Current issues with Genetically Modified crops

Humans have been modifying plants for thousands of years. Selective breeding or artificial selection techniques to improve plant quality have evolved into powerful tools for producing a large variety of plants. The biotechnology industry has developed newer techniques of genetic modification over the last twenty years. Genetically modified plants with specific traits can be created with great accuracy in a short amount of time compared to the conventional plant breeding methods that can often be inaccurate and time consuming. The European Commission in 2001 defined genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination1.”

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How are GM crops produced?

Genetic modification involves the introduction of a “gene of interest,” also called the “trans-gene” from another organism, usually bacteria, into the target plant in which a new trait is desired. These new traits could be: extending the life of the plant, making the plant resistant to pest attacks, tolerance to chemicals, slowing down natural decay, improving nutrient content, etcetera. Promoter and terminator genes that can switch on and off the gene of interest are introduced into the plant through the vector, along with a marker gene that signals the modification or transformation of cells.

The latest and most commonly used method is the biolistic method (also known as the gene-gun method). The gene gun injects cells with genetic information using a heavy metal element bullet, like tungsten, coated with plasmid DNA. The gene gun can be used on any type of cell and is not limited to transforming genomes in the nuclei. This process is highly uncertain in the sense that the gene may be introduced in an undesirable location within the plant genome which may result in adverse effects. Also, multiple copies of the gene may be inserted, fragments of genes from the vector may get associated with the trans-gene, and mainly, transformation-induced mutations like rearrangement, deletion and replication of the plants own genes are sometimes observed.

In the vector method, the gene of interest is introduced directly into the plant genome through viral vectors. When the virus integrates into the plant genome as a part of its natural replication cycle, it takes with it the newly engineered portion that expresses the required protein that induces a new trait in the plant. Another method involves using the bacterium, Agrobacterium tumifaciens, as the vector for the DNA. Agrobacterium is widely used to modify sugar beet, oilseed rape, maize and rice plants. Like viruses, it has the ability to insert DNA directly into the plant genome.

The plasmid method involves inserting the gene of interest into a plasmid – a small DNA molecule that is capable of independent replication in a bacterial cell. This is done by cutting open the plasmid DNA by using certain restriction enzymes and introducing the DNA sequence of the required trait. This plasmid DNA with the new additional sequence is then introduced into a culture of live bacteria, which starts to express the desired proteins.

Scientific, Social and Ethical Issues

As mentioned before, there is a high degree of uncertainty and inaccuracy in the techniques used to genetically modify organisms. One cannot disregard the implications of the genetic modification processes after having studied the molecular aspects of gene positioning and gene silencing techniques. The science of GM crops is still at a comparatively early stage, as the detailed function and significance of most plant genes are still unknown. It is quite certain that GM crops need to be grown, consumed and analysed for a long period of time in order to draw scientific conclusions about their safety.

Some of the main issues of concern for human health include – the possibility of allergenicity, gene transfer and outcrossing. An allergenic protein may be induced during modification of the plant. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) and WHO test for allergenicity caused due to GM foods. So far, no cases of allergenicity caused due to GM foods have been reported. Since the effect of GM foods on human health is not adequately understood, concern arises about the use of bacterial or viral DNA during the process and the intake of trans-genes by our body. Outcrossing may occur when the genes from the GM crops moves into conventional crops resulting in an indirect effect on food safety and food security. Proponents of GMOs argue that gene flow occurs widely throughout nature, and the risks of such phenomena should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

This calls for serious active participation from the scientific community in public policy decision making and contribute their understanding of the possible implications of GM foods during worldwide discussions. Integrity and ethics in research is the forefront of any scientific advancement. The GMO debate today finds itself to be in-between crossfires of scientists claiming both the dangers and benefits of GM crops. One can genuinely question the integrity of scientific research that is grounded in public good, when large corporations influence it.

Another issue of GM foods has to do with the corporate control of the food supply. The majority of the agricultural biotechnology corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Calgene and BASF control most of the technology used to create GM crops, including agrochemicals and seeds/tissues needed to grow new plants. These companies, along with those who hold the intellectual property rights, have an influence over the availability and use of GM crops. Advancements in the field to produce safer options to the people require access to this technology. Also, it has been known that most of GM research today only serves large-scale farmers in developed countries. A greater expansion in the field is required so that small-scale farmers in the developing countries also benefit from the technology. Much of the opposition related to this comes from the fact that farmers from the poorer countries will then have to depend on the large corporations to acquire seeds every year as opposed to conventional agriculture, where a part of the seeds produced in one growth year are reserved for the upcoming year.

Labelling of GM foods is another controversial issue. Those in favour of labelling of GM foods believe that it is the consumers’ right to know what’s in their food, especially if health and environmental concerns about some foods have been raised. Some people want to avoid eating animal products (including animal DNA) due to ethical and religious reasons. Opponents of labelling argue that with respect to health effects, there have been no significant differences between GM foods and conventional foods. If allergenicity were detected, the food product would have had the current FDA labelling for that allergenic effect. Other aspects of the labelling controversy deal with expenses and non-available infrastructure (storage, processing, and transportation) of the food industry to segregate GM and non-GM foods2.

Potential benefits and conclusions

GM crops have a considerable potential for improving agriculture, and solve many of the world’s hunger and malnutrition problems. GM crops can help preserve the environment by reducing dependence on herbicides and pesticides. Genetic Engineering technology is our future and cannot be ignored due to its enormous potential benefits. The possible risks and benefits associated with the technology can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

An EU funded study looking at the safety of GMOs concluded: “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms3.” The U.S. National Academy of Sciences similarly states: “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population4.” Yet there are many challenges that governments of the nations have to face with respect to international policymaking, level of regulation, labelling, risk assessments, liability and safety testing.

We have an ethical obligation to explore the potential of GM crops responsibly and be actively involved in influencing governments during policy making. We must proceed with caution and avoid any unintended harm towards the environment and human health in the process of exploring this powerful technology.

Sources:

  1. Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 12 March 2001 on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms and repealing Council Directive 90/220/EEC, Official Journal of the European Communities, L106 (2001)
  2. The Scientific American: “GMO Labelling Debate Follow-up” by Kevin Bonham. (Nov 11, 2013)
  3. European Commission – IP/10/1688: Compendium of results of EU-funded research on genetically modified crops. (2010)
  4. National Academy of Sciences. Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004)
Advertisements

Is population control ethical?

The current world population is estimated to be around 7.129 billion and counting, with China and India being the top two populated countries. It has been estimated that the world population will reach 11 billion by 2050. This rapid increase in population has already damaged the environment and condemned many people to poverty. The planet and its resources are finite, and it cannot support an infinite population of humans or any other species. In the light of these facts, is it morally acceptable for developed countries to invest in population control mechanisms in developing countries in order to limit their population expansion? Is population control ethical?

Opponents of population control (majority of the religious institutions), have strong moral objections towards the use of contraception and other birth control mechanisms. They argue that human life is valuable and that population control programs offend human dignity by treating humans as a commodity. Some opponents consider the funding of such programs in the developing nations by the developed countries as a form of imperialism. The bottom line is that mass birth control programs are believed to violate human rights by interfering with a person’s right to have as many children as they wish.

In a developing country like India, where the caste system and female infanticide are one of the major issues, mass birth control programs may be used to reduce the birth rate of certain classes, castes or ethic groups (eugenics). There is also a huge gender bias seen in such programs as they operate by controlling only female fertility by using female contraceptives such as pills and hormones. This leads to women unfairly bearing he burden of population control.  Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, had implemented a force sterilization program in the 1970s but the program failed miserably and was blamed to have created a public aversion to family planning, which hampered government program for decades. With one-third of the worlds poor living in India, unethical coercion may be used to undergo sterilization by offering incentives that can’t be refused.

If the world population continues to grow at this rate for long enough, no amount of technological tweaking or reduction of consumption can control and reduce the harsh environmental impact. We will be bound to face starvation and health crisis if human population does not stabilize soon. The relevance of overpopulation to climate change – due to overproduction of greenhouse gases, depletion of energy  – due to overconsumption of resources along with depletion of water and land, and loss of biodiversity cannot be overlooked.

Possible solutions to control population include widespread access to birth control, removing government subsidies for children after the second, and recovering the social and ecological costs of such further children through taxation – as proposed by Norman Myers. So far, about 400 million births have been prevented in China since 1978 as a result of their one-child policy. Population control should be driven by good socio-economic governmental policies and provision of family-planning medical services in all the developing countries.

Finding fast, implementable solutions will require multiple strategies, and it will not be either simple or inexpensive. Empowering and educating people, especially women in the developing countries will have an immense impact on birth control. Societies must overcome their religious barriers and accept family planning through contraceptive mechanisms. The issues related to overpopulation must not be shunned by politicians and must be discussed more openly to create public awareness. The overall goal should be to have a sustainable number of people living a comfortable lifestyle.

Human Fetus as Research Material

Fertilization of the egg and sperm initiates the development of a new organism through a series of stages. A fetus is an implanted human embryo from eight weeks after conception until birth. Fetal tissue is obtained from legal abortions and is used for scientific research involving human development, fetal tissue implant or fetal cell therapy and development of vaccines. Potential treatment of life-threatening diseases is also studied using fetal cells. Is it ethical to use human fetuses as research material for the advancement of basic science as well as for the development of lifesaving vaccines and therapies?

Human Embryo approximately 6 weeks from conception. Specimen submerged in alcohol after spontaneous abortion. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunarcaustic/
Human Embryo approximately 6 weeks from conception. Specimen submerged in alcohol after spontaneous abortion. Source: flickr.com/photos/lunarcaustic/

Scientists have experimented with fetal tissues to advance their knowledge of human biology from as early as the 1930s 1. The 1954 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for the development of polio vaccine using human fetal kidney cells. The year 1973 marked the rise of a large societal debate over elective human abortion after which the use of fetuses for research became controversial 2. The ethical and legal issues of fetal research are closely related to the ethical and legal issues of abortion. Is the fetus a human subject? If yes, then the fetus is entitled to all the protections and safeguards guaranteed to every citizen by constitutional law. Alternately, if the fetus is not a person whom the law is under obligation to protect, then one is free to carry out any experimentation that benefits the society. The ethical aspects of fetal research revolves around the protection of “one of the most helpless creatures in our society” on one hand, while on the other hand, includes research that can potentially benefit many future fetuses who will have a better chance to lead a healthy life.

Fetal cells have the ability to rapidly divide, grow, and adapt to new environments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “some vaccines such as rubella and varicella [were] made from human cell-line cultures, and some of these cell lines originated from aborted fetal tissue, obtained from legal abortions in the 1960s. No new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make these vaccines, now or in the future.” 3 New insights into birth defects, spontaneous abortions, and other developmental diseases have emerged from fetal tissue research over the past years. The transplantation of fetal cells into the brains of Parkinson’s patients has allowed some patients to regain speech, speed of movement, and quality of life 4.

For any kind of scientific research, it is important to determine the nature, extent, and purpose of research involving living fetuses and to consider alternative means for reaching those purposes. The following line of questions needs to be considered prior to the research: When is high-risk research justified? How does the status of a fetus to be aborted differ from that of a fetus going to full term? Does a fetus feel pain? Can a fetus to be aborted be harmed? What responsibility must be taken and by whom for a fetus born alive but damaged by research? Which takes precedence when the rights of the mother conflict with the rights of the fetus?

Fetal tissue transplantation is still not a reliable technology. In 2001, a clinical trial to treat Parkinson’s was abruptly stopped after some patients developed serious neurological side effects 6.  One of the main concerns regarding the issue is that science would become too dependent on the products of abortion and that society would be less inclined to try to find alternatives to abortion. Another issue is that of the danger the fetus is subjected to during the procedure. Also, what if the mother changed her mind and decided to allow the fetus to come to full term? There is a possibility that she would then give birth to a child that is injured. It would be morally unjustifiable to bring a child into the world with defects or disabilities that had been intentionally induced.

Fetal research is justifiable only where its aim is therapeutic and so should be limited. It is important to emphasize on the need for careful evaluation of a proposed experiment for both its medical and ethical soundness.

SOURCES:

  1. Gregory Gelfand and Toby R. Levin, “Fetal Tissue Research: Legal Regulation Of Human Fetal Tissue Transplantation”, Washington & Lee Law Review: 668 (1993)
  2. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1973 imposed a temporary moratorium on federally funded research on live fetuses following Roe v. Wade, 410 US 113, Supreme Court (1973)
  3. Pontifical Academy of Life, “Moral Reflections On Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses” Vatican City (2005)
  4. Clarkson ED. Fetal tissue transplantation for patients with Parkinson’s disease: a database of published clinical results. Drugs Aging (2001)
  5. Gina Kolata, “Parkinson’s Research Is Set Back By Failure of Fetal Cell Implants” The New York Times, March 08 (2001)