Category Archives: GMO

Everything That’s Wrong With the Gene-Edited Babies

A Chinese researcher announced Monday that a woman has given birth to twins that he had genetically edited.

As someone who works in biotech, I have a lot of strong feelings about this. I am all for genetically engineering and modifying plant, animal, and human life, as long as it is regulated, ethical, and safe. However, that was not the case here. This was done in complete secrecy with no oversight committee. This is not how we conduct science. The following post contains my own opinions as well as some edited statements from science communicators and scientific institutions.

The Biology

For starters, the researcher claims this gene editing will create HIV-resistant humans. Let’s take a look into the actual biology of what happened. Firstly, the researchers used HIV-positive sperm to fertilize HIV-negative eggs. In order to try and make the embryos resistant to HIV, the CCR5 gene (which codes for a receptor found on white blood cells) was mutated to be non-functional. However, only one of the twins was made homozygous for the CCR5 edit (meaning they received two copies of the edit) while the other was made heterozygous for the edit (they received one edited copy and one unedited copy).

It’s important to remember that people who are heterozygous for the CCR5 non-functional version of this gene are still susceptible to HIV.  Aside from that, this also causes a problem because the CCR5 receptor that HIV uses to enter cells has other functions that are essential to the immune system response.

What’s so reckless about this work is that the loss of a functional CCR5 protein increases susceptibility to flaviviruses, such as West Nile virus. The researcher was attempting to make HIV-1 resistant humans, but trading one deadly virus for another, especially when flaviviruses are endemic worldwide, is an incredibly bad idea.

This is still not even mentioning the fact that he has forced one of the twins to essentially be born with HIV. To knowingly and purposefully use HIV-positive sperm to fertilize an egg is beyond disturbing. (A big thanks to The Mad Virologist for providing a lot of the information here.)

The Ethics

Secondly, the NIH said it best in their statement denouncing this researcher’s work: “The medical necessity for the inactivation of CCR5 in these infants is completely unconvincing. […] the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored.

What that means is that the use of CRISPR, which is an extremely powerful and new gene editing tool, has been known to edit genes that were not intended to be edited.

This is perhaps the most concerning aspect.

This is why we have regulations and oversight committees. We have no idea what the long term effects of these edits are going to be. Any ethical scientific institution would have needed much more evidence before beginning human trials. This is why we have animal studies and programs that can run simulations using different theoretical nucleotide sequences. To jump straight to human trials is completely and utterly unethical.

We have international standards that we abide by because we’ve seen what happens when people *don’t* abide to ethical principles. I’m of course talking about eugenics, nazi testing, the Tuskegee experiments, etc. Testing new scientific breakthroughs will never be 100% completely ethical, but we can set rules and limitations to make them as ethical as possible.

The Future Effects

Another deeply concerning aspect is the fact that these edits can now be passed on into the human germline. In other words, if these children end up reproducing they can pass these edited genes into the human gene pool. This would begin affecting every single future generation of humans. Especially given the fact that you would need two copies of the edit in order to theoretically become HIV resistant, this is highly dangerous. We would see a large increase of humans who are now much more susceptible to the flavivirus.

In my opinion, which obviously can be changed if I’m philosophically convinced otherwise, we essentially need to look at the possibility of sterilizing them for the sake of future generations and the human germline. And that in itself is a horribly unethical thing to do.

Conclusion

We have absolutely no idea how the researchers conducted themselves. Everything they did was kept in secret rather than them going through peer-reviewed publications. No oversight committees, regulations, or anything.

Doing science this way is completely unacceptable. I am all for the genetic modification of plants, animals, and humans, and I’ve been a proponent of that for years. But if we want to use this powerful and amazing technology, it needs to be regulated and have federal and international oversight. Without those ethical standards, scientific progress is not progress. This is not the way we conduct science. This is unethical. This is dangerous. This is not innovative by any definition of the word.

Are GMOs Necessary? Or Can Organic & Traditional Farming Feed the World Alone?

Does the world really need GMOs? This is a question often asked by anti-GMO activists.

What’s unfortunate in the anti-GMO movement, however, is that it is often difficult to get a dialogue started on this topic purely due to the fact that there is so much misinformation surrounding genetic modification. Attempting to respond to their denialist questions and claims on GMOs oftentimes leads them to commit logical fallacies such as moving the goalposts, appealing to nature or tradition, or special pleading. To be fair though, I would expect anyone who is not well steeped in biology, chemistry, or agriculture in general, to be overwhelmed and confused just by the sheer amount of information that’s available on GM technology. And not only is there a tsunami of information available online, but the vast majority of it is either factually wrong or grossly misleading. I have even attempted to dispel some of the most common claims made by the anti-GMO movement, although I would probably be in the same boat as them if I didn’t have my skeptical background in science.

But besides the fact that GMOs have been shown to be safe for the ecosystem, as well as animal and human consumption, the question of whether or not they are necessary has taken more of an ideological standpoint. The argument has slowly shifted from “Are GMOs necessary?” to “Organic, traditional farming, and other methods can get the job done of feeding the world without the help of GMOs.” For the anti-GMO movement, the reasoning has become “why on Earth would we need transgenic GM crops if our other methods are perfectly capable of sustaining the world food supply?” (Additional source). Besides the false assumption that organic and traditional crops are ecologically and nutritionally superior to GM crops, as there is little to no evidence to support that notion, I think it’s a legitimate question. What do GMOs offer that organic and traditional farming do not? Well, let’s look into it.

Anti GMO

I first want to address right off the bat that regardless how you feel about GMOs, we have to share some middle-ground here. For instance, I think everyone would agree that eliminating or lowering food waste would be hugely beneficial to a truly sustainable food supply. I don’t think that all the other methods anti-GMO activists list — like better use of fertilizers, eliminating food-based biofuels, and cutting global meat consumption (which I actually think addresses another issue entirely, but I will write about that another time and update this article with a hyperlink once I have it written) — are enough to sustain a growing global population, but they may all be considered to be helpful ideas. What I think is important for everyone to focus on, however, is that food waste is the most prevalent of those issues; and everyone, regardless of their stance on GMOs, should come together to solve this problem.

I also think it’s important to address climate change. The world is beginning to feel the real effects of global warming, especially in third-world countries. In America alone, farmland has been decreasing. It’s even worse in impoverished nations like Africa. But despite the looming threat of climate change and future food shortage, the human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050. In other words, about 2.5 billion people are going to be added to the world’s food supply in just 34 years. This could potentially end in a situation that not even Dr. Norman Borlaug could prevent. To further put it into perspective, we will need to produce more food in the next 34 years than we have in the entire history of the world. If nothing is done to avoid this situation, billions of people could potentially die due to starvation. There are many ideas of how to avoid this horrible catastrophe, as I have mentioned above, and it’s a daunting challenge, but it is plausible that we can accomplish this feat if scientists and farmers work together and use all the tools available to them. While many anti-GMO activists tend to claim that tackling food shortage can, should, and will be done solely through traditional and organic farming, many experts believe that is simply not feasible. In the face of climate change and water shortage, traditional and organic farming simply do not possess the necessary tools it would take to feed it would be near impossible to feed 10 billion people. Organic yields are about 1/4 the size of conventionally grown yields, organic pesticides and herbicides are far more toxic than their non-organic counterparts, and traditional breeding will take too long to produce the amount of food we will need by 2050. I’m not saying these methods of plant breeding are bad by any means, I’m just saying that there is room for GMOs to pick up where those methods are lacking. Eliminating food shortage, along with the other methods I listed, would not be enough to remedy the situation either. Yet the purveyors of those industries maintain the position that they will in fact be able to sustain a growing global population, especially in third-world countries, using their methods.

But let me explain the extremely valuable benefits GMOs offer that organically and traditionally grown crops do not. For starters, GM crops have shown to be very helpful in growing more food with less farmland and resources, which is more important than ever due to climate change and water shortage. Also, what we have now been able to do with herbicide resistant crops, like RoundUp-ready crops, is basically eliminate tillage. In the old days, and what is still practiced in many organic farms today, farmers would get on their tractors and they would plow all the fields and turn all the dirt over — that was the method farmers used to kill weeds. But we don’t need to plow fields anymore with GM crops. We don’t expose that dirt to evaporation of the moisture. We don’t have nearly as bad erosion as we did. We don’t have the instantaneous release of greenhouse gasses when the soil is flipped over. And since the adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in this country in the mid ’90s, the rate of not plowing, of using conservation tillage has more than doubled. It’s great that organic & traditional farmers are optimistic about their methods and products, and they do offer great benefits, but I don’t think their solutions of feeding the world are fully based in reality because they’re still stuck using these old methods of tilling and plowing the land. So it’s especially wrong to claim GMOs are not necessary for issues such as these. Farmers should be working together with all the tools available to them in order to overcome the challenges of feeding 10 billion people. The examples I just offered are just a few of the many ways that GM technology, in collaboration with other breeding methods, should be considered as necessary for a sustainable future. Further, genetically modified crops have decreased pesticide use by up to 27%. That is another huge benefit. But what I think are the biggest reasons for why GMOs should be considered necessary are because of what they have done, and what they will do, for developing nations.

Almost all African farmers are currently either living in poverty or extreme poverty. The African soil is very nitrogen-poor, meaning it’s not very effective for growing crops. On top of the soil already making success with growing crops difficult, the yields tend to be pretty small when it comes time for harvest. With genetic modification, however, scientists have been able to produce nitrogen-efficient rice that grows well in that type of soil. Not only that, but this rice contains higher levels of Vitamin A, which will help deal with the horrific epidemic of blindness and early child-hood death caused by Vitamin A deficiencies that plague these regions. And according to Alison Van Eenennaam, a specialist in
animal genomics and biotechnology at UC Davis, a genetically modified version of Cassava is being developed specifically for these regions. It will have a higher nutrient content, a better shelf life, and will be disease resistant. This is especially important because Cassava is currently a major source of carbohydrates in these parts of the world. Improved Cassava harvests could also increase the incomes of African households, helping lift poor farmers – many of whom are women – out of poverty. This brings up the next point that the champions of traditional and organic farming usually completely miss.

Are GMOs Necessary

Sustaining third-world countries by shipping food to those regions will only make them further dependent on first-world countries. And not only would millions of dollars need to be spent in order to keep that kind of operation going, it would still do absolutely nothing to address the actual problems that plague those regions, like Vitamin A deficiencies and extreme poverty. It would make much more sense to offer seeds to these farmers at very low costs, which is already being done with quite a few GMO crops, and allow these African farmers to grow higher-yielding crops with better nutritional content that they could then sell and make a better profit, thus helping to lift them out of poverty. If they don’t want the seeds, that is their choice. But to completely bar them from having access to these seeds is, in my eyes, an act of complete contempt and negligence.

What is always important to remember though, is that no form of farming should be considered the Holy Grail. Continuing to diversify crops is key. Expanding the use of precision agriculture is important, making organic farming more eco-friendly is important, and using the life-saving tools that genetic modification has to offer will allow humanity overcome these daunting challenges of feeding the world in the face of global climate change and water shortage. Banning or limiting the use of any these technologies could absolutely have catastrophic consequences. And no one should claim that one form of farming is 100% superior to another because they all have their pros and cons. What is imperative is that everyone works collectively on this issue right now for the sake of future generations.

So are GMOs necessary? I would say absolutely.

Responses to Popular Anti-GMO Arguments & Rhetoric

Responses to Popular Anti-GMO Arguments & Rhetoric

 

 

Anti GMO march

The typical rhetoric from the anti-GMO crowd can range anywhere from harmless, benign questions to malignant, ignorant claims based on complete scientific illiteracy.

There are hundreds of questions, concerns, and claims from the anti-GMO movement, some more legitimate than others, but I will only be addressing a few of their main talking points.    Continue reading Responses to Popular Anti-GMO Arguments & Rhetoric

OMG it’s GMO!

OMG it's GMO!

There has been an overwhelming amount of evidence and consensus across the scientific community when it comes to GM foods regarding their safety. Even with that being said there has been a huge international movement that either intentionally or unintentionally denies the clear scientific evidence that shows the safety of GM foods. Fearmongering pundits like “The Food Babe” or pseudo news sources like “Natural News” help feed into this movement of disinformation by either cherry picking less then credible sources or resorting to whole cloth lies.   Continue reading OMG it’s GMO!

The Three Strikes on Organic Foods.

12106770_1631367397116652_6864933431504363067_n

Over the years organic foods have taken the produce aisle by storm, yet is there anything to substantiate this claim? Although most informed individuals already know organic foods are not sustainable to the general population, there are many purported claims to the benifits of organic foods vs. conventionally harvested produce. In classic AAPN style, we are going to debunk the ever living crap out of those.

Claim Number 1: Organic foods are safer. (FALSE)   Continue reading The Three Strikes on Organic Foods.