Saturday, January 10, 2009

Geneticall Modified Organisms

The very name sounds frightening. But it doesn't come close to the problem.

Why am I talking about Genetic Modifications, or GMOs? The subject has come up frequently since president elect Obama's choice for Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack, was announced about a month ago. Vilsack is known as a proponent of ither words, he is believed to strongly support research into genetic modification of crops and animal cloning etc.

GMOs have been the subject of hot debate for many years, and they don't appear to be falling off the docket any time soon. The "pro" side claims that genetic modification has gone on for centuries, and the current gene-splicing research is simply a modern, streamlined version of what orur forefathers did. The idea being that farmers of old would indeed try to cross breed varieties of wheat, corn, oats, etc to bring out the more desirable traits. Like breeding horses, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. And when it didn't, they probably lay in bed thinking that there had to be a better way.

Enter gene splicing. Now we don't have to rely on the whim of mother nature to get the exact traits we're looking for. In a nutshell, scientists find what they are seeking in DNA, then splice the DNA together and watch what happens.

It seems like a good plan. It's certainly more succinct than cross breeding, growing and then harvesting. It's much more scientific than finger crossing and silent prayer.

But the "con" side wants to know about potential pitfalls. Is it safe for human consumption? Is it safe for non-human consumption? Is it safe for the environment? The fact is that we don't know. There's a lot that we just don't know, and that ignorance cn prove fatal for the environment. (I think we're all well acquainted with DDT controversy of the 60's. Dr. Muller actually won a nobel prize for discovering that DDT could be used as an insecticidal. 20 years later, the Dept of Agriculture was phasing it out due to it's possible role in the dramatic decline of the Peregrine Falcon population.)

The threat of GMOs go much deeper than insecticides and pesticides and herbicides. The fear of GMOs comes with the realization that it is virtually impossible to experiment with GMOs and keep the genetically modified genes contained. Nature still does it's job, as it's been programmed to do year after year. Birds eat seed in the field, squirrels steal seed and they get transported. The pollen travels on the wind to another local (organic?) field. And, like time immemorial, the genetic alterations are preserved. Offspring shoot up along highways, and in the middle of other fields. Heirloom varieties of various produce and grain get tainted. These occurrences are impossible to contain, and are impossible to reverse. Even worse? It takes a professional with fancy lab equipment to tell the difference.

That may seem like a good thing. If the only difference between genetically altered crops and normal crops is under a microscope, what's the fuss? Right?


Wrong. Our bodies may not be able to interpret the difference with our five traditional senses, but over time the differences may reveal themselves.

There was a time when obstetricians reccomended that pregnant women take up smoking, since it made childbirth that much easier. They have turned tables on that advice since the realization that babies with smaller birthrates had a lower survival rate. And a glass of wine is no longer reccomended either, due to the affect alcohol has on a still forming fetus.

These correlations took years to make. And thousands, if not millions, of human beings paid the price. Our children benefit by learning from those mistakes, though.

Genetic Modification doesn't leave room for them to benefit if big companies like Monsanto are wrong. If GMOs are as dangerous to the environment (and the animal life ingesting them) as some people fear, the price will be a hefty one. Clean up efforts will take lifetimes. There will be no starting over from square one, because simply by growing these man-manipulated organisms, we are setting them free in the wild. And honestly...our knowledge is not yet deep enough to truly fathom the potential far reaching implications of those actions.

Through traditional modifications, the gluten content of grain has more than tripled since ancient times. As has the incidence of celiac disease. (Yes, wasting diseases that sound like Celiac were reported even in biblical times) In fact, areas where wheat was most recently introduced (such as southern Ireland) have the highest incidence of Celiac disease.

What does that have to do with GMOs? Well, by using natural resources, humans interfered with nature's plan, developing higher gluten content in wheat and then learned to regret it in certain poulations. Luckily...due to our forced limitations, we were able to identify and treat the problem (hence, 1 in 133 people "simply" avoid gluten containing grains.)

How do we track down reactions to a DNA variability embedded in "normal" food? When one potato chip doesn't attack, but the next one does?

What will happen when a full percent of the poulation needs to avoid GMOs for medical reasons? If that number rises? And those GMOs are rampant in our food supply, blowing unchecked through our prized amber waves of grain?

What if 3 generations down the road, a Nobel Peace prize is awarded to the woman who discovers that early or prenatal exposure to GMOs are linked with heart disease in later life, or infertility, or some new, unknown plague that will only become apparent in our offspring?

What if Genetic Modification isn't a legacy, but a curse?

Organic groups have playfully deemed Genetically Modified Organisms as "Frankenfood", citing the eerily apt connection between Mary Shelley's ignorant but brilliant protagonist and our own agricultural industry's ambitious vision. But just as in her dark fantasy, I fear that "Frankenfood" will come to haunt us for generations to come.

And that's why I signed a petition (I know, internet petitions get little recognition according to Snopes. But it's something.), and sent in letters through a link in this article. And why I prefer organic foods, even when allergies don't demand them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To see what happened to an employee who worked in the pesticide and insecticide side of the GMO mess.. Please look at the website:

One very important document is the Conditional Time-Limited Registration that was given to the biotech company by the EPA. Full registration WAS DENIED. You'll be shocked when you read the reasons "why".

THIS is just a sample of what is being put on our food.