EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is adapted from the chapter “On What It’s Like Not To Know Squat about GMOs” from the ebook “The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science,” compiled by Fourat Janabi for smashwords.com.
Recently, a “ground-breaking” study by Gilles-Éric Séralini used by anti-GMO activists as “convincing evidence” of harm caused by genetically-engineered corn, was deep-sixed by the very journal that published it, Food and Chemical Toxicology.
I raised a glass of home-brewed hard cider and said “Salut!” to self-correcting science.
Changing my mind about GMOs has been easy. All it took was learning that the Humulin my Type-1 diabetic spouse takes every day to keep himself alive is a GMO. Just isolate the sequence in the human genome that codes for the insulin protein; insert this DNA into the nucleus of an E. coli bacterium; et viola: The bacterium divides to become a little insulin factory.
When most people think of GMOs, they think of food. A freshman seminar I once taught at University of Southern Maine concerns how we laypeople should view claims about food we see in the media. I introduce the subject of genetically modified organisms by typing “GMO images” into a search engine. The results are hilarious.
I ask the students which images they see most represented on the screen. Immediately they say, “Hypodermic needles.”
There they are, sticking out of tomatoes like porcupine quills. I ask them how the hypodermic needle is employed in the creation of genetically modified organisms. Silence.
“It isn’t,” I tell them.
We stare at all the other scary, doctored images: a frog with orange peel for skin; a tomato with a human fetus in its pulp; a heart-shaped potato, dripping blood.
“How many of these are actual GMOs?” I ask the students. They recognize, of course, that these images are fictions, designed to frighten people.
“Does anyone know what a real GMO looks like?”
No one says anything. How would we find a real GMO? We apparently can’t rely on Google to give us the answer. We have to know what we’re looking for.
I’m fortunate to have a friend who works for a biotech company. He agreed to speak to the class about GMOs, what they are, how they are made. His slide presentation contained no images of freak frogs or fetus tomatoes. It was all facts and figures, benefits and drawbacks.
Anyone who is opposed to GMOs should type “Rainbow papaya” into a search engine and look at it. It’s a gorgeous orange fruit, genetically engineered to resist ring spot virus, a disease that nearly decimated the papaya industry in Hawaii.
They should look up the story of “Golden Rice,” how the plant was successfully altered with a gene sequence from a daffodil to express beta-carotene, a building block for Vitamin A. It will help prevent blindness in impoverished children, but activists have held up its deployment.
One of my favorite moments in class is watching a video about the “spider goat” that produces a special silk protein in its milk. An orb-weaving spider’s gene that has been inserted into the goat’s genome is responsible for this protein, and it allows humans to farm the silk from the goat and turn it into a durable material that can be used as surgical material.
The Séralini fiasco tells us that when someone performs a bad “study,” smart people will sometimes be bamboozled by it – including the good folks at the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
And if they could be fooled, what about the rest of us?
I confess, when I’ve tried reading some of these studies, my eyes just glaze over (and I have a master’s degree in English). Being a layperson, I’m not equipped to comprehend scientific literature, let alone evaluate it. I’ve learned not to be over-impressed by “studies.” There are thousands of them, and anyone can go on the Internet and cherry-pick all day long until he finds the ones that support his pre-existing beliefs.
It will be interesting to see what will happen if the GMO labeling law goes into effect in Maine. I think it will backfire. The labels will appear and most people just won’t care. The activists clearly want the labels to deter people from buying these products, but it won’t work.
I hope my students go out into the world with the awareness that we humans are built to believe, not to disbelieve; that it’s our life’s work to decide which beliefs to accept, which to discard; and that it won’t be easy.
Bad beliefs are like fishhooks: easy to swallow, difficult to cough up. It can be done, though.