GMOs, good or bad?

Text written by Julie Potvin-Barakatt, July 16, 2010.

In Canada, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been used in health products and food for more than thirty years. Should we be alarmed by this or should we be rejoicing? Here is a brief text that gives you straight information regarding these controversial organisms.

For more than ten thousand years, the living beings on Earth have been the object of manipulation by humans. In domesticating cattle for breeding and plants for crops, humanity was already intervening to its advantage in the reproduction of neighboring organisms. The many varieties of tomatoes that we know today, ever more productive dairy cattle, the long-stemmed rose with perfect petals offered to a loved one; all these organisms are the results of lengthy research experiments in crossbreeding carried out by humans. New knowledge about DNA and the development of transgenesis techniques have allowed the process to accelerate since the 1970s. Instead of waiting for decades, even centuries, for crossbreeding to produce the desired results by chance, it is now possible to select directly the gene to insert into a living being by borrowing it from another. Technology even allows us to introduce a gene from another species into an organism, even where traditional crossbreeding would normally be impossible. Quite a feat!

GMO: three letters that must be decoded to come to an informed decision.

  • Genetically: Refers to the genetic code that every living being possesses. Each gene is a kind of “recipe” to manufacture a part of the organism. The genes of an organism are assembled end to end in a large molecule: DNA.
  • Modified: Change or modification to the genetic code of an organism, such as the suppression of a gene or the addition of a gene from another living being.
  • Organism: All the way from microbes to humans, including even trees, an organism is a living being.

How are they useful? GMOs were first developed to solve health and environmental problems. An example is insulin, which is injected by people suffering from diabetes. Since 1978, this hormone has been manufactured by bacteria, into which we have inserted the gene responsible for producing insulin naturally in humans. Before this date, diabetics injected bovine or porcine insulin; this was less effective, and it also required killing the animals to extract it. Another useful example is the use of GMOs in the control of harmful insects. A gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the DNA of corn. This gene is toxic to a predator, the European corn borer. The resulting new corn requires less use of pesticides, which are often heavy pollutants that persist in the environment.

Other GMOs are often more controversial from an environmental and ethical point of view. This is the case of Roundup Ready corn, the only plant that resists the herbicide of the same name when it has been sprayed on fields where this corn is found. Although it is rapidly degraded in most soils, Roundup persists up to 140 days in certain environments and continues its toxic action on plants and certain animals. GMOs also gather bad press when one stops to think about their dissemination by pollinating insects or by the wind. What happens to these GMOs that have escaped, far from the laboratories and scientists that created them? It is feared that they contribute to the decrease in the natural variety of certain plant species.

Contrary to popular belief, in Canada, very few foods are GMOs. The shelves of supermarkets contain no genetically modified fruits, vegetables, or animals. Only a few corn, canola, and soy products are approved and commercialized in our country.

It is difficult to judge all GMOs in the same way. Our opinion should be nuanced according to the type of GMO and the reasoning behind the development of each one.