By Nina Schulze, Amelia Ragon and Olivia Court
In Hawaii, papayas are a delicacy that natives cherish, but in the late 1990’s, an insect-transmitted virus hit these crops. This virus destroyed the crops all throughout the island: leaving papaya trees wilted and the fruits with ring-shaped spot deformities (Gonsalves , Tripathi, Carr, & Suzuki, 2010). The ringspot virus was persistent and, despite the farmers’ efforts to rid the virus and save the crops, no solution worked to help the papayas. The infection forced farmers to cut down papaya trees, and one farmer, Ross Subiaco, stated “by the end of six months, [their farm] had only 20 percent of [their] papayas left” (Hirsh, 2013, p.1). After trying selective breeding, quarantine, crop rotation, and anything else imaginable (Saletan, 2015), the Hawaiian farmers decided to try something new – genetically engineered (GE) seeds that were resistant to this specific virus. For this new proposal, the farmers teamed up with scientists to transfer the innocuous coat protein from the ringspot virus to the papaya’s DNA, resulting in an immunity to the virus (Saletan, 2015). This genetically engineered seed was successful and ultimately saved the industry.
About a year after the genetically modified seed introduction, critics began questioning its safety. The general public was uncomfortable with the idea of “playing with nature” (Saletan, 2015) and began to reject the practice of genetic engineering. One study came out claiming the new GE papaya “matched a sequence in an allergenic protein made by worms” (Saletan, 2015). This news scared the public, causing the formation of anti-GMO groups. People began to worry that the GE papaya was capable of producing new and more dangerous pathogens by interacting with DNA from other viruses (Saletan, 2015). Radicalists destroyed orchards that grew the GE papayas and bloggers flooded the internet, denouncing the fruit (Saletan, 2015).
The internet consensus is that GMOs will harm consumers.The internet is filled with “foodies” and bloggers who want to educate the general public on genetically modified food and its danger. Blogger and self-proclaimed GMO expert Jeffrey Smith (2011) has dedicated his anti-GMO internet blog to providing information on GMO health and consumption. Smith stated that since the production of genetically modified organisms became popular, there were significant rises in food allergies and disorders such as autism. He consequently indicated that there must be a link between GMOs and these health trends (Smith, 2011). He also stated that genetic engineering causes “unpredictable side effects” (Smith, 2011, p 1), .that will manufacture toxins and nutritional deficiencies. These side effects will decrease human health. Outside of Smith, there are reports that link environmental health to human health in relation to GMOs. Critics proposed GMO “superweeds” will develop and mutate to form a resistance to previously used herbicides. This resistance will cause farmers to use new, different herbicides to successfully kill the weeds (Donsky, 2016). Many blogs state that the overuse and change in herbicides will lead to GMO crops losing nutritional value (Donsky, 2016).
Since the start of the production of GMOs, scientists have been performing many experiments to compare effects of GMO feed and non-GMO feed on general health. Plahuta & Raspor (2007) found evidence that the production of transgenic wine is a safe procedure for human health. There were very slight experimental differences in the effects to human health between wine made with conventional means versus wine made with GMOs. These differences, however, were not statistically significant and were within the range of error. Since GM DNA appears equivalent to DNA from existing food organisms that have always been part of the human diet, they pose no higher threat when compared to conventional food. The consumption of DNA will remain the same, regardless of its origin, because the body handles all DNA the same way.
To further explore the safety of GMOs, other researchers specifically observed multiple health parameters of the study participants. In one study by Hammond et al. (2006), rats were tested in various groups to determine the health effects of GMO-feed vs. non-GMO feed. Rats are an important model to study in medical testing because their bodily characteristics and functions are very similar to those of humans, making it easy to replicate and therefore observe potential diseases and negative outcomes (Melina, 2010). The authors cited weight gain as one measure for health because, “the single most effective way to evaluate the overall health status of an animal is to observe the effects of treatment on body weight, food consumption, and food efficiency” (Borzelleca, 1996). If an animal is losing weight, the nutritional requirements are lacking in the diet. In the experiment, any weight gain differences between the control, GMO-feed, and non-GMO feed groups were of small, insignificant value. The authors also noted that food consumption between the three rat groups was “generally similar,” so the amount of feed did not affect the results (Hammond et al., 2006). Through the experiment, the authors claim that a normal human diet will have partial GMO ingredients. During the study, the GMO-feed contained 100% GMO ingredients. The neutral effects shown through the study provide an even greater safety net for humans because our consumption of GMOs will be through partial ingredients unlike the rats (Hammond et al., 2006).
A feed-study conducted by He, Brum, Chukwedebe, Privalle, Reed, Wang, et al. (2015), explored the various effects of feeding genetically modified soybean meal that was resistant to the herbicide Imidazolinone to rats and poultry. They compared two groups of rats: those who were fed the GM soy, and those who were fed non-GM soy. When comparing factors such as growth performance, the scientists found that there were no significant differences between the two groups of rats, indicating that there are no significant differences in nutritional value between GM and non-GM feed (He et al., 2015). In the same study, they compared the performance of chickens who were fed GM soy to those who were fed non-GM soy. This particular part of the study was important because chicken are notoriously sensitive to small changes in their diet. Without adequate levels of calcium, protein, and energy, egg production can stop altogether (Jacob, Wilson, Miles, Butcher, & Mather, 2014). However, He et al. (2015), observed no difference in production levels in these poultry, indicating that the GMO feed contained the same nutrient components as the non-GMO feed (He et. al, 2015). A similar study conducted by Chen et al. (2016) that analyzed the effects of feeding genetically modified corn to pigs stated that there were no adverse effects on growth performance. This 196-day study recorded average daily gain, average daily feed intake, and overall body weight of pigs who were fed GM-corn and pigs who were fed non-GM corn. Results showed that the two groups were profoundly similar in all categories (Chen et al., 2016).
The production and use of GMOs are seen as safe and neutral but are there any further benefits? Through a couple studies, scientists began to test this claim, relating to GMO benefits. The scientists looked for statistically significant variations between GMO feed and non-GMO feed effects on health. Statistical significance means that the data comparisons vary enough to warrant an outlier other than random chance. Min Li et al. (2010) studied GMO rice and its effect on human glucose levels. By altering the DNA of the rice, the scientists decreased the postprandial glycaemic (blood glucose concentration) responses in humans.The GMO rice proved to have lower values of blood glucose levels compared to the non-GMO rice in participants. The glycaemic index, another value that affects blood glucose levels, was lower in consumers of the GMO rice as compared to the non-GMO rice. Both of these values supported the authors’ claim: GMO rice provided health benefits. In this case, the GMO rice lessened the participants’ probability of dietary Diabetes 2.
Insulin production also plays a role in diabetes so the authors tested the effect of GMOs on insulin. The concentrations of plasma insulin in subjects with the GMO rice were significantly lower than that with non-GMO rice at 45, 60, 90 and 120 minutes post-food intake. The mean value of insulin index in subjects with the GMO rice was significantly lower than that with the non-GMO rice. The patients with the GMO rice had significantly lower blood glucose and insulin levels, both decreasing their risk of dietary diabetes. Through altering the DNA of food, scientists are able to alter food for the better.
In a separate study conducted by Zou et al. (2015), researchers fed genetically modified pork to rats. This pork was genetically modified to have a higher protein and lower fat content. In this study, the authors discovered that the rats fed GM-pork generally had lower values of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) than those who were fed non-GM pork (Zou et al., 2015). LDL is the “bad cholesterol” that aids in the development of plaque that can clog arteries. While this one study is not enough to confirm whether or not GMOs are completely beneficial, it opens the doors to the possibility of GMOs being more beneficial than non-GMO.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that GMOs are safe to produce, ingest and have potential health benefits, there is still a bias against the production and use of genetically modified organisms. A paper published by philosophy professor Blancke (2015) and biotechnologists from Belgium argues that this negative GMO view stems from an emotional bias. The mindset forms through the belief that foreign agents are seen as a substance that changes the identity of the modified organism. As a result, more than 50% of Americans believe that a tomato modified with fish DNA would taste like fish (Blancke, 2015). Since the advent of genetic modification in the 1970’s and practices like in-vitro fertilization, religion plays a large role in the opposition of GMOs. Many believe genetic modification is unnatural and interfering with ‘God’s work,’ making humans bound to experience an unforeseen disaster (Blancke, 2015). Another issue that causes people to dislike GMOs is disgust. The thought of food containing DNA from a source that is viewed as dirty or disgusting can create the notion that the food is now contaminated. This emotional bias is in the unconscious mind of many, causing them to attempt to find rational arguments to side with this belief (Blancke, 2015).
The general public’s perception of GMOs is skewed and biased. The public opposes them because they believe GMOs are bad for people’s health and the environment. GMOs and their safety, however, are supported in the scientific field with experiments such as the ones mentioned above. What causes the skewing and bias, though? There is a gap between the scientific community and the public, the culprit being a lack of education. It fuels the emotional fear that surrounds the GMO bias because there is information on GMOs but many people are unaware or unable to decipher the information. This gap leads toward the public forming beliefs based off of emotion rather than fact (Vergano, 2015).
The Hawaiian papaya study, as previously mentioned, supports this trend with the belief that the GM-papaya shared an amino acid sequence with a common allergen. Out of 280 amino acids in the papaya’s new gene, the consecutive amino acids it shared with the alleged allergen with six (Saletan, 2015). By this standard, non-genetically modified corn would have to acknowledged as allergenic because most proteins in corn share a small number of amino acid sequences with allergens (Saletan, 2015). With scientific jargon and research papers, the general public is unable to understand the impartial effects and potential benefits of GMOs because they are unable to understand the language of the scientists. Not only is it difficult for people to understand the facts, but there is another problem that lies within the negative representation of GMOs. Blancke (2015) argues that media and other sources tap into emotions and intuition which falls under the radar of the human mind. All people are able to relate to feelings and emotions in reference to GMOs: “they capture our attention, they are easily processed and remembered and thus stand a greater chance of being transmitted and becoming popular, even if they are untrue” (Blancke, 2015). A lack of education and misleading information both come together to strengthen the negative perception so both need to be targeted in the fight for the support of GMOs.
There is an unfounded bias toward the danger of GMOs even though there is scientific evidence that supports the safety and benefits of these organisms, so GMO education through schools will decrease this bias and promote the use of GMOs. With an increasing world population, there is an increasing demand for food. There is a shortage of farmland and without new production technology, an unmatched increase in food demand will raise food prices and cause food shortages. As a new production technology, GMOs are a viable answer. If they are the answer, GMOs will increase in the world and because of their safety, it is important to gain the support of the public so GMOs will flourish in their use (Chen & Tseng, 2011). As discussed above, public bias leads to a negative reaction to GMOs and this bias needs to be addressed for the future. Education is the answer. In the long-term, it is important to target education at the public level. Through targeting a younger audience, one is targeting the future consumers. Adding a GMO curriculum, traveling guest speakers, and college lectures are a few ways to incorporate GMOs into the public school system.
There are pre-existing developments in this proposal relating to GMO curriculum. At the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, Beitler (2007) has outlined a GMO lesson plan for high-school biology students titled, Genetically Engineered Food: Altering the Blueprint. The outline first studies the basics such as defining genes and genetic engineering. It, then, goes on to ethical, scientific, and environmental issues relating to GMOs. For ethics, people argue over the use of science to manipulate genes. Some people believe scientists are overstepping nature while others argue that scientists have developed the means and are, therefore, justified to modify genes. With any topic, it is important to introduce ethics because they help students understand all sides to the proposal of GMOs. Next, the lesson plan addresses the scientific issues relating to GMOs. These issues are, however, lacking because of the scientific consensus on the safety and potential benefits of GMOs. After an analysis of all the risks and issues, from both sides, a teacher is then able to add further detail within each field. Students will obtain a well-rounded education of GMOs which will shape their personal opinions and decrease bias caused by a lack of knowledge (Beitler, 2007).
According to the Teaching Channel, “schools are constantly launching new programs to enhance teaching and learning” (Teaching Channel). Implementing a new GMO curriculum is, therefore, achievable because new programs are “constantly launched,” within schools (Teaching Channel). How are they launched? England recently launched a new educational curriculum through their government. The governmental officials argue curriculum should cover “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” so teachers “have the freedom to shape the curriculum to their pupils’ needs” (“How is,” 2014). With this freedom, teachers have room to implement GMOs in their current curriculum. They would also have freedom to remove them in the future when GMOs become more common knowledge. How will current subjects be affected to make room for this freedom? Math will be taught at an earlier age. History will change to take a more chronological approach. In science, there will be a shift to hard facts and “scientific knowledge.” In September of 2015, schools implemented this new curriculum in England through the government (“How is,” 2014).
With a lack of education leading to a bias surrounding GMOs, scientific research continues to work in proving their safety. GMOs are reliable for production and consumption and they potentially provide health benefits. The public needs to be educated so people are able to promote and use the increasing genetically modified organisms. Education within the public school systems will enlighten the younger generation and, ultimately, the future generation. Previous scientific studies found evidence for the safety of genetically modified organisms in crops and food and this evidence will be presented to students. Teachers will also expose the fallacy of anti-GMO efforts that mislead and tap into the intuitive fear of the unknown of consumers. With time, the government will make policies that utilize the benefits of GMOs, such as making drought-resistant plants or treating diabetes.
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