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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 | Last updated: 4:47pm

Skepticism aimed at GMOs not warranted



Humanity’s advances in biotechnology are miraculous. Most people living in a developed country, whether they’re aware of it or not, are enjoying the fruits of modern science in numerous ways. We have longer, healthier lives and experience a relatively high standard of living.

Despite this, there seems to be a crowd of people who always cause a ruckus about what scientists are doing. Particularly in the U.S., there are a multitude of conspiracy theories about what our government is supposedly doing to our food supply, especially in regards to GMOs. It’s fine to be skeptical, but trying to identify threats without first confirming that there’s something to be afraid of is pointless.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, seem to stir up all sorts of powerful, sometimes rabid emotional responses (often in the form of a rant in written in all capitals, riddled with bad grammar and inflammatory language).

I’ve seen all sorts of crazy posts like this on Internet forums and social media sites, often with a very smug attitude behind them: I only eat organic, the rest of you sheep can keep eating your cancer-veggies! Or I see pictures of lab mice with apparently GMO-induced tumors or lesions, which are never labeled, accredited to anyone or even linked to a source.

One oppositional argument posed by GMO Awareness is that “the very process of genetic engineering — the random insertion of a gene into the genome — causes disruptions in many enzymes that perform basic metabolic work.”

The underlying message on all these forums is always the same: GMOs are evil, malicious poison and they must be stopped.

Not surprisingly, the prime suspect behind such concerns is none other than ignorance, with misinformation as its accomplice. Hearsay is often repeated as though it were fact. This pattern produces comment threads about how our corn and our chickens are going to kill us unless they’re grown in someone’s backyard, with zero chemicals and lots of love.

So let’s get this straight: What are GMOs, exactly?

According to an article from the World Health Organization, “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.”

Presumably, what people freak out about is that last phrase: “that does not occur naturally.” What do scientists do to our food? Why do they do it?

I couldn’t possibly go into all their methods in this short column, but genetic engineering can entail processes such as selective breeding, which has been going on for centuries, or more advanced methods, like extracting DNA from similar plant types and using it to generate more desirable traits in a given crop.

When you do some simple research, GMOs sound less and less sinister. Agricultural scientists aren’t injecting your potatoes with rat poison and radioactive waste, they’re creating hybrids with different plants to produce a stronger, more fruitful crop that yields more food and possibly even requires less water or nutrients to grow.

Agricultural scientists aren’t just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks; lots of hard work, research and innovation were required to get to where we are now.

For example, look at Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist who deserves far more credit than he gets. He’s known for developing strains of wheat that had a significantly higher yield, were resistant to disease and had a dramatic impact on the economies of several countries, such as Mexico and Pakistan. The yield was so significant that Borlaug is credited with saving more than a billion people from starving to death by increasing the available food supply.

GMOs are a necessity, especially in the modern world, where the human population is higher than ever before. The number of humans is constantly growing, but the food supply always seems limited — it doesn’t have to be, with GMOs.

When you fail to do your research, you are limiting your potential knowledge. So loosen up those tin-foil hats a little and let the blood flow through your brain. Skepticism shouldn’t be treated like a competitive sport; you don’t win a prize for being more paranoid than your Facebook friends.

— Jesus Luna Tarazon is a senior studying English. Follow him @DailyWildcat.


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