Understanding Genetically Modified Organisms

Genetically Modified Organisms. Just the name sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.

There was a time when it was. Modified or altered DNA has always been a favorite subject in various novels, movies, and tv shows from the likes of Spiderman to the clone army of Star Wars. However thanks to modern technology, we have been able to copy and even edit the DNA of plants and animals. Possibly the most significant example of this is the Biotech industry; responsible for the creation of GMO crops.

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At first glance, it seems to be the ideal solution for many problems in agriculture. Corn is modified to be toxic to harmful insects that eat up the farmer’s hard worked fields, a potato can be made to be more resistant to bruising than its natural counterpart, and crops can be edited to be bigger and therefore more appealing to customers. It also has been a long-standing claim that GMOs could be the key in solving world hunger. It sounds enticing, reasonable, and in a word ideal. However, are we entirely certain about the safety of the food we eat? To this day the DNA remains to be a subject we have hardly scratched the surface on, and are we really fully aware of the possible consequences of altering the basic building blocks of life? It is the answers to these questions that will reveal that we should stop producing GMO crops in America since they are an endangerment to our health, and to farming communities at home and abroad.

Thesis

Thesis: We should stop producing GMO crops in America since they are an endangerment to our health, and to farming communities at home and abroad.

History and Terms

In the past, humans had a hand in controlling what desired traits should be passed on through “artificial selection.” These terms, coined by Charles Darwin, describe the process of choosing the organisms with the most desired traits and allowing them to reproduce with others with the same desired traits. This process would result in the production of offspring that have the desired traits. While artificial selection is not what we typically consider GMO technology as we know it today, it contributes to the inspiration of modern biotech in the agricultural industry and the earliest example of humans tampering with genetics. It is through this process that what we know as corn today exists as well as the multiple variations of apples.

In 1973, Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen engineered the first successful genetically engineered organism. These two scientists developed a way to cut out a gene from one organism and insert it into another. A method that’s now used to create GMO crops.

After this discovery, the question of whether or not genetic engineering should be made legal in America was heavily debated and discussed by scientists, government officials, and lawyers in the Asilomar Conference of 1975 for three days. It was concluded at the end of those three days that the GE projects should be allowed to continue with certain guidelines in place.

Since 1975, genetic modification remained in the medical field for making medicines as well as experimentation only until 1987. In this year, Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato became the first food crop to be approved for commercial production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These modified tomatoes were inserted with a DNA sequence that inhibited production of a certain natural tomato protein that causes a tomato to go soft or show bruising, thus increasing its firmness and extending its shelf life in comparison to its natural counterpart.

In 1995 the first pesticide-producing crop was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A year later, Bt corn was approved, and now the majority of corn in the U.S. has the Bt toxin gene which makes the corn secrete its own toxins and thus makes the corn poisonous to various insects.

All of these products of genetic engineering were created using the same basic steps: identifying a trait of interest, isolating that genetic trait, inserting that trait into the genome of the desired organism, and then growing the engineered organism. However, there are also several different ways to change the DNA such as Protoplast Fusion; when two plant cells have their hard cell walls removed (Protoplasts) and a chemical called polyethylene is added which sticks the two cells together. Once stuck, chemicals are added to help the two cells combine and exchange genetic information to create a hybridized plant cell. Another is by Mutation Breeding which involves exposing plants or seeds to mutagenic agents, whether by ionization radiation or chemical components, to cause random changes in the DNA sequence. The most commonly used tactic is replacing or inserting genes within seed cells using “molecular scissors” called nucleases—enzymes which can to loosen, remove and add nucleotides. These nucleases are artificially engineered to insert desired genes into the genome of a crop. It is through this process that the Bt corn, which makes up the vast majority of America’s corn production, was created by slicing a gene from a bacteria that had the desired pesticide effect for insects and inserted into corn genes.

Proof #1

GMO crops are a threat to our physiological health. Hippocrates states “”Each of the substances of a man’s diet acts upon his body and changes it in some way and upon these changes his whole life depends””. Whatever we eat, may it be ice cream from Marble Slab or French cuisine, affects the body whether good or bad. The immune and excretory system prevent and treat foreign toxins and bacteria that enter the human body. While the immune system neutralizes viruses and harmful bacteria, the excretory system sorts through the food we consume and removes the toxins or waste that enters the human system. The kidneys are a key organ in this system. They constantly filter and clean the bloodstream, thereby preventing waste build up or toxins from interfering with the natural functions of the body. But what happens if there are too many toxins for the kidneys to handle? Unfortunately, this can cause the kidneys to become overwhelmed to the point that they no longer function as they should. The Bt gene that is inserted into a crop such as corn may decrease the need for pesticides, however, the cost is the fact that now the genetically modified corn secretes its own toxins. It is these toxins that are harming primary organs like the kidney. According to an Austrian study, mice fed genetically modified corn had lower birth rates, fewer offspring that were also notably smaller, but most importantly was that it degraded how well their kidney and liver function and therefore make them more susceptible to disease. Even Monsanto, a biotech seed company, found that about 10% of rats fed their M0N89034 corn developed kidney damage and bladder stones, and one even died after two weeks. If these effects can be found in rats after only a few weeks of tests, it can be assumed that the same will happen in humans who consume a consistent diet of these GMO based foods. As more toxins are able to enter the bloodstream due to the kidney weakening, this will then harm the body’s immune system. This can cause allergic reactions as the body tries to rid the body of the alien toxin. In fact, it has been found that allergens have increased by more than 50% in the last 20 years: a statistic that follows the trend of the growing use of GMOs.This could be passed off as a coincidence, but the parallels are too significant to ignore.

There are also other chemicals that cause adverse health effects such as Aperture, (a common artificial sweetener, that increases lipids in the bloodstream and decreases biomolecules needed for essential functions in the cells. In particular, this creates dysfunction in the endothelial cells, cells that make up the skin and important for various secretion glands in the body, and about 40% of Americans consume Aspartame on a daily basis. While the immune and excretory systems are designed to keep the body healthy, the constant consumption of these foreign toxins only weaken these key systems and makes the other vital organs more susceptible to being infected.

In recent years, scientists have studied the organ, known as the Gut Microbiota, which plays such a significant role in the well being of our bodies that it has been dubbed the “2nd Brain” by various experts in microbiome research. Gut Microbiota is positive bacteria that thrive in the intestinal system and play a key part in the endocrine system at the molecular level. These bacteria control what hormones are created and secreted, which in turn impact changes and functions throughout the entire bodily system. If there are too few of these, the negative consequences of this can be extreme. Because the Gut Microbiota is in the intestines, this makes the microbiota exposed to toxins that enter the digestive system. Once enough Bt toxins have been run through the system, this can create a “leaky gut”. This is a condition ulcer from that act as “holes” in the intestines and allows waste and toxins into the bloodstream as well as kill off these vital microbiotas. If genetically engineered crops can wreak this much damage to the body, what could it be doing to our minds?

Proof 2

Consuming GMO products negatively influences and degrades our mental health. You may have heard idioms such as “hating someone’s guts”, or perhaps having a “gut reaction”. Or maybe you recall moments where you have had “butterflies in your stomach”. These idioms derive from the old idea that the gut houses the intuition or the innermost being of a person. According to modern research, this is actually true. Not only does the gut microbiota create and regulate hormones within the body, but it also influences the body’s neurons, of which 90% of these said neurons are located within the gut. It is here that the microbes interact with the neurons to create neurotransmitters including serotonin, acetylcholine, and histamine. Serotonin helps regulate sleep, appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain while acetylcholine controls the actual neural functions of the brain and histamine affects metabolism as well as controlling the body’s sleep/wake cycle. In order for neurotransmitters such as these to be produced, the body requires microbiota as well as a sufficient amount of nutrients. Once created, about 90% of these neurotransmitters are housed in the gut while the rest is sent to the brain. On the flip side, the brain can send signals to the gut through the vagus nerve which connects the two organs together. That is why if one feels something like anxiety, the “butterflies in my stomach” sensation arise from the brain releasing these negative signals to the gut.

The brain is an organ that hardly needs an introduction. It plays a vital role as the “control center” for the human body and is where we store our memories and knowledge we accumulate over the years. However, just like any other organ, the brain can get sick. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, about 44.7 million adults in America suffer some form of mental disease, while 10.4 million of the adults suffer a severe form of mental disorders. These statistics are significant when we consider the fact that we live in a country rich in medical research and facilities. A key factor that has played into this high number of mental disorders are GMOs. When the toxins from GMO foods like Bt kill off gut microbiota, this cuts off the brain’s key supplier of neurotransmitters and the decreased amount of neurotransmitters can disrupt or halt different brain functions. This can also kill off or make the neurotransmitters housed their ineffective once they are sent to the brain. Some of the immediate effects can be irregular sleep patterns, mood swings, and aggression. On the other hand, this can become severe enough to result in depression, anxiety disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. Various GMO derived ingredients can also directly alter the already existing neurotransmitters, such as high fructose corn syrup which can disrupt the functions of the neurotransmitter dopamine: an essential neurotransmitter that controls movement as well as mood and the ability to learn. In the long term, disrupting dopamine can cause Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.

Of course, the brain has its own defenses against possible damage. One, for example, is the blood-brain barrier, which acts as a sort of gateway into the brain. It follows a strict system of ensuring which and what chemicals are allowed and blocked from entering the brain. However, a leaky gut causes antibodies to be released that attack the blood-brain barrier, thus allowing dangerous substances and chemicals to enter the brain. These chemicals also include the toxins from GMOs that can now directly harm and alter the brain. If GMOs were to be removed from the market, we could see a significant change in the number of people with mental disorders in America.

Proof #3

Growing genetically modified crops in America endanger neighboring farms and small farming communities around the world. Modern technology enables us to not only create GMOs but also track the DNA. This ensures that the GMO seed created by a biotech industry such as Monsanto is not stolen and planted by another farm or company. If this were to happen, the company has the right to sue for copyright infringement. Unfortunately, this has created several problems for farms with no intention to steal seed property.

In the present time at least, GMO seed is not sterile and can pollinate just like its natural counterpart once grown, whether through being carried by bees or by the wind. This is a problem for organic farmers or even other GMO farmers. If the pollen lands in their fields, they could grow the GMO seed illegally without realizing it. Once it discovered, they are susceptible to be sued or at the very least remove a large portion of their crop to rid the GMO in their field. This results in money and crop loss for the farmer for something that was not even their fault.

Two solutions have been proposed for this problem. One suggestion is to increase the distance between farms to prevent cross-pollination. However, pollen has been found to be able to spread for miles and even in some cases about 2-3 thousand miles. This indicates that protecting farms from unintentional piracy would be near impossible since it can also be safely concluded that no farmers are too eager to start trying to move their farmland. It demands too much time and money that none of them can afford. The second idea is the possibility of the use of GURT (Genetic Use Restriction Technology), otherwise known as “Terminator” or “Suicide” seeds. First developed in the 1980s, these types of seeds are designed to turn off or on a certain trait within the DNA. This technology was later used by the USDA and a small seed company called Delta who had sought a “genetic switch” in order to protect copyright on GMO seeds. At first glance, it seemed to be the ideal solution; The GMO crops would be edited using GURT to stop them from reproducing and thus allow farms to be able to coexist safely with a lesser likelihood of copyright issues. However, this had been counter argued with the fact that it would force farmers to get new seed every year as well and in turn make them heavily dependant on the seed corporations; something that can easily be taken advantage of as then the seed corporations could raise the seed price as much as they want to since the demand for seed would constantly be high. This reasoning banned the use of this technology in countries such as India and Monsanto pledged to not use terminator seeds in 1999.

The legal implications of GMOs, as well as the regulation process, are also questionable. Just like their natural counterparts, GMO crops or derived food must be approved by the FDA before being legally allowed to be grown and sold in the food market. According to the FDA, the process follows through three main steps; first, the GMO plant developers introduce their product to the FDA and the FDA, in turn, provides feedback for kinds of data that should be considered for the safety assessment. Second, the developers independently complete the safety assessment and submit a summary to the FDA. Finally, the FDA evaluates the information and ask questions such as “Does food from the GE plant contain a new toxin or allergen?” or “Is food from the GE plant as nutritious as that from its traditionally bred counterpart?”. Once all of the data can “logically support the conclusion that food from the new plant variety will be as safe as food from conventionally bred varieties” it is allowed by the FDA and dubbed as safe. However, there is a key flaw in this regulation system that’s too large to overlook. According to the regulation process, it’s the developer that assesses the safety of the product and the FDA merely evaluates the information given and decide based on it. Meaning, they would have to trust that the developers are telling the truth. Suppose the developers did happen to find a new toxin or allergen in their product but lied and told the FDA that their product was completely free of any new toxins or allergens? Because the FDA relies on their word, they could release this product and not know the actual data that the developers found that would have impacted the product being permitted.

Counter-Arguments

It has often been argued that the USDA and FDA along with multiple scientific studies have had and continue to assure that GMOs are safe.

More often than not, the case has been made that GMOs could solve world hunger. That with the already existing impoverished areas in the world combined with the foreseen global population increase, GMOs provide a way to feed everyone. Sadly, however, this is a falsehood. First, it is crucial to understand that seed companies and industries are just that; companies and industries. Not charities.

We also have to consider; Does the poor only deserve the cheapest quality of necessities?

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