There’s a lot of talk these days about eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.
For about 14,000 years humans have been using selective breeding, a form of genetic modification, in our raising of domesticated plants and animals. So, basically everything we eat has been selectively bred, thus modifying the genes over time.
How are GMOs intrinsically different? They may or may not be: whereas selective breeding depends on choosing among naturally occurring genetic variation within a population or species, genetic engineering can, but does not necessarily, involve the intentional introduction of genes from different species, a technology first developed in 1972.
And is this intrinsically “good” or “bad”? Mark Lynas, researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science, mulls this over in “How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food.” Lynas, a self-described lifelong environmental activist, notes that though he was initially opposed to GMOs, he now believes that genetically modified foods are safe, and points out a major gap between scientists’ and the public’s perception on the issue: per the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, while 88 percent of association scientists agreed it was safe to eat genetically modified foods, only 37 percent of the public did. Lynas, through his research at Cornell, tries to bring a more informed context to this gap. In sum he notes:
No one claims that biotech is a silver bullet. The technology of genetic modification can’t make the rains come on time or ensure that farmers in Africa have stronger land rights. But improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.