Many people have an obscure and often negative perception of what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are: blue tomatoes, carrots with wings, or pumpkins with fish eyes may come to mind for those who know little about the subject. Although the genetic modification of food is part of our daily lives, it is still seen as something harmful and questionable. But where does that stigma come from?
People started modifying crops thousands of years ago through artificial selection. When cultivating crops for consumption, only the seeds of the best fruits and vegetables were used for the next generation of produce. Long ago most non-domesticated plants were not as they are today, they had small amounts of edible components which were selected for throughout history. Over long periods of time, such non-beneficial traits were eliminated completely giving us the crops we consider as natural today. In fact, this method of selective breeding is an example of genetic modification in itself!
We now have the technology to select such traits and see effects in much shorter periods of time and are able to select the specific genes we want to alter or transfer between organisms. The genetic modification of an organism through the introduction of non-native genes typically follows the same pattern: initially, a gene of interest is identified. The gene could encode proteins that influence growth, resistance against pathogens or a myriad of other traits. The sequence of interest is then isolated. A popular method of isolation is “knocking out” parts of the genome until the desired trait is separated. The gene is later transferred into the organism of interest creating a transgenic organism, a type of GMO. Lastly, the transgenic organisms grow, allowing scientists to screen for the added trait, ensuring the successful modification of the specimens.
One key advantage of modern genetic modification is that desired traits can be precisely transfected into other organisms. In conventional breeding, unfavourable traits are unavoidably passed on between generations. Moreover, conventional breeding can require the passing of many generations to show any significant changes in traits.
Importantly, GMOs can be used to counteract natural nutrient deficiencies or produce medication (e.g. insulin for diabetes). “Golden Rice”, a transgenic cultivar of rice with added Vitamin-A, has been introduced in developing countries where Vitamin-A is scarce and over 250 million children suffer from Vitamin-A deficiency (VAD). Moreover, developing countries have access to Golden Rice seeds for no extra charge, which makes Golden Rice an affordable alternative for poor individuals who can-not afford Vitamin-A supplements.
Biotechnology has fast and clever ways of altering the genomes of organisms, allowing scientists to raise health standards and gain an insight into complex biological systems. So why are so many people highly sceptical of GMOs? One reason could be non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Although they are perceived as trustworthy, some of their “facts” about GMOs are not sufficiently researched or are even blatantly false, leading to a spread of misinformation amongst the general public. An example would be Greenpeace’s report on Golden Rice in which they claimed that it has too much Vitamin-A making it a health risk. The NGO argues that the GMO is unnecessary, citing the improved health standards brought about by home-gardening in Bangladesh as a reason against its implementation.
The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people in developing countries do not have the resources to plant their own food. Their typically available food is low in Vitamin-A if they are able to afford food at all. A daily Vitamin-A dose of 150 μg is needed to prevent VAD. A single bowl of Golden Rice nearly meets the daily Vitamin-A requirement of a child.
While Golden Rice is only one example of such a misunderstanding, public opinion is commonly against the use of GMOs. As the creators of the biotechnological tools which make GMOs possible, scientists are understandably highly supportive of their application. Economic and health benefits are discussed in numerous scientific reports, but the language used is complex and hardly accessible to the public. NGOs, on the other hand, design colourful infographics with less complex language. It is understandable that non-scientists would rather look at a well-designed leaflet than read a 20-page scientific report. This is a big problem science faces. Without the right means of communication, scientific findings fail to be appreciated by the average consumer. In the case of GMOs, competing companies capitalise on this lack of understanding to spark confusion and doubt in consumers.
Science should be accessible to everybody. In an era in which “fake news” can be spread so easily, science aims to provide factual statements. Translating findings from scientific lingo to a style which everybody understands is of the utmost importance. Making science more understandable ultimately makes it more accessible