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The consequences of ‘frankenfood’

TNH Columnist

Published: Monday, October 3, 2011

Updated: Monday, October 3, 2011 23:10


Since the development of recombinant DNA technology, genetically modified (GM) food has been a hot-button topic. In the era of cut-and-paste gene engineering, it has become possible to move genes between incredibly disparate species.

The inception of this novel biotechnology came with both obvious practical uses and questions of consequence. Many have long feared that artificially modified foods will have untold side effects, and initially little was done to assuage these fears. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of all corn, soybeans and cotton are genetically engineered as of this year.

Exactly what does it mean to say "genetically modified," though, and should we be scared?

Mankind has been unwittingly engineering its food supply for thousands of years. When early farmers domesticated corn, the cobs were tiny. Selective breeding over a few thousand years for the biggest ears has led to what we see today.

The same is true for most of our fruits and vegetables. This should come as no shock—farmers naturally choose the most successful strains for breeding in the next generation. Modern science has given us a look into the hereditary mechanisms behind these observed changes. The source lies within the DNA. 

Using process of elimination and experimental tactics, scientists can deduce which portions of the DNA are relevant for producing a particular trait. Although a feature such as size may be environmentally influenced, it can also be strongly preprogrammed by the genes.

For example, by peering into the DNA of different breeds of corn, the critical sequences that influence size can be exposed by comparison. To test for accuracy, you simply raise your corn, sequence the DNA, and ask, "Do the sizes match expectations in the DNA?" If so, the hypothesis is supported.

Using similar techniques, scientists have been able to track down genes for toxin production, growth rates, hair color, cancer susceptibility, and almost anything else you can imagine.

It should be no surprise that we would want to enhance our food through simple gene manipulation. In starving third-world nations, they care little whether their giant ears of corn originated on a field or in a lab.

Taking this one step further, we can also consider other important life-saving genes. For example, what if you could take the gene for vitamin D, and add it to crops that would not normally produce it? Not only has this been done for vitamin D, it has been done for countless others. Engineered rice has saved countless lives in both China and India.

The opposition is clearly outweighed here: GM food holds no inherent viability over its "natural" counterparts. No serious scientist expects a sudden hostile takeover by any present commercial GM food.

Some of the largest opponents of GM food have been, ironically, from the staunchest members of the green movement. That is not to say that all members are opponents, but only that a large portion of antagonism originates there. Entire crops have been burned, stock seeds dumped, and farmhouses raided. Why such fierce opposition?

Sadly, like many issues in the United States and elsewhere, a lack of education is strongly to blame. The main argument against GM food is "untold side-effects," without acknowledgement that side-effects can be a positive thing. 

Not only do starving children get their food, they get their daily multi-vitamin too.

There's no denying the possibility of a mistake being made along the way, but it is morally unconscionable to deny the poorest nations the right to survive. 

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Stephen Dunn
Fri Oct 7 2011 11:51
Well Sean, that's a double-edged sword. Yes, it makes them rebuy, but they have much higher yields and don't have to spray with pesticides, an expensive and unhealthy process. It also keeps the GM food industry alive, because otherwise you would just use your same seeds every year until the bugs adapted. The GM industry modifies its enzymes slightly to keep up with evolution. Whether that is good or bad is up for debate, but even without genetic modification, the pesticide industry is doing the same thing.
Sean Kolb
Thu Oct 6 2011 12:49
Regardless of the physical effects its more the implemented practice of distribution that's flawed. Where in the corporation will cause the plants to not produce seed for next year requiring a re-purchase of seeds every year. This cost can become prohibitive for many small farmers and pushes farming towards large super industrial systems.
Wed Oct 5 2011 07:01
That link from anonymous is about pesticides....... This article is not even about pesticides? Perhaps I could refer you and anyone who agrees with him to this page.
Stephen Dunn
Tue Oct 4 2011 17:46
Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comments. I would like to address the issues you have brought up.
1) You are mistaken claiming the writer is "uninformed". I have written about this issue in the past, and am active in the field of genetics research. I am well read on the literature concerning GM food in general, and I stay up date with news concerning this topic.
2) While you have cited a paper discussing the issue of GMO pesticides affecting humans, you will notice that the source of the problem was not the GM food itself, it was the pesticides produced. The problem with your argument is one of causality: You are lumping the separate issues of genetically modifying food and pesticide consumption into a single problem. They are distinct issues: Pesticides are not just produced by GM food, they are sprayed over crops and made in factories. By engineering certain crops to produce their own pesticides, we reduce the risk of over-spraying and killing unrelated species. Pesticide issues are a concern, but not the one I address here. My central point is that GM food is not inherently bad by virtue of it being GM food.
3) I agree with Anonymous #2, the problem is elsewhere than food production, but there are other issues I did not have the space to go into here. One central problem is the dispersion of government funding, which is sadly misappropriated.
Tue Oct 4 2011 15:35
The writer is unfortunately uninformed. He cites the positive hypothetical outcomes without truly considering what the industry is doing. I would refer him and interested readers to to read about research findings at the University of Sherbrooke Hospital in Quebec.
Tue Oct 4 2011 12:14
40% of all food produced is wasted. Today's production can already feed 9 billion people. Hunger in poor countries is not because of a lack of food or because of poor genetic potential of current crops, its cause is poverty, mixed with deficient infrastructure and poor leadership. People are hungry because they do not have enough money to buy food. There is plenty of food produced in teh US, yet 46 million Americans need food stamps to eat.Do not forget that 70% of the world hungry are farmers! The problem is really elsewhere than in food production.

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