Manuel Lerdau - Genetic Modifications of Living Beings: Consequences for Humans and the Environment
Summary by Mr. Thomas Beaver

Genetic Modifications of Living Beings: Consequences for Humans and the Environment

     Professor Lerdau began his speech by outlining the various goals of his presentation. The first of these was to discover what is meant by GMO, which stands for genetically modified organism, and what exactly makes these organisms special. Next, for what applications has this technology been put to use? What should be our concerns and enthusiasms regarding GMOs? And, finally, what can (and should) we do in the future to ensure that GMOs recognize their full potential safely and effectively?
     Professor Lerdau went on to point out a few very common GMOs – sunflowers, insulin (for diabetics), soy beans, and corn. These have all been genetically altered to great success. The success of a GMO was explained as a measure of its ability to produce predictable phenotypes with a high yield and to develop methods to achieve that goal. The industrial goals are somewhat different, however. In addition to the above goals a company seeks to control reproduction and to control the application of such methods in order to maximize profit. There is a clear distinction, then, between using GMOs to further purely scientific or altruistic goals and using GMOs as a method of increasing profits.
     To explain the history of GMOs Professor Lerdau focused on two distinct historical events. These are the advent of domestication and the Green Revolution. Domestication first began to occur in ancient times and had a resounding impact for food production in ancient civilizations. The Green Revolution took place in the 1950s and was headed by Norman Borlaug, “The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives” through applying the principles of Gregor Mendel on a massive scale in developing countries. Borlaug sought to increase food production in these countries by reproducing plants which met three standards – short, high-yielding, and responsive.
     GMOs, according to Professor Lerdau, have had some interesting ramifications for treating plants. EPSP Synthase, a toxin very deadly to bats but relatively innocuous to humans, has been found to be essential for the care of plants. If EPSP Synthase is applied to a plant it can then tolerate Glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Roundup is produced by the Monsanto Corporation and is used to kill various herbicides. Allowing plants to be treated with Roundup without harming the plant itself has been essential to the growth of agriculture. In addition, all tests point to the reassuring conclusion that plants treated with EPSP Synthase and Glyphosate are completely harmless to humans. There do exist, however, significant concerns about the use of GMOs. In terms of intellectual property it isn’t always clear who actually owns the rights to the use of the GMO. In addition it isn’t certain who is allowed to develop new phenotypes. This raises the economic issue of monopoly. Some producers of GMOs may come to dominate the market through unclear intellectual property laws. Then there is the problem of labeling. Again, the law is not clear about how and when GMO products should be labeled.
Professor Lerdau finished his speech with a recap of the benefits and problems raised by GMOs and their applications. He pointed out that some GMOs have been shown to help alleviate world hunger and malnutrition. However, certain transformations have also been demonstrated to pose dangers to the environment and in some cases to human beings. In addition, the current status of patents doesn’t actually foster innovation. Corporations have a tendency to fight lengthy battles to own patents that they may never even use. Professor Lerdau argued that an alternate system is needed to allow patents to see the light of day and actually do some good.