Journal Club Review: Get to know your GMO

Journal Club Review: Get to know your GMO

April’s journal club was led by April MacIntyre (Graduate Student in Microbiology). Journal club review was written by Amanda Hurley (Postdoc in Plant Pathology).

GMO (genetically modified organism) can be a trigger word for both supporters and cynics of GMOs alike. We’ve all seen packages in the grocery-store proudly stamped with “NON-GMO” on their labels, even if the contents would never contain a GMO in the first place. CaSP recently met for April’s journal club to discuss how this amazing tool for farmers and scientists got such a bad rap. Is there anything we can do to reverse the bad press? And actually…how well do we know our GMOs?

To properly critique and defend our GMOs, we first need to know what’s out there. The U.S. has only approved 10 genetically-modified crops for use in agriculture: apple, potato, corn (field and sweet), canola, alfalfa, soybean, rainbow papaya, cotton, sugar beet, and summer squash. The most recently approved crop was the “arctic apple” in 2017 (perhaps you remember the media celebrating the apple that doesn’t brown).

Scientists genetically modify crops for many reasons. Reducing food waste, in the apple example, is just one desirable trait afforded by genetically-modifying a crop. Disease resistance is also a huge motivating factor; the papaya industry was saved from a viral pandemic devastating groves in Hawaii. Insects and weeds threaten to lower our global crop yield even as we attempt to increase production to feed the 10 billion people that will be on our planet in the next 30 years. Thus, the overwhelming majority of GMO crops are engineered to become resistant to insects or tolerant to the use of herbicides. And frankly, the fact is farmers have been breeding plants for favorable qualities for thousands of years. Once we (people) learned about DNA and genetic material, plants were randomly irradiated to induce mutations and speed up the process of selection, like the Ruby Red grapefruit. Now, with genetic engineering, we have the tools to do this process cleanly and precisely.

No one will argue that increasing yield and protecting crops from pests is bad. Moreover, 76% of people surveyed in a 2018 Pew study recognize that GMOs will positively influence global food supply. In the face of seemingly-universal anti-GMO rhetoric, I was surprised by this. Even though more than 50% of the same study group believed GMOs are likely bad for human health and the environment, they also agree that GMOs will help provide more and affordable food for our growing population. The latter actually gives me a shred of hope that the tide of public opinion will shift with the right branding.

The former fear that GMOs are dangerous, however,  still needs to be addressed with passion and honesty. Some arguments against GMOs are completely unfounded, and we barely discussed them at the journal club. For example, expressing a single viral protein from a plant pathogen in the crop of interest to induce constant immune response and therefore, immunity to said plant virus, is not going to give humans an infection. Other concerns – such as introduction of a novel allergen or toxin – are reasonable; this is why newly engineered crops go through 5-7 years of regulatory testing by the USDA, FDA, and EPA to demonstrate safety for humans and the environment. And yet, some nefarious groups still spread disinformation about GMOs and allergens to stoke public fear.

While most health concerns are due to disinformation and apparent mistrust of regulatory agencies, the human concerns of GMOs are surprisingly real. I say surprising because, as a scientist, I’ve always known about the tool of genetic engineering. A tool is not good or evil and all I’d seen is the good of improved crops. The articles and discussion from CaSPers presented some alternative narratives. For example, poor farmers may become further disadvantaged if GMO seeds have a monopoly and are more expensive than conventional seeds.

Like most policy issues, GMO regulation is nuanced and complicated. I am concerned that while GMOs should continually be assessed for safety and societal benefit, the soundbites from anti-GMO advocates are incredibly dramatic. Each side believes they are fighting the “good fight” and the chasm between the pro-GMO and anti-GMO widens. However, I’m here to say that this staunch GMO supporter is prepared to address her “GMO” trigger. Literature surrounding GMOs can be misleading (lots of “journal articles” reminiscent of the autism-vaccine fiasco) and the misregulation of certain GMOs can be harmful. Hopefully, pulling down emotional barriers will get us closer to the truth and towards a policy that protects farmers and subdues public fear while accepting, if not celebrating, the role GMOs will play in feeding the growing global population.

For further reading on the nuance and drama of GMOs, I highly recommend this article.