I was excited to see the lead story headline in the July 13, 2017 New York Times: “F.D.A. Panel Urges New ‘Living Drug’ To Fight Cancer, “Threshold In Medicine: Treatment That Alters a Patient’s Own Cells to Fight Back.”
And interestingly, that same day, the Times also ran a story with this headline: “Climate-Altering Gases Spiked in 2016, Federal Scientists Report.” Citing the recently released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, the story reported “global emissions of greenhouse gases that lead to warming, primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity, increased 40 percent between 1990 and 2016.”
Sometimes, the importance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) just hits you over the head…if you only connect the dots.
The first story reported that the Food and Drug Administration appears poised to open an exciting new front in the war against cancer by approving “the first gene therapy to enter the [U.S.] market.” The therapy “requires removing millions of a patient’s T-cells – a type of white blood cell often called soldiers of the immune system – and genetically engineering them to kill cancer cells…the altered T-cells are then dripped back into the patient’s veins, where they multiply and start fighting the cancer.”
Miraculous results have already been achieved with leukemia patients with “hopeless cases,” the story reported. Now scientists are preparing to use it against other cancers, including multiple myeloma and an aggressive form of brain tumor.
In the second article, there was no mention of GMOs – yet, in my opinion, they’re very much a part of the story (and could even be a bigger part in the future if we let them).
As the global climate changes, farmers are already feeling the impacts all over the world. The prospect is for those impacts only to grow. More heat, more drought, more floods, more and different insects and other pests, more salinized water – all these are barreling down on us, according to the scientific consensus.
GMOs are one of the best tools we have to fight back. They’ve already given us crops that are more drought- and pest-resistant. Now in the pipeline are GM crops that can do an even better job of withstanding the harsher conditions that Nature seems prepared to offer us while increasing the amount of food farmers produce on each acre of land. And as the global population continues its rapid increase – to nearly 10 billion by 2050 – the case for fully deploying these tools becomes even more compelling.
It’s also important to note that in addition to increasing production yields, GM crops are actually helping to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment. Between 1996 and 2015, productivity gains through biotechnology saved 430 million acres of land from plowing and cultivation. By reducing the need to till the soil, GMOs over the past 20 years have reduced carbon dioxide emissions from farm operations by 26.7 billion kilograms — an amount equivalent to taking about 12 million cars off the road for one year. GM crops also reduced the spraying of crop protection products by 619 million kilograms, a global reduction of 8.1%.
But will we continue to deploy new GMO crop technology? Or will the use of GMOs in agriculture continue to be demonized by some so that government regulators or the public themselves will reject them? In the United States today, the gap between how scientists perceive the safety of GMO crops (88 percent believe safe) and how the public perceives that safety (37 percent believe safe) is the “largest opinion difference between the public and scientists” on any scientific issue that the Pew Research Center measures.
Yet surprisingly when it comes to making medicines, concerns about GMOs never really took root, and efforts by critics to fan fears just haven’t worked. Consider again the Times story about the advent of gene therapy. A single paragraph refers to the challenges of maintaining quality control and consistency as the therapy is scaled up. Otherwise the role of genetic engineering is treated in such a matter-of-fact way that a reader could easily overlook it.
And that’s consistent with the track record for GMOs in medicine. For example, the insulin used to treat millions suffering from the near-epidemic disease of diabetes has been produced with genetically modified organisms for 40 years. How many people know that – or would care if they did? A few years ago, GMO critics did try to make them worry … but fortunately the effort flopped. The public seems to understand that genetic modification is a safe, effective and much-needed technology for developing new medical treatments. I find it ironic that several outspoken celebrities who criticize GMO crops have had their lives significantly improved by GMO insulin.
GMOs are used in many other kinds of medicines too, as well as in vaccines and vitamins, largely without notice or concern (although vaccines face plenty of opposition on other scientifically baseless grounds). And their role in other areas of our lives will continue to grow as well. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for instance, scientists are using genetically engineered viruses to produce more environmentally friendly lithium batteries. These GM batteries are made without the solvents needed to produce the current technology and have the potential to one day power hybrid cars.
Environmental bioremediation is another area showing promise. Some day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll likely see various kinds of waste being eaten by genetically engineered bacteria.
There are many more examples, but the point should be clear. GMOs, despite having been vilified in agriculture, have already emerged as hugely positive tools for us and our planet in the 21st century. It doesn’t make sense for us to accept the technology as safe in some areas, but not in others. As global warming increases, let’s hope we finally resolve the contradictions in our attitudes toward genetic modification and embrace this technology’s possibilities for feeding the world and helping the environment too.