The topic of GMOs can get people quite riled up. Including me. When I read the headline that astrophysicist and pop-science icon "Neil deGrasse Tyson Annihilates the Anti-GMO Argument", I got curious. And it only took two minutes before I flew into a rage. DeGrasse Tyson argues that GMOs are inherently safe because "we have systematically genetically modified all the foods - the vegetables and animals - that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called artificial selection. ... So now we can do it in a lab and all of a sudden you are going to complain? … Chill out." So, please, let me lay out the facts that will annihilate this nonsense.
The artificial selection process by which humans have cultivated plans and animals for the past 12,000 years has, until the introduction of in-lab genetic modification, always happened locally and over long periods of time. This bottom-up selection process guaranteed that, as Nicolas Nassim Taleb concisely argued, if there was "some harmful variation, it will not spread throughout the system but end up dying out due to local experience over time."
To illustrate and stress this significant difference, let me introduce you to a new technology in genetic engineering - what I would call the "nuclear option of genetic engineering": gene drive. Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor at MIT's Department of Biological Engineering has been working on genetically engineering animals to stop them from being carriers of disease, such as mosquitos for malaria or mice for lime disease. In order for this process to actually work, practically all mosquitos and mice would have to become carriers of the engineered gene. However, the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection makes it practically impossible for such a gene to spread naturally. This is where gene drive enters the scene.
Gene drive was developed by Esvelt and his team to assure the engineered gene to be passed by almost 100% certainty to the next generation ---making natural selection impossible. As explained in an interview with Esvelt, once a gene with gene drive is released into the wild, "gene drive does not stop. You release one mouse with gene drive, you have potentially just changed the genetics of every mouse on the planet". Forever. According to Wikipedia "the derived gene drives could theoretically be used to engineer almost any trait" in any species of animal or plant.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO), "there is scientific consensus that once widely released, recalling transgenes or foreign DNA sequences, whose safety is still subject to scientific debate, will not be feasible." The FAO warns that “genes can end up in unexpected places: through "gene escape" they can pass on to other members of the same species and perhaps other species.” And “it is not yet known whether artificial insertion of genes could destabilise an organism, encouraging mutations, or whether the inserted gene itself will keep stable in the plant over generations. There is no conclusive data on this issue."
This issue is at the very heart of the problem with GMOs. Esvelt himself says that "we are two-year-olds when it comes to understanding ecosystems. We might be six-year-olds when it comes to understanding biology at the molecular level." While previous artificial selection might have caused some disturbances in local ecosystems, this new form of genetic engineering poses absolutely unknown - and unknowable - consequences to the ecosystem of the entire planet.
So, dear Neil Degrasse Tyson, I hope that this article will finally put an end to your unfounded and unscientific rants about the wonders of GMOs. If you are up for it, I will take you on in an Oxford-Style debate any day.
Stay tuned: This article is the first of a 10-part series on GMOs tackling all topics from why we do not need GMOs to feed 9 billion people all the way to the economics of intellectual property rights and what that has to do with 200,000 suicides of Indian farmers.