29 January, 2007

Some Myths of Genetic Food

I claim no expertise in any of the sciences, especially those foisting genetically altered foods on the American public, other than being a diligent student of history and an enthusiastic gardener. And someone who has born the brunt of technologies not thought completely through, some of those my own making. “Nothing will happen as the result of growing genetically modified crops for human food. Consuming them will have exactly the same effect on the human body as the crops we ate before. Except for the accrued advantage of a superior crop, nutrition or other genetically implanted benefit there is nothing that anyone in their right mind could rail against.”

Except. Many claims. No proof.

One of the biggest problems of our culture is the rush to exploit new technology; as soon as we know how to do something, it is not only imperative we use it, but we use it for profit as quickly as it can be rolled out. Like many, if not most, of our pharmaceutical prescriptions doled out in massive quantities, there are no twenty year studies. The American public, it seems is quite willing to allow the pharmaceutical companies to do the long term studies in the marketplace.

One vivid example is Paxil, an anti-depressant on the market for almost 20 years now. Initially, patients prescribed Paxil were told it was a safe, non-addictive medication to treat depression. The first trouble in Paradise was the discovery that Paxil was indeed addictive, fostering a physical and emotional dependency that has proven difficult to overcome. Then came the reports of elevated incidents of suicide in teenagers prescribed Paxil. While the later might not have ever been discovered in testing, the addictive nature of the drug surely would have been. It is however, the public that is left to discover after the fact.

We have many examples of this procedure – it is the status quo and not the exception in our society.

There are no long term studies on genetically modified foods and how they will act in the human gut. It is sheer arrogance and preposterous to say we KNOW what will happen by using conjecture. We don’t know enough about our gut, let alone about the behavior of modified cells in our gut. It is complete fantasy to declare we know the effects of genetically modified food in reaction to the body.

And that, for me, would be plenty enough reason to not allow these products to be unleashed on the public. But that isn’t even the big issue. The truth of the matter is that we don’t have the slightest clue of the possible Pandora’s Box we have uncorked in the environment.

Take the case of the genetically modified corn. The gene is spliced with Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis, which is one of the most successful pesticides in the organic farmer and gardener’s arsenal. Bt is a relatively selective pesticide, which means, it is fairly focused on the insects it does kill – and, as applied by organic farmers and gardeners, it is not considered harmful to humans. Because it is spliced directly into the corn, it is in ALL cells of the corn.

Corn pollen for instance. Corn is a wind-pollinated grass. The pollen released from the male flowers (the corn tassel) has evolved to float on breezes in search of an inviting female flower (a corn silk on the ear of corn – every kernel of corn has its very own silk – the silks that fail to get pollinated become the spaces on the corn cob). The corn produces a lot of pollen, consistent with all wind-pollinated plants. Hay fever and allergy sufferers know precisely the effects of this mechanism as multitudes of pollen grains wafting through the air find their nose. It is nothing like the modern idea of a ‘smart-bomb;’ – it is the biological equivalent of ‘carpet bombing.’

Corn, then, is a very poor subject to start with for genetic manipulation if you would like to keep these altered cells out of nature – something that Monsanto had pledged it would do. If they had been serious about that, corn would never have been used in the first place. Biologists from the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered evidence of Bt laced corn pollen spreading in Mexico, in wild plants of a corn ancestor – no where near where Monsanto was thought to plant this stuff. Mexico is ground zero for evolution of corn and as such, represents the home of the most genetic diversity of corn. Suffice it to say, at this juncture, the presence of the Monsanto Bt gene in the wild of Mexico is alarming in the extreme as far as ecological damage might go. So Monsanto has not been good about keeping their promises. We do not know the effects this will have on non-target insects.

But the known effect on the target insects has been empirically proven hundreds of times: They will evolve resistance to the pesticide. I suspect Monsanto of the vilest of schemes by using Bt as the pesticide of choice because the track record of all pesticides, organic or otherwise, is invariably the same. Any pesticide’s popularity is a clear and sure fire prediction that it will soon be ineffective, just like medicines against an epidemic. This is because pests, like bacteria, and all other living things under an assault, adapt. Over time this is called 'evolution.' Quickly, that set of insects in a population subjected to massive amounts of a given pesticide that show some sort of immunity to the pesticide, become the only insects that survive. And viola. In short order, the pesticide must be replaced by a new pesticide. Just think: if organic farmers, who tend toward selectivity in pesticide use preferring more benign methods of pest control, cannot use Bt, why then they might be forced to use some chemical pesticide to supplant that loss! (A person might also wonder if Monsanto was busy behind the scenes in those circles trying to abandon teaching of evolution in schools - ignorant people are more easily manipulated you know...)

But allow all of the above to pass. Why do we NEED genetically modified corn or other foodstuffs to begin with? There is only one reason: to feed the coffers of the corporation promulgating the thing to begin with.

But what about starvation in the world? This is THE great lie of our time. Starvation in the world is not the result of too little food. It is the result of politics and distribution. And if there were a shortage of food in the world, simple conservation could satisfy the entire need.

But there is not a shortage of food. There is a lack of will to get the food produced into the hands of the starving, but no amount of genetically modified organisms will improve their condition. Unless perhaps you genetically modify the corporation and politicians. Now there's a thought.

So there you have it. Grab a sheet of paper and on the right list the positive effects and possible positive effects of genetically modified food and on the left, list the harmful effects and possible harmful effects. See which side tallies the longest list. On the right list “high-profit for corporations and their stockholders” and if you think of any others list them too, as for me, that’s the only one on the right. And personally, I don’t feel I owe them too damn much.

On my left side, I write down the long list of the ‘unknowns’ and the ‘unknowables.’ It is a very one-sided list: Genetically modified foods pose a threat and harbor no great advantage.

They don’t need to be illegal. But they do need to carefully controlled and studied in complete isolation from nature until more is known about them.

And, for my money, the corporation that invented them and stands to profit by them should not be the one to carry that research out because that is an obvious conflict of interest.


Thinking About Plants

As I write this, I am in the throes of preparing a lesson for a botany course I’ll teach at a local school of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Yo San University, http://yosan.edu/). My students are all aspiring acupuncturists and herbs form their pharmacopoeia. They are learning a holistic medicine so it is my place to teach them about plants – to give them a holistic consciousness about their prescriptions. I don’t know about the medicinal value of plants, that’s not my field, but I “know” plants and I endeavor to transfer to them some of this knowledge.

Our culture sees plants selectively – usually as something that is “in the way,” or the “green thing I pass on my way to the car.” The first hurdle to overcome is to actually simply see that this “thing” is a plant. I think of my academic assignment as being similar to being a music appreciation teacher. You hope at the end of the term some of your students will go into a store and, upon hearing the music, at least one will think, “Ah, that’s Mozart!” I hope that my students will be able to observe that there are plants lining the walk to school, or the store or in the parking lot. Take this simple test: how many plants have you interacted with since you got up this morning? Most folks will give a range of 10 to 15, off the top of their head. But is that really all?

Let’s see: Breakfast with coffee or tea, of any kind, (1), toast (2) with jelly (3), orange juice (4) – if you had cereal, oatmeal or otherwise (derived from the Roman goddess of the harvest, “Ceres,” the word “cereal” refers to the seeds of some grasses) add one more, granola knocks you towards the top of the plant consumption Richter scale – any sugar or one of the natural substitutes, add another. And then there was lunch – sandwich with lettuce and tomato (that would be three more to bring us to seven or so), unless it was a PBJ, which would bring us to 8 or more; if you had a cola, better count at least two, just being conservative (look at the ingrediant label for the facts on this - I don't drink colas and I'm afraid I only KNOW that corn sweetener is an ingredient, but I'll bet there are many, many more) . And now you’re reading this. If not electronically, better add one more for the paper it’s on – oh, and another for the ink which is soy based.

But wait (there's more!)! What’s that I see you wearing, a cotton shirt? Jeans? Or a linen skirt or shirt? Add two more. Hmmm. Are you sitting on a wooden chair? Add another. Hard wood floor or a wooden door (our word for door comes from the Celtic word for oak, “doerr”)? Add another. If you picked up a guitar or other stringed instrument, you better add another to your tally.

Back this buggy up – did you sleep in cotton sheets? I hoped you brushed your teeth and used some soap in the shower, washed and rinsed your hair – maybe chewed some mint gum along the way? Aftershave? Perfume? Had a chocolate candy bar (with nuts?)? And if you’re breathing – most of us are – that oxygen is a by product of photosynthesis, part of the reason the air always seems more refreshing once you get out of the city (fewer peoples; more plants). Plants can get along without us (they did for several million years before we evolved), but we cannot get along without plants.

You get the picture – plants play an integral part of our lives today, no matter how much our society pushes plants and their care towards the outer fringe. They are an inherent part of the web of life that under girds the ability of human beings to simply persist on this planet. The woof and warp of human existence is tied up with plants (yes, that string was most likely from a plant). Ignorance doesn’t divorce us from that reality.

Even pre-historic humans placed flowers in the graves of their dead and bouquets at weddings have been a part of weddings before the recording of history began even before those expensive rings. Why have plants always been such important guests at all the major events in the lives of humans? This is especially true of those traditions that have been a part of our social customs for hundreds of years – the older the tradition, the more prominent the place of plants.

We eat, wear, sleep in and walk on plants (fore!). We drink them, we make instruments out of them, and they are the original source of all our medicines. We smoke them, burn them for scents, perfume ourselves with them and use them to tie things up. Even petroleum is thousands of year old plants that have metamorphosed into that black stuff which we distill into gasoline and other petroleum products (which is why it’s not so far fetched to think that one day we may well be distilling gasoline from sustainably harvested plants – although, whether or not that’s a viable solution is a whole ‘nuther column). They grace our lives in real and tangible ways – any real estate agent will tell you that, all other things being equal, the house with an attractive garden sells faster than the one without – and houses placed along greenspaces (parks, reserves etc) have higher resale values than those without. And a street lined with one tree species has that “neighborhood” feel. Just drive down one of those streets to test that theory.

Yet in this horticultural Shangri La, most Angelenos spend many days without even thinking about plants. Most of the homes and buildings in LA, were planted with some sort of yard/garden when constructred, and using the same logic that puts our children into the care of the lowest bidder, we pay as little as possible for someone to care for it. The result is not usually very appealing. In fact, home for home, Los Angeles has some of the worst plantings in all of the US.

It seems to me, we have missed an important part of being human: nature isn't just nice - it's essential.

More anon.