This weekend I went with my family to watch the new blockbuster “Jurassic World”. While I found the script a little lacking, the special effects were pretty neat and the dinosaurs were awesome! Even if it is the fourth installment, dinosaurs never get old.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, the premise is the billionaire owner of the Jurassic World theme park is in a quest for a bigger, scarier dinosaur. He has his scientists genetically engineer a whole new species of dinosaur that ends up being more dangerous than they thought it would be. This happens because they put genes from all sorts of animals in this new dinosaur, but they don’t know until it is too late that they added all sorts of bad genes in there too.
After the show, my mother-in-law Brenda brought up the fact that many people might not understand that while this kind of genetic modification is a fun premise for a movie, it is about as realistic as a Loony Toons cartoon. What the scientists in the movie were doing was nothing like genetic modification in real life. Although it is not as sexy as a camouflaging carnivore, genetic modification practices are helping solve big problems in agriculture and human nutrition.
In agriculture, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not animals. Only plants are GMOs, and there are only eight GMO plants farmed in America. GMOs are created by taking a small section of DNA from one plant and placing it in the DNA of another plant. Now, before we get worried about creating corn stalks that can stalk people at night, remember that we know the entire genome of the plants we are raising. This is what makes modern genetic modification different from earlier efforts, which involved things like mutagenesis, a process that involved exposing a plant to radiation to cause genetic mutations. Mutagenesis has produced successful products like the Rio Red grapefruit, but it was less precise than modern GMO technology.
There a lot of reasons for creating GMO plants. Some are efficiency related, like disease resistance or decreased water requirements for corn. Another reason is to match a human need, like golden rice that is higher in Vitamin A. Since impoverished people depend on rice to survive, but rice lacks sufficient Vitamin A, they have a higher incidence of blindness. Golden rice was developed to help tackle this problem.
Now some folks will read this and say, “You scientists don’t know what you are doing! You don’t know you have created a GMO monster until it is too late!”. While I am about as likely to change your mind as I am to change a six-year-old’s mind about 9 o’clock not being too early to go to bed, I’ll give you a little food for thought. Your position is that even though the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association (plus more really smart people in big science organizations) have backed the safety of GMOs, we better not use them because of the scary “What if?” possibility.
Well, if that’s how we need to make decisions, what if we stop using cell phones because they might cause brain tumors. Or maybe stop vaccinating kids, because a made-up study said it caused autism. While we are at it, let’s stop any and every scientific advancement all together, because it might cause a problem. We can live in little wood huts in the forest and eat delicious meals of crickets and tree bark tea.
Hyperbole aside, inhibiting scientific advancement for the sake of “What if?” is a monumental step backward. Yes, there have been issues with past technologies, but this isn’t 1955 anymore folks. We learned from those mistakes decades ago and have used rigorous approval processes for new technologies for the decades since. GMOs came on the scene long after these safety mechanisms had been implemented and fine-tuned. And quite frankly these safety regulations are a lot more effective than the safety protocols at Jurassic World. Only in movies are people so stupid to allow for that many screw-ups.
GMOs today are helping us use less resources to feed a growing world population. If GMOs can help us use less fertilizer, less pesticides, and stop a little kid from going blind, then I’m for them. Will you join me?
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Cricket_(insect)