We often here this word here and there. Everyone is talking about it; we see groceries with these stickers, but what exactly is meant by it? Well, this mysterious acronym stands for genetically modified organism – another name would be “transgenic organism”. What makes a transgenic organism transgenic? Oh, it’s quite simple – at least, on a basic level – it’s any organism, which has been altered on a genetic level with genetic engineering techniques – in other words, which has been deliberately modified by humans.
Technically, almost any animal and plant humans use – livestock, pets, crops – are genetically modified, as they were selectively bred to exhibit traits we find desirable. Today the preferred meaning of the term GMO is close to the legal term, as defined by the Cartagena Protocol of Biosafety: "any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology".
One of the most vocal points for proponents of using GMOs for agriculture is that, simply put, without transgenic crops millions would have died from hunger. Biologist Normal Borlaug, who has been called “The Father of the Green Revolution”. The scientist believed that using GMOs was the only way to increase food production as humanity runs out of unused suitable land. His work arguably helped save millions of lives from famine, as it greatly increased crop yields across the world in several decades.
Borlaug spoke at the Norwegian Nobel Institute, in 2000:
I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well advanced in the research pipeline – to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called “organic” methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.
His concerns were well justified. As you are probably aware, many people are wary of eating genetically modified crops – in fact, some jurisdictions force producers to mark transgenic products, and others have banned their sale to consumers altogether. The outcry to limit GMOs on the consumer market is not limited to the public – the scientific community has also voiced doubt that the process of altering the genetic makeup of our food is entirely safe – for various reasons.
For example, Professor Richard Lewontin, Professor of Genetics at Harvard University, said:
Probably the greatest threat from genetically altered crops is the insertion of modified virus and insect virus genes into crops. It has been shown in the laboratory that genetic recombination will create highly virulent new viruses from such constructions. Certainly the widely used cauliflower mosaic virus is a potentially dangerous gene. It is a pararetrovirus meaning that it multiplies by making DNA from RNA messages.
The truth of the matter is, genetically modified foods have been around for centuries – millennia, even. What has changed is the speed and the way with which humans modify them. Currently the general scientific consensus is based on the fact that there are no reports of adverse effects of GMO consumption by humans. However, it may be explained by outdated testing – for example, in 2012 the European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel noted that consumption of transgenic foods might pose "novel hazards.” As the technology emerged, study of its full effect, especially long-term effect – still lags behind.