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.


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