Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Monsanto follow-up

My June 4th post offered my opinion that the so-called Monsanto Protection Act should be struck down because of the undemocratic and dishonest way it became law. But I offered little about the act's subject matter, which leaves me feeling like I should come back and fill in the blank. So to begin, here are the two paragraphs of my earlier post that did touch on the subject matter, however lightly:

Generally, what the MPA deals with are genetically modified foods, a.k.a. genetically modified organisms. These are fruits and vegetables that are cultivated by injecting them with specific genes from other species in order to produce certain traits. Those who agree with this approach to agriculture refer to it as innovation that benefits mankind by increasing the size and durability of harvests. Those who disagree refer to it as toying with nature and thereby exposing  people and the environment to risks we can't yet know.

Specifically, what the MPA deals with is the power the federal government has in determining which genetically modified foods go to market and how they are labeled. Supporters claim that the MPA prevents special interests from using shoddy science to deny consumers access to food that is safe, nutritious, and uniquely affordable. Its critics claim that it allows large agricultural firms to avoid adequate legal scrutiny concerning the safety of the food they produce.

Most Americans do not have an opinion about the Monsanto Protection Act simply because they are not aware of it. When it comes to those who do have an opinion, I think it is obvious that their views are based not on what they specifically know about the act's language but on what they generally think about GMO's (as genetically modified foods/organisms are often called). I will not use this blog to pretend that I know all the answers about whether GMO's are healthy or ecologically safe, since the scientific community is divided and I suspect that the jury will remain out for decades. My aim is simply to provide a balanced look at both sides of the story.

First, it is important to acknowledge that the practice of genetically modifying fruits, vegetables, and livestock has been going on ever since humans started farming. Grapefruit, for example, is not natural. It was brought into existence when eighteenth century colonists crossbred oranges with pomelos, and did not become widely popular until an additional century-plus of crossbreeding led to the appearance of the Ruby Red variety in 1929.

The Gala Apple is another example of a very healthy and popular fruit that was created by man, not God. It was developed in New Zealand by crossing the Golden Delicious with the Kidd's Orange Red, which was itself a cross between the Red Delicious and Orange Pippin. The Gala was brought to our shores in 1974 and became our second most popular variety in 2006. Across the Atlantic, it has been in the U.K. less than 30 years and already accounts for 20 percent of that nation's commercial apple crop.

There is no doubt that those species were genetically modified by human beings, but when people talk about genetic modification in 2013, they are talking about procedures that go way beyond old school hybridization. Instead they are talking about procedures that take specific genes from one species, and then, using artificial means that could never be duplicated in nature, force them into the cellular structure of entirely unrelated species. And by entirely unrelated, I am talking about going so far as to insert animal genes into plants.

One real-world example is the insertion of genes from Arctic fish into tomatoes and strawberries, which succeeded in making the plants more tolerant of frost. Another real-world example is the injection of spider genes into goat DNA, in an unsuccessful effort to have goats produce milk containing spider protein -- an effort that, had it succeeded, would have resulted in the milk being used in the manufacture of bulletproof vests.

If you think there is a creep factor to those examples, what would you think about injecting human genes into plants and animals? Well, Chinese scientists have already introduced human genes into at least 300 dairy cows with the goal of having them produce milk that is essentially the same as human breast milk. And right here in the U.S.A., a company called Ventria Bioscience is growing rice infused with genes from human livers. Although that rice is supposed to be used only in the development of pharmaceuticals -- i.e., not for introduction to the food chain -- it is nonetheless being grown on an outdoor farm and there is concern that it could spread beyond the farm's borders and reproduce naturally with rice on other farms, thus ending up in the food chain without anybody being aware of it.

The benefits of GMO's are not imaginary. In the already given example of making crops frost-tolerant, the result is a larger and more dependable food supply. Genetic modification is also used to create plants that are resistant to pests so farmers don't need to use as much pesticide (or in some cases, any pesticide) to bring them to your grocery store. It is also used to boost the amount of vitamins in certain vegetables, which is good for human health, especially in the Third World where vitamin deficiency is epidemic.

Of all the traits brought into existence by genetic modification, the most common is herbicide resistance. It allows farmers to successfully kill the damaging weeds in their fields without sacrificing some of their crop in the process, and it enables the kinds of low- and no-tillage farming that have long been praised by environmentalists. Much like frost tolerance, herbicide resistance also contributes to a larger and more dependable food supply.

For the most part, the downsides of GMO's consist of worries about what will happen in the future as a result of today's tampering with genetic structure -- and because these are forward-looking concerns, the vast majority of them have not been fleshed out by objective science. However, the fact that science has not verified them does not mean they are irrational, nor does it mean that none of them will come to pass. It has been only 19 years since America's first GMO went to market (the Flavr Savr tomato, in 1994) and thus it is fair to say that we have only an embryonic understanding of these crops' long-term effects.

Thierry Vrain is a Canadian scientist who once advocated for GMO's but now questions the entire foundation on which belief in their safety is built. He does so by simply stating this: "Genetic engineering is 40 years old. It is based on the naive understanding of the genome based on the one-gene-one-protein hypothesis of 70 years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein. The Human Genome project completed in 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong. The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding. Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins. Some of these proteins are obviously allergenic or toxic."

Bt corn is one of the world's most ubiquitous GMO's and has long been cited to warn about what could be wrought by the law of unintended consequences. It was developed to be resistant to pests, by having its pollen engineered to contain concentrations of proteins that are toxic to corn-killing insects like the European corn borer. That intended consequence did occur, but so did the unintended consequence of the pollen proving toxic to Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Bt corn was fingered as a suspect in regional declines of Monarch populations as far back as the late 1990's, on the grounds that its wind-borne pollen wound up on the leaves of nearby milkweed plants that are one of the caterpillar's preferred habitats. While it turned out that the accusations of Bt pollen placing the Monarch species in danger were overblown (for reasons that are clear if you read this report all the way through), there is no denying that Bt pollen did turn out to be harmful to some Monarch caterpillars in ways that were not anticipated before it was released into the field. And since the law of unintended consequences has proven its existence throughout the entire history of human endeavor, it is logical to believe that it's only a matter of time until a doozy of an unintended consequence emerges from the fermenting mast of GMO agriculture.

Could that doozy turn out to be increased human mortality? Because certain GMO vegetables are resistant to antibiotics, some people have wondered whether antibody resistance could be passed on to humans, in which case the affected humans would become more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Although the notion of transmitting antibody resistance from veggiekind to humankind sounds far-fetched to my ears, I am still given pause by the fact that, as far as I can tell, the chances of that transmission occurring have barely been investigated. In a world where super bugs like MRSA are already proving fatal, any specter of antibody resistance should not be dismissed unless thorough scientific vetting has unambiguously disproved it.

It is hard to be fully objective when considering this topic, because we all have gut reactions that immediately tell us to be either pro or con -- and usually lead us to think that any concerns raised by "the other side" are suspect.

So where do I stand? Strangely, I am somewhat in the middle, which is a place I rarely find myself.

On one hand, I believe some of the fears concerning genetic modification are overstated and based too much on emotion. Yet on the other hand, I believe that some of the confidence in genetic modification being low-risk is built on a foundation that is flimsier than its proponents realize.

I instinctively want to defend many of the people working on the pro-GMO side, because I know many of their critics are driven by an anti-progress mindset that makes them damn near reactionary. Yet at the same time, when I set aside what I think about the instinctive mindset of those critics, and consider their objections strictly on their merits, I find myself agreeing with many of those objections.

I believe that much good can, and will, be done by the practice of genetic modification. I also believe that much bad can, and will, be done if the practitioners of genetic modification brush aside the concerns of their critics instead of addressing them directly and respectfully.

I think the practitioners will be tempted to brush aside the critics' concerns because so many of the critics engage in fear-mongering -- and I think that temptation will greatly increase the chances of legitimate concerns being ignored, simply because people have a natural tendency to consider an entire body of concerns to be tainted when they see that any parts of it are being hyped by hyperbole.

I believe good old-fashioned ethics must rule the day, by which I mean it is good to go ahead and boost the vitamin A in corn that is to be eaten by the malnourished of sub-Saharan Africa -- but only after it has been confirmed, through an open and sober application of the scientific method, that doing so will not do things like decimate the predators of tse-tse flies while simultaneously weakening people's resistance to the sleeping sickness that tse-tses transmit.

But I believe that good old-fashioned ethics will rule the day only if we all remove our ideological blinders and hold both our political and business leaders' feet to the fire.

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