Introducing Our First Topic

For our first issue, we’d like to publish a potpourri of writing and artwork that revolve around, are related to, inspired by, or reminiscent of the topic of genetically modified organisms — GMOs.

GMOs have a pretty bad reputation among the general population. 52% of those surveyed in a recent ABC News poll believe them to be unsafe for consumption. Many people actively avoid them and look for “GMO-free” labels provided by the independent labeling group, Non-GMO Project or the manufacturer.

The consensus from the scientific community is that GMOs are safe. There are some fringe GMO opponents that would have you believe that Monsanto has the entire scientific community in its pocket, but that seems like an unlikely scenario. In the twenty years since genetic engineering was applied to crops, there has been no credible evidence to suggest that eating GM food is any more harmful than eating any other food. Many of the potential health threats that people opposed to GMOs reference again and again are simply nonexistent. As an example, there is an oft-cited theory that the recent increase in gluten allergies can be linked to GM wheat. There is not currently and has never been a GM strain of wheat approved for commercial cultivation. Clearly, there is some confusion.

I do not point out this example to trivialize people’s positions. Safety may not be the issue, but I believe there is probably good cause for genetic engineering’s infamy. Besides, safety should not be the only metric by which we are evaluating new technologies.  

It is understandable how a technology that affects food can cause so much controversy. Eating is a basic yet profound necessity; every animal eats to live, but for humans, agriculture is at the heart of every civilization, and cuisine is at the heart of every culture. In today’s society, scientifically produced food evokes sinister images of white lab coats, human guinea pigs, and freakish food — frankenfood is an unfortunate but commonly used epithet for GMOs. Natural, wholesome, and organic are qualities that the modern consumer values, and to many, genetic engineering is just not compatible with these values.

Limiting the use of the term natural to only certain types of agriculture is slippery business when you actually think about it. Agriculture is a human process, and since its inception humans have technically been modifying the genes of various plants and animals through artificial selection. Potatoes started out as a poisonous tuber, tomatoes a sour berry, and corn a blade of grass. In the 20th century, our ability to modify genes expanded rapidly with the help of modern genetics, radiation and advances in synthetic chemistry. These technologies allowed scientists to develop novel traits with mutagenesis and hybrid strains with more distantly related species These new strains were often sterile yet very hearty. Plants produced through these techniques are considered natural.  

To most people the line is only drawn when we use molecular cloning techniques to insert targeted and exogenous sequences into the native DNA. When the genes are going from one species to another species, the GMO is transgenic. Cisgenic GMOs use genes from the same species. While transgenic GMOs seem to galvanize people a bit more (fish tomatoes??!!!??), people view both technologies as a dangerous meddling with nature by man.  

I’m very curious about this boundary between natural and abhorrent. What is natural, anyway, and what makes it desirable?