In the past, I have asked what appears to be, at first glance, two very silly sounding questions toward Greenpeace. Why do they like watermelons? And why do they like grapefruits? As nonsensical as these questions sound, they are, in my opinion, the most important ones to be asking the organisation right now. This is because they show Greenpeace’s opposition to GMOs to be based on ideology, ignorance, and fear, and not a concern for the environment. They show that their position isn’t just inaccurate, but full of hypocrisies and entirely deliberate miscommunication of the technology.
In this final instalment, I would like to ask one more silly sounding question that, once again, exposes the double standards that lie at the core of Greenpeace and shows their opposition to GMOs to be hypocritical and irrational. That question is, ‘Why do Greenpeace like butterflies?’
Greenpeace is one of many organisations that oppose not one specific GMO, but GMOs in general. Looking past how ridiculous it is to be against a plethora of unique organisms created using a wide range of technologies that happened to fall under the umbrella term of “genetically modified techniques”, why do these organisations oppose this technology? Two reasons they give are that it is inherently unnatural, and they are worried that modified genes may be taken up by other organisms.
Unless you see humans as part of nature, there is nothing natural in what we do. This should be self-evident, but it is easy to forget when you’re walking through fields in the countryside, buying fruits and vegetables from your local store, or petting your dog, that we have had a hand in all these things. We have been tampering with almost everything that we traditionally see as natural for thousands of years, to the point where most are unrecognisable from their wild counterparts. So, when people appeal to nature, they are always on shaky ground with me because they have to define what is and is not natural. For those who oppose GMOs, the answer is easy – it is unnatural to modify an organisms genetic code. But is this really unnatural? Are there examples of naturally occurring genetically modified organisms that have been created using similar techniques used in the lab? The answer is not only yes, but it is surprising just how many there are.
Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is the movement of genetic material between unicellular and/or multicellular organisms other than by the transmission of DNA from parent to offspring. In other words, genetic information is passed “sideways” to an unrelated organism. HGT among bacteria is well-documented and is the primary mechanic for the spread of antibiotic resistance. It has also played an important role in the evolution of bacteria known from degrading novel compounds such as human-created pesticides. Eukaryote to eukaryote gene transfer is rarer, but instances have been documented between multicellular animals. One such example is the Monarch butterfly, whose genetic makeup includes genes that originated in parasitic wasps.
Parasitic wasps are the things of nightmares! They lay their eggs either inside or on a host, which then hatch into larvae and consume fluids from the host body. Some species of wasp larvae produce chemicals which control the mind of the host, in some cases forcing them to gorge themselves, to build a web to support a cocoon, or to protect the very parasite that is killing them. The larvae feed on the host tissues until ready to pupate, by which time the host is generally either dead or dying. Depending on the species, the parasitoid then eats its way out of the host before spinning a cocoon and pupating. Soon after, an adult parasite wasp emerges, and the whole gruesome ordeal repeats!
Some parasitic wasps have a symbiotic relationship with viruses known as polydnavirus. These viruses are integrated into the genome of the wasp and replicate in a particular part of the ovary. When one of these parasitic wasps injects one or more eggs, it also injects a quantity of this virus which suppresses the immune systems of the host preventing it from killing the wasp’s egg. The virus also alters the development and metabolism of the host to be beneficial for the growth and survival of the parasitoid larvae. These parasitised hosts are usually an evolutionary dead-end as they typically do not survive parasitism, however, Spanish and French researchers discovered that some have and, as a result, they have gained protection against other pathogenic viruses.
Research teams from the University of Valencia and the University of Tours have discovered that genes originating from a parasitic wasp are present in the genomes of many butterflies. They believe that, in the past, some caterpillars were infected with the virus but managed to fight off their invaders and went on to reproduce. They speculate that the virus particle entered into a germ cell of the surviving insect and was integrated into its genome. They then passed on these viral genes to their offspring, which happened to give them the evolutionary advantage of being able to fight off baculovirus infections, which plagues insects. As a result, these genes can be found in many butterfly species including the Monarch, making them a kind of natural GMO.
How embarrassing would it be if an anti-GMO organisation were to use this animal in their logo?
There are many other examples of what I would call naturally occurring GMOs, including the sweet potato, which was modified at least 8,000 years ago. Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru have found genes from bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties and that these genes were active, which indicates that they provide a positive characteristic, which was selected by the farmers during domestication. Virologist Jan Kreuze, who led the study said, “People have been eating a GMO for thousands of years without knowing it”.
Scientists have been using virus and bacteria, which naturally transfer their DNA into a host cell as a normal part of their life cycle, to create GMOs for years. Yet, unbelievably, there are people like Tracey Lloyd, who proclaim that it is the very act of genetic modification that causes the harm, despite the fact that the same methods are creating natural GMOs in the wild.
You could even make the argument that we humans are GMOs because endogenous retrovirus comprises up to 5-8% of the human genome and is a result of retroviruses infecting germline cells (cells that produce eggs and sperm). As a result, the offspring will carry the inserted retroviral genome as an integral part of its own genome. So, when someone says they oppose GMO technology because they believe it to be inherently unnatural, they, quite frankly, don’t know what they are talking about.
Ironically, the same people who say that GMOs are unnatural also worry that naturally occurring GMOs could be created using DNA from a man-made GMO. This is a legitimate concern when introducing man-made GMOs into the wild, as we have the potential to lose control. Some worry that HGT of genetic material from these GMOs could enhance pathogenicity, create a new disease, pest or weeds. So, why are man-made GMOs on the market particularly susceptible to creating natural GMOs that have the potential of doing harm? The answer is they are not! There is nothing stopping HGT between two wild organisms that generate traits in one that would be disadvantageous to us or to other wildlife it is exposed to. This is simply another appeal to nature. HGT between “natural” organisms is perfectly safe, but HGT from a man-made GMO on the market is inherently dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, if we were to include a “KILL ALL HUMANS” gene into every GMO we created, this would be a problem….but we are not doing this! Let us not forget that organisations like Greenpeace are demanding a flat-out GMO ban, so any nuance about risk assessment regarding specific genes contained in man-made GMOs is lost here.
So, why does Greenpeace like butterflies? The same reason they like the watermelon and the grapefruit, because if they didn’t, people would see how ridiculously child-like their ‘painting all GMOs with the same brush’ opposition is. They would see that their position isn’t just inaccurate, but full of hypocrisies and a deliberate miscommunication of the technology. They would see that the organisation holds deeply rooted views on a technology its members simply don’t understand, yet vehemently oppose, and, most importantly, they would see that ideology is more important to Greenpeace than protecting the environment.