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Illustration: Kim Wiens

Despite harbouring the potential to change our way of life for the better, myths surrounding the negative implications of genetically modified organisms are running rampant in our society. The Fulcrum cuts through the propaganda to showcase what genetic engineering really has to offer.

In the last 40 years, genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have revealed themselves to be tools of great potential, with applications ranging from basic research to feeding families.

However, despite these benefits, this practice has been met with mixed feelings, suspicion, and, when it comes to food, an often hostile reaction from the public. As it stands, only about a third of the general population thinks that genetic engineered (GE) crops are safe to eat.

Yet, the science on this issue is startlingly clear. 

There are hundreds of studies demonstrating the safety of such food—9 out of 10 scientists say GE crops are safe, and every reputable scientific and public health organization, from Health Canada to the National Academy of Sciences to the European Commission, echo this sentiment.

There are not many issues on which the public opinion is so distant from the scientific consensus. But then again, this issue is one that’s often dominated by politics, hyperbolic claims, and pseudo-science.

This is a shame, since this field has both world-wide implications–discovering how best to feed the world–and local applications, with research on GE crops being carried out at the experimental farms in Ottawa and even here at the University of Ottawa campus.

So what is genetic engineering really about, and why has it been met with such a hostile reaction over the years?

History of GMOs

The historical use of GMOs actually goes back further than one would think.

While insulin was discovered back in the 1920s by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and John Macleod, those forms of insulin (derived from pigs and cows) were slightly different to that found in humans and less effective, with a higher risk of causing allergies.

In the 1970s, an American start-up called Genentech solved this problem. They invented an easy way of synthesizing human insulin by genetically engineering E. coli bacteria to produce a more human-friendly form of the hormone. Since then, almost all insulin used by diabetics comes from GE bacteria and yeast.

It didn’t take long for GE microorganisms to become widely used as an essential tool for research and as a better way to produce medicine.

In the 1990s, GMOs came to our plates.

Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese making, was synthesized using GE bacteria for the first time in 1990. Now, almost all cheese is made that way.

Later in the ‘90s, genetic engineering helped save the papaya.

“The papaya ringspot virus hit Hawaii’s papaya groves, decimating the livelihoods of farmers and damaging the island’s economy,” said Andrea Palmieri, a recent graduate from the Food Science and Nutrition program from Carleton University. 

Palmieri went on to say that this dismal trend continued, until a team of university researchers created a GE papaya that was resistant to the disease. Since then, papaya crops have flourished.

That decade, more GE plants such as cotton, squash, soy, and corn were all introduced. The genetic modifications in each helped these crops survive diseases and reduce pesticide use. With this in mind, farmers enthusiastically embraced the technology and soon almost all crops being planted were GE.

Unfortunately, it also didn’t take long for opposition to the technology to blossom.

In 1998 Percy Schmeiser, a farmer in Saskatchewan, was sued by Monsanto Canada for patent infringement.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Monsanto’s favour, finding that Schmeiser had “never purchased Roundup Ready canola nor obtained a licence to plant it. Test of (his) canola crop revealed that 95-98 per cent was Roundup Ready Canola” later going on to say “(His) involvement with the disputed canola was also clearly commercial in nature.”

Despite being sued by Monsanto for accidental contamination, Schmeiser marketed himself as a persecuted farmer to the public. Following this event, and a bungled introduction of GE crops in Europe around the same time, genetic engineering and GMOs became inextricably linked to evil corporations in the public perception.

“Monsanto has become a scapegoat and the symbol for corporate greed,” Palmieri said.

This is a fact considered ironic by many, especially considering that the organic industry, worth over $60-billion , is exploiting that reputation to get a leg up on their competition and profit off of public fears.

“Big organic has linked their objectives to the Anti-GE movement, and sees conventional farming methods and GE as a competitive threat to their business,” said Palmieri. “By promoting fearful claims about GE foods, they are also advertising that their organic products are inherently superior to them.”

Now, Monsanto are no saints. As with most large corporations that are profit driven, there is some questionable stuff in their history, including accusations of bullying farmers, bad environmental policies, and unfairly monopolizing the food industry (although many of these allegations have been disproven over the years).

However, the alleged ills of industrial agriculture should not cancel out the good that GMOs can do for society. 

Breakthroughs

While misguided environmentalists continue to spread fear and hysteria about genetic engineering, GMOs continue to lead the way in terms of ground-breaking scientific research.

For example, many professors at the U of O are currently using genetic engineering and GMOs to bolster their research.

Dr. John Bell, a professor of medicine at the U of O and a senior scientist from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, is looking to treat cancer with viruses.

“Cancer cells want to become immortal, but they have to give up something. They gave up the ability to fight viruses,” he said. “Therefore, maybe we can design viruses that infect only cancer cells.”

Dr. Mark Ekker, a biologist at the U of O, is currently using GE zebrafish to research Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder that is mainly caused by the death of certain neurons.

“We need to make transgenic fish that allows us to genetically kill those neurons that make dopamine. There are a number of ways that you can kill these neurons but we think that the transgenic approach is the most promising.”

In March of this year, Health Canada approved the Arctic apple, the first GE apple to enter the market. Developed by a small Canadian company, the apple doesn’t go brown when cut—a trait which will certainly appeal to the fussy eaters of the world.

According to Health Canada, “The science behind the Arctic apple is quite simple. A gene was introduced into the Arctic apple that results in a reduction in the levels of enzymes that make apples turn brown when sliced. In every other way, the Arctic apple tree and its fruit are identical to any other apple.”

This November, breakthroughs that involve GMO usage are even bearing fruit south of the border.

After a two-decade approval process, the first GE animal destined for food was approved in the United States. Developed by a small American company, it’s a salmon that grows much faster—a trait that could ease the overfishing pressure on wild salmon.

Around the same time, the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Innate potato, the first GE potato to gain approval. When fried, that potato produces a lot less acrylamide—a nasty carcinogen.

While many people in the anti-GMO crowd use terms like “unnatural” and “artificial” to discredit this kind of research, when you get right down to it, genetic engineering is in tandem with the principles of nature.

Evolution and GMOs

At the heart of the genetic engineering process lies DNA. All living beings on Earth use DNA to carry genetic information and as this genetic information mutates throughout the generations, new traits appear, and life evolves.

Throughout most of history, evolution was guided by natural selection—the best-adapted traits tended to survive, while the less-adapted traits were likely to die off.

However, with the dawn of human intelligence came a new type of selection—one in which traits chosen by humans tended to survive. This artificial selection found a crucial application in agriculture.

“Every fruit, grain, vegetable, and domestic animal we eat today bear little resemblance to the crops we started cultivating 10,000 years ago,” said Palmieri. “Almonds used to be loaded with lethal doses of cyanide. Bananas used to be chock-full of seeds. Corn used to be a tiny inedible grass with its kernels encased in hard shells.”

As science progressed, new ways of breeding traits arose along with it.

“We make a synthetic piece of DNA that encodes the gene we want,” said Ekker, using his experiments with zebrafish to illustrate his point.

“When you introduce into a fertilized egg, then this would integrate into one of the zebrafish chromosomes and this piece of DNA, now called a transgene, will make the enzyme and make it specifically in the targeted cells.”

One of the most promising innovations in genetic engineering recently has been the CRISPR method, which makes the process of genetic engineering cheaper, quicker, and more efficient.

“In CRISPR what you can do is take the genome and change something that’s already in the genome for something else. We call it genome editing,” said Ekker, “The progress using this approach has been phenomenal over the last few years. It’s going to revolutionize basic research.”

At the end of the day, when faced with a large population and the large threat of climate change and world hunger, researchers need all the tools they can get. Genetic engineering techniques are simply one of these useful tools.

Science doesn’t have to be scary

Despite these miraculous breakthroughs in science and health, the opposition to GMOs remains strong.

Anti-biotech groups routinely destroy research labs and lead witch hunts against public scientists.

This paranoia even extends to the U of O student government, since The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa will only endorse products that are defined as organic, which means non-GE.

“There has been a huge boon in foods labelled ‘non-GMO’, but most of these foods don’t even have a GE counterpart, which is very misleading,” Palmieri said.

Not only is this kind of sentiment dishonest, but it also has proven to be dangerous.

This comes to light in the story of Golden Rice—a type of rice bred to have high levels of vitamin A. It was developed by a non-profit organization to help solve vitamin A deficiency problems in countries where rice is a dietary staple. Since it was first developed 15 years ago, Greenpeace has vigorously fought it. As a result, Golden Rice has never been used, which is disastrous for those who are vulnerable to vitamin A deficiency

“Each year, vitamin A deficiency is responsible for up to two million deaths and 500,000 cases of irreversible blindness.” said Palmieri.

Despite the persistence of anti-science hysteria and misinformed environmental rhetoric, the opposition is understandable.

The genetic revolution promises to be a very powerful one, and with great power comes great responsibility. Far too often scientists have failed to effectively talk about what they’re doing to the public, and the media has also been far too prone to sensationalist reporting and poor fact-checking.

“Scientists should spend more of their time talking to the public about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and the care they’re taking when doing it,” said Ekker,

This sentiment is echoed by Palmieri.

“We must actively participate in the conversation,” she said.

Bell believes that this kind of exchange is a two-way street between scientists and the public.

“The people of Canada have supported our work, and if we are successful, they deserve as much credit as we do.”

Luckily, it seems like some figures in the scientific community are looking to mobilize and put an end to misinformation and scare tactics regarding GMOs.

Earlier this year, three American science communicators started March Against Myths About Modification, a movement dedicated to spreading awareness of genetic engineering.

Palmieri, who led the Ottawa branch of this movement,  says this is a start, but the scientific community still has a long way to go.

“There aren’t enough of us out there balancing the misinformation with the facts and because of this, it has resulted in a major communication gap… genetic engineering is not to be feared. It’s a valuable tool that offers tangible and diverse benefits.”

Hopefully this adherence to scientific fact and levelheadedness remains strong, since genetic engineering has shown itself to be a safe and powerful tool that can be used to benefit humanity at large.