Engineering New Consequences: Genetically Modified Organisms and You

I’ve always had an interest in genetically modified organisms, ever since I started reading studies about declines in biodiversity related to the proliferation of GMO crops. This decline started, of course, long before the widespread development and adoption of GMOs; declines in biodiversity are also related to monocropping tendencies. Apples, tomatoes, potatoes, and numerous other crops were once grown in a myriad of varietals, but today, many of these varietals are lost.

As the agriculture system has changed, so has the nature of what we grow. A limited number of cultivars are suitable for widespread mass production and shipping. Consequently, there’s not as much diversity in commercial cultivation as there used to be, and we are losing our heritage, bit by bit, every year. It’s estimated, for example, that 11 apple cultivars make up 90% of the apples sold, and we’ve lost almost 90% of the apples in widespread cultivation only 100 years ago. What happened to agriculture happened very, very fast.

This isn’t just sad for foodies who want to be able to swan about making a point of eating exotic, rare, or unusual cultivars. It also potentially really sucks for us, because if the crops we are growing now start to develop problems, we may not have other seedstock to fall back upon. If, for example, Granny Smiths, Red Delicious, and Fujis become subject to blight, the world’s apple supply would be at serious risk. This is why seed banks are established, and why some organisations are making a habit of preserving unusual cultivars, in case they are some day needed.

Even seedbanks aren’t entirely safe from threat. There are questions about how stable and useful they really are for storing seeds and other genetic material, and they are expensive to run. When pressures rise, questions may be raised about whether a government can afford to maintain a seed bank. The result may be loss of a facility, and many facilities have unique, irreplaceable stocks, representing a world of lost possibilities and missed potential.

The use of genetically modified organisms started raising warning bells in many regions of the world where people are concerned about genetic diversity in crops, particularly in areas where there are wild stocks of currently domesticated plants. Ecologists pointed out that these stocks could be used for hybridisation in the event of the appearance of a new crop disease, if they remained isolated from domesticated cultivars that might exchange genetic material and weaken them. As it turns out, however, GMOs are eager to cross with wild organisms, and the genes associated with genetically modified crops are escaping into nature, contaminating wild seedstock, and creating problems.

This is a serious problem, and it’s one we may not fully comprehend at this point. It may be that we never need wild seedstocks, but we have no way of knowing that now. It’s possible that future generations will look back on the way we handled GMOs and wonder what we were thinking. A few missteps may have led to compromises that will have long term implications. Some things, once done, cannot be undone.

The LA Times recently reported on a study illustrating some other unexpected implications associated with the release of GMOs. It’s not just, it turns out, about damage to genetic lineages that might be impossible to rebuild or repair. There’s also a potential for developing what the paper describes as ‘superweeds,’ weeds naturally resistant to herbicides as a result of genetic exchange with modified crops. Develop corn to resist herbicides for the convenience of mass agriculture, wind up with super aggressive weeds that will be impossible to contain.

What’s happening with genetically modified crops is an interesting case of unintended consequences, paired with some very real and important progress. Even as we fear superweeds, we can see cases where genetically modified crops are having very positive benefits, as seen in the case of crops modified for increased yields and higher nutrition value to reestablish food security in nations struggling to feed their populations.

The tension between numerous groups on genetically modified organisms intrigues me—as a consumer, I make an effort to avoid bioengineered crops, for example, while also recognising that all crops, to some extent, are genetically modified. We have bred crops to appear and grow the way they do. I see a lot of very dichotomous rhetoric about genetically modified crops, people claiming that they are either unilaterally evil and horrible, or unilaterally terrific.

The truth lies, I suspect, somewhere in the middle ground. The ability to genetically engineer crops has brought about both good and bad things, and it illustrates the need for strict control, whether in pure or applied science. Whether people feel that bioengineered organisms are beneficial or deleterious, I think everyone can agree that things like the development of superweeds are a cause for concern.

The 20th century has seen a number of critical developments in the sciences, along with the undermining of many of those developments. Take, for example, the explosion of antibiotics, followed in less than 50 years by the development of widespread antibiotic resistance and questions about how to develop an entirely new class of drugs to treat microbial infections. The miracle drugs that saved countless lives in the Second World War are increasingly compromised.

This is not to get down on science. On the contrary, I think science is awesome, and what these issues illustrate is that scientific innovation is something that can never stop. Even as we deepen our understanding of the world, we find out more about how our understanding is flawed, and we are forced to innovate all over again.