GMOs -- frightening and full of possibility

  • Article by: GREG BREINING
  • Updated: April 20, 2013 - 4:47 PM

Genetic modification is the left’s anti-science bugbear. But if you look closely, it’s a brave new world.

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File photo: "GloFish" a Zebra fish genetically modified to glow red or green in reaction to heavy metal pollutants

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Genetic modification may upset our view of the world, but it’s here to stay and may someday help protect what we call natural.

Republicans have labored hard to earn their reputation as the party that fears science — denying the fact of global warming because overwhelming evidence is inconvenient to their deeply ingrained ideology.

But liberals have their own blind spots. For many, it’s GMOs — “Frankenfoods” — despite reams of studies and years of experience that fail to show harmful side effects.

And the reason is not so different from Republicans’ reason for denying global warming: The evidence contradicts a precious worldview — that GMOs indenture Jeffersonian farmers to corporate masters, or that tampering with Mother Nature prevents our return to the Garden of Eden.

In fact, Collide-a-Scape blogger Keith Kloor calls GMO opponents “the climate skeptics of the left.”

But the fact is, the brave new world of genetic engineering is here. And its future, while scary, is also breathtaking and wondrous to contemplate. GMOs already make up much of our food. With new precision in modifying organisms, they will play a growing role in medicine.

While conservationists traditionally — one might say, reflexively — view GMOs as a threat to nature, genetically engineered species may soon play a role in conservation and protecting species.

Predictable resistance

For now, GMOs are meeting plenty of resistance.

Minnesota recently joined several other states in drafting legislation that would require GMO labels on foods that contain genetically modified organisms, such as herbicide-resistant corn. Whether people really want to know they are eating GMOs, when perhaps three-quarters of our processed foods already include them, will be debated in Minnesota and elsewhere.

On a national level, the Obama administration, which promised to replace the most anti-science administration in recent times with science-based policies, recently iced a decision of the Food and Drug Administration — a decision based on science — to avoid antagonizing the greens among the Democratic faithful.

According to reporting by Slate and the Genetic Literacy Project, not until after the 2012 election did the FDA announce its approval for the first GMO food animal — AquaBounty Technologies’ fast-growing Atlantic salmon.

On the international stage, Greenpeace and other environmentalists are battling to stop genetically modified “golden rice,” which produces its own daily dose of vitamin A. Groups blast the grain as Frankenfood and a tool of big business, but the Swiss scientists who bred the rice say it could save the lives of millions of children in Southeast Asia and Africa who suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

These dustups haven’t blocked adoption of GMOs by farmers and consumers. Last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, GMO seeds made up 88 percent of all corn planted in the United States, 93 percent of all soybeans and 94 percent of all cotton. About 80 percent of Canada’s canola has been modified using biotechnology.

According to the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (OK, maybe not the most neutral source): “A 94-fold increase in hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011 makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.”

Better tools

There’s no reason to believe GMOs have reached their full potential, if only because we are acquiring powerful new tools to modify the DNA of any living organism — plant, animal or microbial. Genetic modification promises to become easier, more targeted, more efficient and more subtle.

I recently spoke with Daniel Voytas, plant geneticist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Genome Engineering. Voytas has been developing a revolutionary new way to snip and edit DNA.

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