When I was still in primary school, one time I searched the library for a book on 80 greatest conspiracies of all time. Luckily, someone had already borrowed it, and I never came back for it.
Had I borrowed that book, maybe I wouldn't be writing this article now. Or I would be promoting the latest detox focused on cleaning the body of 'chemtrails' or something.
Because of this (or maybe despite it), I'm drawn to conspiracy theories and misconceptions in general. When I say drawn, I don't mean I believe them, but rather expose their lack of arguments.
Possibly one of the biggest misconceptions of the last 20-30 years is the story of harmfulness of genetically modified organisms.
To get ahead of evil minds saying I'm being paid by some biotech company dealing with GMO, or that I own their shares – I'm not, and I don't. My interests lie in instigating technological advances, or at least in trying to stop inhibiting them, and promoting critical thinking.
Professor Hrvoje Fulgosi from Ruđer Bošković Institute is one of the most vocal opponents of genetic modification demonization in Croatia. The reason I bring him up is that he thought of a great alternative name for genetically modified organisms: Generally Mystified Organisms.
And other than being generally mystified, genetically modified organisms are also Globally Mistreated.
Why do we genetically modify?
Genetically modified organisms exist and are produced to deliver us a certain advantage over unmodified ones.
The examples of these advantages are higher resistance to insecticides, pesticides, viruses, and poor environmental conditions (heat, cold, drought), higher nutritional value, higher yields etc.
What is genetic modification?
People genetically modify all foods, plants and animals, for thousands of years, ever since we started breeding them. This process is called artificial selection.
In the process of artificial selection we save the seeds with most desirable characteristics to plant them for the next season. Next year we have crops of slightly better characteristics than the last year. When you do this several thousand times over several thousand years, you get the food we eat today. Corn would be just a feeble grass without the artificial selection, and potato would be poisonous.
Genetic modification is just one of many technologies we use to alter organisms in order to satisfy our needs and desires. It involves inserting one or more specific genes from another organism (bearing positive characteristics, the ones we want) into the one we are targeting to improve.
These adjustments are much more precise than the ones achieved through natural mutations, crossbreeding and mutagenesis, which are used in conventional creation of new breeds. Because of that, they are also potentially more harmless.
Nutritional value of GM foods
As any good nutritionist, I'll start off with a question is there a difference in nutritive value between genetically modified foods and those that aren't?
The answer is impossible to give. Genetic modification is just a tool, and genetically modified organisms are just products of that tool. They can be of higher nutritional value than the unmodified product. They can also have lower nutritional value. We shouldn't make general assumptions about nutritional value of genetically modified foods. It must be measured only on an individual basis.
The question we should ask is whether there's potential for GM foods to be of higher nutritive value than unmodified foods?
The answer is very much yes, and examples of these are soy with a better fatty acids profile (no trans fatty acids, smaller percentage of saturated acids, and a higher percentage of unsaturated acids), and so-called „golden rice“ – rice with genes for biosynthesis of beta-carotene. And while the mentioned soy is being used, golden rice is still in development. The main goal of this modification is to correct vitamin A deficiencis (beta-carotene is its precursor) which leaves blind millions of children around the world.
Fear from GMO is almost universal. But what are people afraid of exactly?
People have an ingrained fear of new and unknown things. This fears kept us safe from dangerous and potentially deadly situations throughout our evolution. Genetic modification is both new and unknown.
But the fear from the new is not a rational fear. Meaning, it is not a product of a specific situation which we have a good reason to believe will harm us. Science and experts both tell us that this fear from GMO is unfounded.
No matter the evidence, a great number of people will still believe in the harmfulness of GMO. It's a consequence of being exposed to false information and sensationalism through media and social networks, and anti-intellectualism – refusal of trusting the experts.
Labeling GM foods
If you ask an average American if genetically modified foods should be clearly labeled on its nutrition declaration, 82% will say yes.
People have a right to know what's in their food, right?
However, if you ask the same people if foods containing DNA should also be labeled, 80% of them will also say yes.
In case you (they) were wondering, DNA is present in every living organism on the planet, dead or alive, every plant, animal, or bacteria, healthy or poisonous.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that regardless of the fact that everyone has a right to their opinion, not every opinion matters or has equal value, especially when considering complex subjects.
To be more direct: People often don't know what they want or need.
Science on GMO
Different genetically modified organisms contain different genes from different organisms, inserted in different ways. As with any nutritional value, this means their safety in terms of consumer health and environment needs to be evaluated in every individual case and we can't make general conclusions on safety of all genetically modified foods.
Safety indeed is assessed on an individual level.
For example, in 1996 it was noticed that during the transfer of genes from Brazil nuts into soy, the resulting proteins retained their allergenic characteristics. This would have posed a higher risk for people who are allergic to the Brazil nut protein. Mentioned genetically modified soy never made the market, precisely due to the efficient control mechanism.
The public opinion on genetically modified organisms is generally negative, regardless of very small number of research available that points to their harmfulness. These research always caused great attention of public and experts. The latter criticized them for particularly poor methodology. One of the most mentioned studies was even retracted by the publisher, which is an extremely rare measure by which it is acknowledged the study shouldn't have been approved by the peer review process in the first place. Therefore, this research shouldn't be taken as proof of GMO harmfulness, especially when put into context of total scientific literature.
On the other hand, hundreds of independent and privately financed studies conclude that genetically modified foods are safe to consume.
World Health Organization, American National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Association, Royal Society of Science, and European Union are just a few of the great global science organizations which publicly conclude that consuming genetically modified foods is safe for human health.
The level of scientific consensus on GMO safety is equal to the one about human cause of global warming.
The world is being filled with new powerful technologies. Genetic modification is one of them. These technologies aren't good or bad in and of themselves, they are only tools to be used with good or bad intent, with positive or negative consequences.
No new technology is risk-free, but sometimes opposing innovation brings much higher risk.
It's perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of new technologies, as well as companies using or providing them. But just because it's in someone's interest to sell a certain technology doesn't mean it's harmful. To establish benefits or risks we need a rigorous scientific approach, as well as legal regulation in order to maximize benefits and minimize risk. And that is exactly what we have.
Don't fall victim to making assumptions based on attractive lies, myths, misconceptions and ideologies.