It is simply a fact that most of the peer-reviewed studies available on commercialized GMOs currently attest to their safety, though there is reasonable concern about the independence of many of these studies, as well as the comprehensiveness of their scope and their methodology. Despite these concerns (and allied ones involving the control of seed supplies by corporations and patenting laws), I will assume for the sake of this article that currently approved GMOs for food consumption are 100% safe, as their advocates claim. After making this assumption, the next question is: Does this imply, as GMO advocates seem to declare, that we should no longer be concerned about further developments by the biotech industry? That 'labeling' or restricting the production of GMOs is unnecessary or misguided? Or that the debate as to whether GMOs are "good" or "bad" has been resoundingly solved?
I argue here that the safety of first-generation biotech crops (i.e Roundup Ready and Bt crops) not only fails to provide us of any evidence that future GMOs are safe, but for several reasons actually increases the likelihood of dangerous future crops. Their safety would set a precedent that would alter the risk assessment landscape of both researchers and the public in fundamental ways that would gradually erode our capacity to evaluate the progressive advancement of increasingly extreme employments of the technology. It is vital that society develops the means to ensure against such a "snowball effect."
Advocates of genetic engineering should understand that the level of testing and scrutiny that the first-generation of transgenic organisms have received is likely to be more rigorous than it will be for future organisms approved for commercial release. There are several reasons for this.
First, because Roundup Ready and Bt crops were the first crops approved for human consumption, they were perceived by scientists, governments, companies, and the public as having a greater potential risk. "Science" was introducing something new and controversial and therefore bore the burden of assuring the public of its safety for consumption and release into the environment. Scientists were more vigilant and they were forced to be even moreso by an incensed consumer base. Regardless of whether or not you consider some biotech activists' positions on GMOs as 'extreme,' it is difficult to deny that the anti-GMO movement did influence policy, slow down the approval process, and ensure that more studies were undertaken than was perhaps anticipated. At the time, long-term studies on humans had never been conducted so no one really knew what would happen. Now, obviously, over the last decade or so, some sort of large human trial has gone on, and it has buttressed the confidence of industry and government in the safety of the products. If the public can be tranquilized, there is no reason to continue with the same level of scrutiny.
Second, at the time industry was also unsure about what sort of culpability they would have in the cases where their patented GMOs spread in the environment. At first, insurance companies refused to insure them and early lawsuits were yet to be resolved. Court cases since then have appeased these concerns by repeatedly letting industry off the hook, again facilitated a climate whereby we can expect less caution for the production and release of upcoming crops.
Third, while many geneticists remain quietly concerned about genetic engineering, some of the most vocal advocates against GMOs have been non-scientists who have made dubious claims confusing causation and correlation or who have a past that is easy to ridicule in ad hominem character assassinations. The result is that shareholders, governors and business leaders are not only unpersuaded by the anti-GMO crowd but actually galvanized in their belief that concern about GMOs is limited to those with fundamentalistic commitments to grand conspiracy theories instead of reason and commonsense. All said and done we can therefore expect to witness a new level of confidence emerging amongst corporations and lawmakers that first-generation biotech crops are safe.
As a result, it is unlikely that subsequent generations of GMO crops will be pushed through the same amount of testing as had occurred with first-generation crops. Industry itself has claimed that many of the studies that have been conducted by independent researchers to assess the safety or substantial equivalence of existing crops (such as proteomic studies) are unnecessary. We should expect that risk assessment procedures will get streamlined and optimized to save time and money based on the precedent-setting fact that existing GMOs have already allegedly been shown to be safe. As the depth and duration of testing is likely to taper, we will also expect to see the gradual increase in types of GMOs approved for commercialization. The types of approved GMO crops, animals, micro-organisms, both wild and domesticated, will increase as companies, now working in a climate that has attenuated the threat of non-GMO thinking, become more motivated to dedicated research and development funds into producing new biotechnologies. The number of companies will also predictably increase, as will the number of "garage biotech" tinkerers, who are increasingly able to purchase gene sequencers and genetic material online. A combinatorial explosion resulting from the interactions between these myriad novel crops introduced simultaneously would conveniently prevent the feasibility of any public health studies on them, effectively detonating the possibility of gathering conclusive data that would throw such releases into question.
More alarmingly, however, is that as this is occurring we should also expect to see a steady increase in the degree to which commercialized organisms have been genetically modified. Biotech proponents are fond of pointing out that commercialized GMOs only have 1-3 genes inserted into them, a trifling change in light of the vastness of their genomes. Even if we ignore the fact that these 1-3 genes can have nonlinear effects on other genes and regulatory molecules at different points in their expression, we can hardly take it for granted that there is some 'law' about genetic engineering limiting the number of transgenes to such a low number. We are already starting to see "stacking", where packets of genes coming from many different sources are inserted into host DNA with the goal of creating more significant alterations to the anatomy, physiology or behaviour of the transgenic organism. As the number of genes inserted moves steadily upward, we should also expect that genes themselves are going to be adjusted and edited in increasingly extreme ways with the computational assistance of computers. Researchers are even developing new chemical bases to add to the existing four-"letter" nucleic acid alphabet (Marris, 2005). Further, entire genetic regulatory networks are being created in labs as well as synthetic chromosomes, and even "gene drives" designed to intentionally spread genes through an entire population of a wild species through extremely small initial interventions.
The problem is that there is no dividing line between single-gene insertions and completely novel chimeras with genomes composed entirely of patched together, synthesized, or designed sequences. They are all considered to be GMOs. A very gradual slippery-slope exists between them. If we accept first-generation GMOs, we may find ourselves sliding into a world where the integrity of other organisms, the health of ecosystems, the deeply humble sense of awe and sustenance we derive from the natural world, and of course our health and vitality, are all increasingly compromised. The gravest possible consequences are not whether or not GMOs cause leaky gut syndrome or increased potential for allergenicity (as some charge Bt crops of doing), but in how their widespread acceptance will affect our very sense of what it means to be human in the biosphere and its prospects to continue functioning as the life-support system for all its varied creatures.
And we'll let it all unravel if only because we have already accepted the argument that GMOs are safe and that the governing bodies have the appropriate mechanisms to ensure our safety. Perhaps anti-GMO activists would have a more level-headed approach to genetic engineering if they could witness a more honest discussion of the medium and long-term risks of normalizing genetic engineering. Until we see a deeper level of engagement, a culturally democratic way of collectively thinking about our shared future, and a capacity of governments and industries to assess GMOs in less biased and more comprehensive ways, it remains entirely reasonable for biotech activists to continue their struggle. They are the only ones keeping this runaway train from flying off its tracks.