GMO Foods – what’s the problem?

Cara Santa Maria just posted an item in her Talk Nerdy to Me Huffington Post column purporting to explore the question of why there is opposition to GMO foods. On one side she has a university researcher and on the other she refers to ‘extremests.’ His argument, that she appears to endorse, is humans have altered the genetics of organisms for 1000’s of years by doing breeding and trans-genetric manipulation is just another way to alter the genetics. In fact, he suggests it it much better controlled — rather than mix the whole genome of two organisms by breeding them, these techniques.move specific genes with known functions. More precise, he implies.

This AM I got to thinking about the piece and generating a list of questions that were not addressed and might be sources of concern. Its just a list, not prioritized, and no attempt is made to answer the questions here.

Who owns the resulting organism, and what are the implications if it is private property? For example, can a person freely save, share and replant seed?

Can the organsim readily transmit its new genetic endowment to related non-endowed organisms? Ie, can pollen from one field pollute the genetics of a nearby field? If so, can the farmer who has a practice of saving his non-GMO seed continue to do that, or is the cross-pollenated seed now private property? Has this infringed on the practices of the non-GMO grower?

Given the tendency of industrial agriculture to focus on a few varieties, how is genetic diversity maintained and who controls the gene bank of non-GMO varieties?

What are the effects (and side effects) of the protein that the new gene codes for? On who or what? Consider gluten, an allergen for some people. What if the gluten gene were added to corn and rice because of some benefit it conferred on the plant?

What if we don’t know that the new organism is a problem, but discover that later (for example, dawning recognition of gluten intolerance), can we back the GMO organism out of the ecosystem if it turns out not to be a good thing?

Are there other questions I’ve missed? Are there resources that are addressing these questions?

2 Responses to “GMO Foods – what’s the problem?”

  1. Science As A Candle In The Dark Says:

    In the US, the the developer owns a patent(s) on the particular recombinant transgene in plants. One patent can cover multiple crops possessing the same transgene or multiple patents can cover the same plant. Patent ownership is the same as owning property in many ways. The owner is entitled to exclude others for a 20 year period from the date of of the patent application’s filing.

    Some transgenic plants can cross pollinate and the farmer is usually not allowed to breed seeds resulting from cross-pollination if it infringes or violates a contractual obligation. Monsanto has aggressively pursued such farmers. In the US, this strategy has received widespread condemnation, especially in cases where the cross-pollination appeared to be inadvertent.

    In the US, many non-GM (and some GM) varieties are maintained by state universities (agriculture departments, etc.).

    The proteins that the new genes encode for are often times a modified version (or from another species) of a protein the plant already produces. Sometimes it isn’t. In any event, the FDA requires extensive safety testing on the transgenic protein itself, as well as the transgenic crop. This includes allergy testing and protein analysis against known allergens. This extensive testing is typically not carried out for genetically modified plants produced through conventional breeding, to the dismay of food safety experts.

    Your last question is a complex one. First, it is unlikely that an allergy would simply emerge from nowhere at a latter date, i.e., it would probably be evident at the outset. But, transgene escape is still a concern for a variety reasons. Escape is first mitigated by the farmer through his planting practices, minimizing the risk. In the event of an escape, keep in mind that the crop variety plants, while possessing great traits for abundant food production, are horribly unfit for survival in the wild. Studies have found most escapes peter out after a generation or two in the wild. I’m not aware of any way to eradicate the globe of anything, including a hypothetical escapee. The same holds true for genetically modified plants produced through traditional breeding methods.

    Hoped this helps.

  2. Nils Peterson Says:

    OK, Science, thanks. First question, what is the legal framework around genetic pollution. If I’m growing open pollenated non-GMO corn and you grow patented GMO corn in a neighboring field and your pollen reaches my field, can I sue you for ruining my seed?

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