The positive side of GMOs

Former Chicoan stands up for genetically modified organisms

The author grew up in Chico, and is now a researcher in botany at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. For more about Burge’s thoughts on GMOs, visit his website,

Summer is a time of agricultural bounty in California, a state renowned for its produce. Summer is also when my career—plant science—seems most relevant. This leads me to ponder the presence of agriculture in society, the role of science in agriculture, and my participation in science—often over a basket of Bing cherries.

I frequently think about transgenic organisms, because I work with them and feel that they may solve some of the world’s problems. Transgenic—or genetically modified—organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals that have had their genomes modified by scientists. Transgenic techniques are used to add new traits, such as disease resistance, to organisms. GM crops have already allowed farmers to reduce reliance on pesticides and the land. And this is just the beginning.

Scientists are developing new kinds of GMOs, including, for instance, disease-resistant pigs and drought-resistant corn. The benefits are limited only by creativity. New GMOs could, for example, save natural forests by providing faster-growing timber trees, or halt global warming by fixing carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, GMOs have received a lot of negative press, due to a variety of public concerns. Fortunately, a lot of this has resulted from misunderstandings, and a lack of positive public relations by scientists. These misunderstandings come in four flavors. Here, I would like to explain these, and highlight how they might be overcome:

1. They are not natural. Many worry about scientists tinkering with evolution. But evolution tinkers, too. In fact, genes often move among distantly related organisms on their own. Wild plants, for instance, contain DNA from dozens of plant families, as well as bacterial DNA spliced into their genomes by microbes.

2. They threaten our health. GMOs are all vetted for safety before they become food. Scientists are also creating GMOs that address some health concerns, such as new “gene-tailored” organisms that avoid the use of controversial bacterial DNA.

3. They threaten the environment. Scientists have been unable to identify significant environmental threats by GMOs. In fact, GMOs benefit the environment by reducing reliance on chemicals, fuel and land.

4. They are not intellectual property. Many are concerned that corporations are gaining control over food through intellectual-property law. However, new strains of crops and livestock are always protected by such laws. This allows developers to profit from their efforts, and thereby continue to create better crops and livestock for us all.