Recently, a third of living Nobel Laureates signed an open letter addressed to Greenpeace. If I were to summarise the contents of this letter crudely in four words, they would be ‘sit down, shut up’. You may think this is a bit harsh, but evidently something needed to be said and obviously the Nobel Laureates were far more eloquent, opting to use phrases such as ‘cease and desist’ instead.
Greenpeace are known for their vendetta against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically with relation to crops. The one crop they hate the most is known as Golden Rice. I use the word hate, because their passionate anger towards this plant strain is almost purely emotional. They frequently demonstrate that they completely miss the point when it comes to both the intention of this project and the science behind it. Golden Rice was invented to treat vitamin A deficiency – the leading cause of child blindness in developing countries. The rice contains a couple of additional genes taken from another plant species to enable the production of beta-carotene – a precursor to vitamin A. Despite the fact that there is literally no evidence suggesting that GMOs are harmful to either the environment or to humans, they continue to tout this message. Their whole campaign is based on the pessimistic speculation that the sanctity of our soil will be forever tarnished by such ‘Franken-foods’. Maybe our Nobel Laureates are wrong and perhaps we will fall into some GMO-induced apocalypse in the near future. Somehow, I highly doubt it.
Here’s why; genetic change is normal and occurring all the time. The plants we eat today would not exist without it. Take the humble corn on the cob for example. Sweetcorn as we know it hasn’t always been around. It’s derived from a small grass plant called Teosinte, which has so few kernels you’d be lucky to get more than one bite of corn. The reason you can order corn on the cob slathered in butter from your nearest KFC now, is because our ancestors deliberately selected for plants with more kernels. One of the main arguments against genetic modification is that you are essentially ‘playing God’. But no one has a problem with eating modern sweetcorn. Or for that matter, having domesticated pets. Both of these scenarios are examples of genetic change induced by humans. Genetic modification used in labs is, granted, far more targeted and generally draws genetic information from more than one species. However, it has resulted in more than just fantastic food and cuddly cats.
A favourite example of genetic modification done extremely well is linked to the treatment of diabetes. Diabetes affects swathes of people across the globe and up until relatively recently, anyone who required insulin was injecting themselves with that taken from pigs. Now though, with the ability to enact genetic change in a more deliberate fashion, biotechnologists are able to engineer bacteria to produce insulin for us, simply by taking the insulin gene and placing it in E. coli – a bacteria commonly found in the gut. As a result we have a reliable and abundant supply of insulin.
Although biotechnology is a thriving field, it is one that is limited to the lab due to rules and regulations surrounding GMOs. I will concede that GMOs should be strictly regulated and governments should do all that’s in their power to prevent multinational corporations from taking advantage of GMOs and a) being evil, or b) being extremely evil. However, many believe there is much untapped potential in our ability to modify genetics. Sadly, the main problem with GMOs is their ability to be manipulated for monetary gain. The science is pure-hearted for the most part and genuinely seeks to help improve our world, but corporations tend to give such efforts a bad name. At the end of the day though, we need to shake things up if we are going to cope with exponential population growth, and GMO crops may well be part of the answer.