funding from any research involving genetically modifying anything. This is exactly what we SHOULDN’T be doing. Research on the long-term effects of GMOs on the environment and our bodies are absolutely essential if we are going to attain the lofty goals set by the hopeful scientists who first dove into the world of genetic modifications. We need to know what’s possible, what’s not, what we could be doing to the earth, and what we should be doing in the future. Without research, we won’t know.

Alyssa Brandt

Alyssa Brandt is a senior and lead designer who loves all things brain-related. She likes illustrating and sugary cereals, and will eventually go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.

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