Are GM crops biosafe?

Are genetically modified (GM) crops biosafe? That is, do they harm the ecosystems we rely on?

Here’s a 2002 article about GM crops in poor countries, in the journal Food Policy. Robert L. Paarlberg concluded that GM food or feed crops were discouraged in poor countries, not really because of biosafety concerns but because of pressure from ‘consumers in high-income importing regions, such as Europe and Japan’.

Here’s a 2004 review of the science about GM crops, in the Chinese Journal of Agricultural Biotechnology. Jia Shi-Rong and Jin Wu-Jun concluded that ‘international debates on the biosafety of GM crops are not purely a scientific issue, but are related to economic and trade considerations.’

Is it just a matter of wealthy consumers being too cautious? Maybe so. But maybe not. Michelle Marvier at Santa Clara University (USA) gives an interview with GMO Compass. Prof Marvier says that the science about GM crop biosafety often is often contradictory. She say that the body of evidence is often weak, because it’s expensive to collect large enough datasets.

The interview with Prof Marvier is the most recent news story on GMO Compass. I’m watching.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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6 Responses to Are GM crops biosafe?

  1. mottledthrush says:

    Reblogged this on MottledThrush and commented:
    They are playing with Pandora’s box, and we all know what happened there.

  2. Baldscientist says:

    First, I need to say right off the bat that I am no expert in the topic… That said, I fail to see how a GM plant would be different from a plant that has mutated “naturally”, except in the case when they engineer a plant with a toxin against insects, which will likely poison the intended target as well as “innocent” insects or even humans and other animals that eat the plant… Again, I may be missing something…(:-)…

    • argylesock says:

      You make good points. I’m no real expert either – learning as I research posts for this blog. 4 things (at least) have always bothered me about GM plants and other GM organisms.

      One thing is that transgenes, inserted in a lab, might slip out of the GM organism – what goes in can come out – ending up in another organism. It’s called horizontal transfer, I think. If I get around to researching what I mean by that in more technical terms, I’ll let you know.

      The second thing is that transgenes might end up in the GM organism’s descendants, esp if that organism crosses with wild relatives. It’s called vertical transfer and it’s one of the ways superweeds can arise.

      The third thing is the one you mention: the phenotype arising from the transgene might affect organisms which aren’t the intended target.

      The fourth thing is that GM methods routinely involve introducing a marker gene to allow cell lines to be selected. That’s usually (always?) an antibiotic resistance gene. In a time of concern about the spread of antibiotic resistance, I think it’s daft to send out genes like that into the field. I’m sure you know (probably better than I do) how antibiotics work and how difficult it is to invent new ones.

  3. pcawdron says:

    It’s a question that can only be answered on a case by case basis, but on the whole I think GM is a positive step. Humanity has been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years, bending them to our will to be more productive, to taste better, have better yields, etc. Now we can be more deliberate rather than relying on trial and error.

    I don’t like the commericalisation of GM. This is one field where governments should be actively involved as the primary concern has to be the welfare of the ecosystem as a whole (and not just our own welfare as consumers or the welfare of shareholders). There’s a lot of great science being done, like the blight-proof potato that takes its blight-resistant gene from a close but wild cousin

    • argylesock says:

      You make an interesting point, equating the new methods of genetic engineering (also known as GM) with the long-used methods of selective breeding. No offence, but I think you’re mistaken. I keep hearing that mistaken point of view. and I hope to write a post on this blog about it.

      I agree that an ecosystem-wide approach is essential. That’s often lacking, isn’t it?

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