Understanding Genetically Modified Organisms

Golden Rice, A GMO containing Vitamin A
Genetically modified organisms have emerged in recent years as an issue of global significance.

Genetically modified crops have gained widespread acceptance in the United States in the last 5 years, and now more than 40% of soybeans, cotton, and corn is of biotech origin. Some crops have been modified to contain insecticide, herbicide resistance, or other environmental tolerances, increasing the potential to grow crops with a greater efficiency and fewer herbicides. Others, like Golden Rice, a rice with the gene for producing vitamin A, offer the possibility of providing otherwise unattainable nutrients in developing nations. And crops are not the only GMOs, genetic engineering has been used in fish, trees, and numerous animal models in medicine.

GMO protestors
Along with the increasing prevalence and promise of GMO's have come considerable fears about the uncertain ramifications of this technology. Many fear the ethical dilemmas raised by these "Frankenfoods." Others worry about the possibility for the creation of "superweeds" or the possible reduction in biodiversity caused by gene transfer from GM plants to wild relatives. Some are angry about biotech industry self-regulation and "profit-driven" exploitation of the technology. Others are simply confused by the complex and seemingly inadequate regulation of GMOs.

These reactions have varied in intensity. The Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and the European Union, and many other groups have called for a moratorium on GMOs until they are better understood. Other groups such as Greenpeace, call for a permanent ban on the use genetically modified organisms. Still others like the Earth Liberation Front, have resorted to arson to convey their disapproval of any research on GMOs.

With such a recent boom in GMO applications and such a backlash against their use, its difficult even for an expert to grasp all of the relevant issues. Furthermore, with such heated debate between corporate advocates and anti-GMO acitivists, finding unbiased information can be a challenge.

Fortunately, to begin to understand the science and issues relevant to GMOs, one need look no further than the University of Washington. The UW has been integral in developing and utilizing the method for creating GMOs. In fact, researchers at the UW were the first to discover how agrobacerium perform a natural method of genetic modification. Furthermore, the UW has had a long history of participation in genetic engineering research, one particularly interesting example of which is the work of Toby Bradshaw on genetic engineering of poplar trees.

The UW's experience with GMOs serves to alleviate a number of important points about GMOs. First of all, genetic modification is not so new nor so unnatural as some are inclined to believe. Furthermore, a look at the UW's rich research history reveals that a great deal of valuable and conscientious research has been done with GMOs and that much GMO reserach is not solely aimed at GMO product development but also at answering basic scientific questions. Of course, and perhaps most importantly, the UW's GMO experience also shows that all of the ramifications of producing and using GMO are still poorly understood, and, while some organizations such as the Earth Liberation Front have targeted academic researchers for their participation in GMO research, it is ironically those same researchers who are most likely to begin answering the important questions about GMO usage.

Of course, the UW is not the only place to find out valuable information on GMOs. There are a number of valuable information sites about the science, ethics, economics, health effects, and regulation of GMOS.