Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are one of today’s most misunderstood creatures. A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA altered in some way.
These alterations can be done by indirect manipulation, as in artificial selection — when animals or plants are selected for breeding based on desirable traits — or by direct manipulation, such as through the process of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering, or GE, occurs when a gene that wouldn’t normally be found in an organism is inserted into its genome. Often used interchangeably with the term GMO, GE is only one subtype of genetic modification that falls under the larger GMO umbrella.
While the prospect of altering DNA sounds daunting, humans have been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years. Domestic animals are the ultimate products of artificial selection — cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens were all selected for their muscle mass, ease of breeding, and most of all, their tameness.
Even our dogs were originally domesticated from their wild ancestors for the purpose of hunting over 13,000 years ago. Taking a closer look at plants, we can see that our familiar kale, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower were all selected and cultivated from forms of wild mustard.
Altering DNA indirectly like this can take a very long time, however, and some problems require more urgent solutions and call for a faster and more accurate technique.
Genetic engineering allows genetic changes to be made more precisely by incorporating specific genes from one species into another. In recent years, GE has been used to facilitate the production of valuable pharmaceutical substances, like insulin and albumin, and to optimize agricultural performance — increasing crop yields, reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and increasing the nutrient density of certain foods.
Golden Rice, for example, is a genetically engineered crop created to address vitamin A deficiencies in developing countries. To produce Golden Rice, two genes are inserted — one from corn and the other from a commonly ingested soil bacterium, Pantoea ananatis. The modifications activate the carotenoid pathway in the rice, allowing the rice to produce more beta carotene— the precursor to vitamin A.
Health Canada gave the go- ahead for the sale of Golden Rice in March 2018, after stating that the alterations made to the rice posed no increased health risk when compared to the varieties of rice currently available for consumption.
In the Philippines, the Inter- national Rice Research Institute and the Philippine Rice Research Institute are currently awaiting approval on their application for a biosafety permit form their federal government’s Bureau of Plant Industry so that they, too, can put Golden Rice on the market.
Despite the possibility for positive impacts, there are some instances of GMO development that warrant apprehension — all cases are unique and should be viewed accordingly. In the United States, for example, GMOs don’t require pre-market approval. This means that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only requires a safety assessment if the developer presents evidence that it is needed.
Thus, developers assess the toxicity and allergenicity of the GMO product themselves and release the data to the FDA voluntarily. When a corporation is left to regulate itself like this, it is understandable that consumers may be skeptical — but Canadian GMO regulations do not operate in this way.
Before a new GMO can be grown or sold in Canada, it has to be approved for food safety by Health Canada and for feed safety and unconfined environmental release by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. This means that plants in Canada are regulated based on the traits that they express rather than the process used to introduce the traits.
Safety reviews are then conducted based on familiarity with the plant species and substantial equivalence, which is the comparison of a modified plant species with the unmodified version that is already approved in Canada.
There are currently four main GMO crops grown in Canada: corn, canola, soybeans and sugar beets. In the United States, this list expands to ten and includes apples and potatoes.
It makes sense that people are wary when it comes to altering genetics — experimental outcomes are not always predictable and the science can be hard for the public to understand. However, genetic modification has helped humans survive for millennia, giving us the plants we eat, the medications we might need and the pets we love.
Genetic modification is a complex field with many categories and internationally varied regulations. We need to make sure we understand what we are discussing, and the implications of misinformation, before we kick potentially beneficial technology to the curb.
Photo: Agricultural Research Science / Supplied