Genetically modified food has sparked an intense debate these last few years. As the science has weighed in, there still is a significant fear factor among first-world populations regarding the safety of GMOs.
What’s the difference between selective breeding and GMOs?
Selective breeding involves selecting organisms with desirable traits and breeding them so that certain characteristics are perpetuated. However, this is limited to naturally occurring variations, which is where genetic engineering comes in.
Genetic engineering introduces genes into an organism from a totally unrelated species. This is a practice that is commonly carried out on crops, agricultural animals and bacteria. These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are designed for many reasons, including: pesticide and disease resistance, drought/frost resistance, increased yields, enhanced nutritional content and as a way to produce drugs or vaccines at low cost on a large scale. When most people consider GMOs they think of agriculture, but the medical implications are wide ranging. For example, genetically engineered bacteria now produce insulin, saving the lives of millions of type 1 diabetics.
The debate is varied, from human health to corporate greed, but one thing is undeniable: humans have been intervening to change how crops grow for over millennia.
So what sparked the modern anti-GMO movement?
A lot of fear was sparked about the safety of GM foods after a scientist named Gilles-Eric Séralini published a study that found rats fed with Monsanto’s glyphosphate-resistant corn developed more tumors and died earlier than controls. After these results, many demanded tighter regulations whereas others called for an outright ban on the corn. However, numerous problems with the study came to light which led to its retraction from the journal.
First off, Séralini is an outspoken anti-GMO activist. At the time of initial publication he had conflicting interests- he was releasing a book and a documentary on the research. For the experiments, Séralini used Sprague-Dawley rats that are prone to developing spontaneous tumors. He also only used 10 rats for each group, for a period of two years which is almost a rat’s lifespan. The study was described as a “statistical fishing trip” by reviewers – if you test enough variables for long enough, you’ll get a result from something. This is not good science. The recommendation for carcinogenicity studies is that 65 or more of each sex should be used. There is a high probability that the results were due to chance.
Furthermore, there have been mounds of better designed studies that have found no health issues, further suggesting that poor study design is the likely reason for the results, not the GM maize.