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Genetically Modified Organisms (Part 2) – Are they safe and is there a need for them?

Posted by on September 18, 2015

By Professor Nigel Brown FRSB, President of the Society for General Microbiology.

Part 1 of this series described what GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are.  There has been a backlash against these in some EU countries, including the UK.  Two issues of concern are safety of individuals and safety of the environment.

However, the main concern was that a GMO may produce a new protein to which there was a widespread allergic reaction.  In the US, where GMOs are better accepted than in Europe, and GM soya has been widely used, there is no evidence of such a reaction.  The practice of the last 20 years suggests that current GMOs are safe for individuals.  The tests that are applied to new products help ensure this.

There is concern that the release of GMOs into the environment may result in outbreeding of GM plants to native plants, or transfer of foreign DNA from GM bacteria to other organisms.  The rules about releasing GMOs into the environment depend on extensive testing of the GMO to prevent such genetic transfer, and in the UK a Government advisory committee oversees the permission to release new organisms to the environment.  The technology could be misused by a government or terrorist organisation, but knowledge and technology cannot be ‘undiscovered’; it can only be controlled.

Other objections include a desire to avoid ‘unnatural’ organisms or concerns about big companies generating a monopoly on a crop or a drug.  These are issues of personal belief and not of safety.

So, are GMOs necessary and desirable?  Sometimes they lead the way and are then replaced. Vegetarian cheese was first produced using GM yeast containing a cattle gene to produce rennet.  This has been used since 1990 to produce most UK hard cheeses, but some natural fungal rennets are now used.  The Hawaiian GM papaya gave resistance to a virus that was infecting the trees; a resistant variety might be bred by traditional methods, but that would take many more years and the economically-important papaya industry would have collapsed.

Some GMOs allow completely new activity.  In my last post I mentioned rice which produces vitamin A.  The latest figures from WHO indicate that half a million children would avoid blindness if this were in their diet.  Scientists are working on producing cereals that can fix nitrogen in the same way that clover does, thus avoiding excessive use of fertiliser and the potential contamination of rivers by run-off and the production of greenhouse gases.  Pesticide-resistant crops or herbicide-tolerant crops reduce the amount of spraying farmers need to do, thus reducing environmental contamination and minimising damage to the soil.

I may be biased, but it is my belief that, given our increasing knowledge of the science and with the regulations in place, GMOs remain safe, and that many of the products of GM technology provide advances that will help feed a healthy world.

Professor Brown FRSB is writing an article each month for The Bridge, a local magazine delivered to every home in the villages of Corsley and Chapmanslade in Wiltshire.

The Royal Society of Biology is sponsoring these articles through our regional grant scheme, which supports locally focussed activity.

Find out about the work of the UK Plant Science Federation, a special interest group of the Royal Society of Biology.

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