Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Delicious, nutritious frankenfruit

And in continuation of my last post... GMOs.

Genetically modified organisms. For consumption. The HORROR!

Actually, I strongly support GMOs for several reasons. First of all, I have no squick factor about eating something that's not "natural," in fact, I hope they come up with lab-grown meat soon. After all, pretty much nothing we eat is remotely close to it's original state unless you are a hunter, or a naturalist. Corn was originally a tiny grain, teosinte. Tomatoes? Bred to be bigger, meatier, and redder. In fact, most of the food we put in our mouths has about as much in common with their untampered ancestors as a pug has with a wolf.

But surely genetic modification is different!

Plant breeding is genetic modification. The only difference with GMO vs. heavy selective breeding is that GMO allows us to introduce gene combinations that we want, rather than waiting for them to appear at random. So if we want a papaya that won't get attacked by a certain fungal infection, and the fungal infection doesn't attack pineapples because the pineapples have a certain chemical in their skins, we don't have to wait for a random mutation in the papaya to protect it, we can simply make the papaya produce the pineapple chemical. Then, we can test the fruit and make sure it's safe and still tastes the same, and if it does, voila, problem solved.

We can genetically modify food so there's much less unusable waste, so it takes up less space, and so it has less impact on the environment. We can make it so it doesn't need pesticides or fungicides. We can even make it more nutritious and grow in poor soils or where there's not much water, so people in third world countries can grow them and thus fight famines.

The only reason we aren't already doing such wonderful things with GMOs is that they are all patented by the corporations that designed them, and what's more, those corporations program their plants with a "kill" gene that makes them die after a year and their seeds useless. As a result, farmers keep having to go back and buy more, which is good for the company but sucky for the farmers, and impossible for poor subsistence farmers.

So I love GMOs in theory, and I certainly wouldn't hesitate to eat a GMO crop-- they're pretty heavily tested before going to market. But what I think needs to change is the following:

1. Some government funding going from international food aid to developing GMOs that are nutritious, safe, and grow in extremely poor conditions-- and have no kill gene.

2. Require companies that develop kill gene GMOs to pay taxes to go to the above.

3. Regulate, regulate, regulate. Test everything. Not that they don't do this already, but it's still a good idea.

4. Encourage GMO companies to contribute to a pro-GMO public awareness campaign talking about safety etc. They'd do it in a heartbeat, I'm sure.

5. AS much as I hate to admit it... require GMO labeling. If there's GMOs in it, the consumer should know. It's only fair and it makes it look less sneaky and dishonest.

But regardless of the issues, I don't get the anti-GMO crowd. It's not going to kill you. In fact, it might be healthier for you. Get over it.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you believe GMOs have been thoroughly tested and are safe to consume you are a trusting soul. The only testing that has been done of GMOs that has found them safe for consumption has been done by the manufacturers. Since every other claim about their product has proved to be specious I see no reason to believe their claims that it's safe to eat. Did you know that a bout four years ago at UK Monsanto Head offices the employee cafe went GMO free at employee request? If they won't eat it why should we?

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Nice post. I largely agree with you:

(1) I too feel that this technology might have something to offer;

(2) I agree that we are currently not making use of the potential benefits of GMO such as producing plants with greater yield or higher nutrient density, as >90% of all GMOs grown worldwide are 'designed' to be resistant to a specific herbicide/pesticide (for example "round-up ready");

(3) I agree that the use of this technology needs to be thoroughly tested, in terms of the safety of the foods, long-term environmental effects, and socio-economic effects.

And in the latter issue I largely disagree. First, I am a Professor of Nutrition Sciences, and can assure you that very little tests have been done on the safety of GMO foods. In fact, some of the little research that has been done is rather disconcerting. I encourage you to look into this some more. Second, we know very little about the long-term environmental effects of widespread use of GMO seeds. As the technology is already used quite a bit, I am not aware of any technology that could remove those genes again from the environment should they prove to be harmful. Which should have been a major reason for me NOT to allow widespread use of them in the first place. Note, in particular, that you usually do not just introduce the gene of interest; you typically get the gene inside the cell by using a viral vector, that at a minimum also contains an antibiotic resistance gene (to test whether the cell has accepted the new gene). Not even to mention the immense complexity of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions, which on occasion will create a totally unexpected phenotype. Lastly, the current use of GMO seeds is greatly detrimental socio-economically, destroying family farms even here in the US, not to mention the developing world. Again, I encourage you to look into the issue of Monsanto suing farmers who allowed Monsanto's patented genes to fly into their fields ...!

Basiorana said...

Europe is weird about GMOs, and the cafe probably went GMO free because it pacified the workers.

They are tested pretty much the same way non-GMOs were tested-- feed them to animals, if the animals don't get sick, feed them to humans, if the humans don't get sick, they're as safe as any other food out there. Plenty of natural foods are quite harmful long-term or in large quantities, yet they aren't banned or even controlled unless they are intoxicating or can be used as a murder weapon. The fact that ANY testing is done before putting it on the table means it's WAY ahead of natural foods in terms of being tested for safety.

"Second, we know very little about the long-term environmental effects of widespread use of GMO seeds."

Can't possibly be worse than anything introduced from Europe with human movement over the last millenia, or the effect of chemical fertilizers on the soil. For now at least, the kill gene means that GMO plants don't propagate and thus would die out relatively quickly if they were no longer planted. I agree that environmental testing would need to be done before things without kill genes were introduced to the environment, and if that is being done now, then yeah, that's not a good thing and shoudl be stopped until more testing can be done.

"Lastly, the current use of GMO seeds is greatly detrimental socio-economically, destroying family farms even here in the US, not to mention the developing world."

I stated above that I dislike the monopolies and patents held on GMOs, that is my greatest complaint and something that needs to be corrected.

estherar said...

If the problem of world hunger is to be solved, it won't be through the mindless promotion of land-wasteful 'organic' foods, but through cost-effective and land-saving GMO food. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

No, actually it's exactly the opposite. The current use of GMOs in huge monocultures ("cost savings") has extremely negative effects in the long term, such as erosion (loss of fertile soil due to wind and water), and destroying the soil microbiota (the bacteria, fungi, and little critters living in the soil). For anyone who knows something about agriculture, it should be clear that soil health is of major importance in the long run. The monocultures, use of fertilizer, and massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides that are currently used on GMOs don't do any good to soil health. This claim that GMOs are the only way to solve world hunger drives me nuts. In the long run, we'd do MUCH better by going back to organic, sustainable practices using a large variety of crops that are suitable for each individual climate/microclimate/soil.

To develop and test (if that were ever done!) GMOs costs a lot of money, so it's only worth it if you use those seeds on a large scale. And if there is something we know now, it's that large scale monocultures are terrible in pretty much every regard in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Re: basiorana

Almost none of the GMO crops that are grown these days use a 'killer' gene, as you call it.

And certainly all that I know of are patented by multinational corporations. Otherwise it's not economically feasible to produce them.

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