There has been much debate about safety of genetically modified crops but trading of charges and countercharges for and against genetically modified crops continues unabated even after three decades (since 1986) of intense debate.
Potential threats due to genetically modified crops – products of genetic engineering which generally involves introduction of distantly related genes into a genome, can be broadly classified into short term risks and long term risks.
Short term risks are generally identified early and are easily amenable to experimental verification. Therefore they are also often reported in literature. Hence short term risks are easily manageable before, during and after release of genetically modified crops for mass cultivation. Short term risks being easily amenable to human regulation and control can’t be the reason for perpetual debate. All that needs to be done is to manage short term risks as and when encountered. Appropriate control measures can be easily applied at the level of seed production.
As far as long term risks are concerned, the principal threat is the threat of uncontrollable, irreparable threat to ecosystems and environment. Presently this is essentially a theoretical risk, since no such instance has actually been reported attributable to genetically modified organisms. Genetically modified crops have been most extensively used in USA during the past two decades and no untoward long term adverse effects have been noticed. In fact 90% of food in USA is derived from genetically modified crops.
The principal reason for this is that for all biological species and varieties identity and integrity are big issues. All biological species and varieties tend to keep their identity and integrity in the midst of naturally occurring massive gene flow with in any ecosystem. In fact it can be safely assumed that all the species and varieties in any ecosystem are exposed to all the genes present in the ecosystem, all the time. It is only by virtue of this natural ability to keep identity and integrity, various species and varieties are able to do so.
Therefore, technically speaking, a foreign gene may be relatively easy to introduce within an organism belonging to a particular species or variety, as is being routinely done in the course of genetic engineering, but it is indeed very difficult to sustain and propagate over prolonged periods of time. Later or sooner the foreign gene shall be identified and weeded out with or without the use of terminator technology. This understanding has led the author from a historical definition of heredity to a rational definition of heredity which views heredity as a dynamic phenomenon. The new definition of heredity is as under:-
“Heredity is defined as the ability of the genome to reproduce parental phenotype with high but not complete degree of fidelity”
Use of the phrase “the ability of the genome” says it all.
In the entire debate about genetically modified organisms we are concerned with ill effects of naturally sustainable genetically modified organisms which normally involves introduction of remotely related or rather unrelated genes into a genome. But what we overlook is the fact even naturally sustainable hybrids occur only as exception to the rule. In hybrids compatibility or identity and integrity issues are much less severe because hybridization always occurs among closely related species and varieties.
Fitzpatrick says that besides the salamander hybrids, he only knows of one other sustainable animal hybrid and three sustainable plant hybrids. Salamander hybrids are naturally sustainable hybrids between California Tiger Salamander and Barred Tiger Salamander.
Keeping in view rarity of naturally occurring sustainable hybrids despite enormous opportunity, incidence of naturally sustainable genetically modified organisms can only be the rarest of rare events and can’t be regarded as a threat for all practical purposes. As a matter of fact introduction of new species and varieties from one geographical region into another poses much greater ecological and environmental threat and has happened many times in the past. In fact all epidemics and uncontrollable weeds such as congress grass in India can be attributed to such events.
Hence, there can’t be any non-verifiable potential risk due to genetically modified organisms that might catch us unguarded. Therefore, let us not fight the Phantom. Summing up, genetically modified organisms are reasonably safe for all environmental and ecological purposes and let us not be carried away by our phobias.