Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Frankenfood or Healthy Produce?

"Frankenstein monsters, things crawling out of the lab. This the most depressing thing I've ever dealt with."
"In spite of hundreds of millions of genetic experiments involving every type of organism on earth and people eating billions of meals without a problem, we've gone back to being ignorant."
"Today we're facing the same objections we faced 40 years ago."
Robert Goldberg, plant molecular biologist, University of California, Los Angeles

"[The use of GM crops] has lowered the price of food. It has increased farmer safety by allowing them to use less pesticide. It has raised the output of corn, cotton and soy by 20 to 30 percent, allowing some people to survive who would not have without it. If it were more widely adopted around the world, the price [of food] would go lower, and fewer people would die of hunger."
David Zilberman, U.C. Berkeley agricultural and environmental economist

"A lot of naive science has been involved in pushing this technology. Thirty years ago we didn't know that when you throw any gene into a different genome, the genome reacts to it. But now anyone in this field knows the genome is not a static environment. Inserted genes can be transformed by several different means, and it can happen generations later [potentially resulting in toxic plants appearing]."
David Williams, cellular biologist, University of California, Los Angeles
gmo foods, genetically modified foods

"No substantiated evidence [exists that genetic modification of crops can produce unsafe food. In the U.S., Canada, Britain and Western Europe], no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety [caused by genetically engineered foods]."
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, United States
Unfortunately, the very nature of science itself is represented by never-ending enquiry and debate and research to produce results that are reliably reproducible. There is no such thing as 'settled' science. The human understanding of science and nature and the world around us and the manner in which everything interacts with everything else is that nature itself is a mysterious force that humankind will always struggle to comprehend. The most confirmed understanding of science can be overturned by more recent findings.

Generally speaking, however, most Western scientists are firm in their belief that food derived from genetically modified crops is safe for human consumption, and no more does it comprise a threat than food conventionally produced. The public, however, remains unconvinced. Which is to say a significant proportion of the public distrusts the very idea of genetically modified food. In a sense it's not all that surprising, since, like the production of pharmaceuticals, big corporate business is involved in funding research into GM crops; the same businesses that find it lucrative to produce those GM seeds.

The recently released  report produced by the National Academies of Science has published its finding, in addition, that no evidence has been discerned to implicate genetically modified crops with danger to the environment, while not gainsaying whatever the necessity to continue monitoring results. There are as well countless other studies that find no risks to the environment from GM agriculture.

Surveys of public opinion, however, find no more than 37 percent of Americans trust that genetically modified food is safe to consume. While 86 percent favour that labelling specifying that food has undergone genetic modification be a requisite, as a result of lingering belief in  health risks accompanying their use. Research conducted by Sydney Scott and Paul Rozin of University of Pennsylvania and Yoel Inbar of University of Toronto has revealed something of interest.

A representative sample of people were asked if they supported or opposed genetically engineering of plants and animals; asked to use this statement: "This should be prohibited no matter how great the benefits and minor the risks from allowing it", if they were assailed with doubts relating to GM safety.The response was that 65 percent of participants opposed genetic engineering, with a majority of those absolutely convinced that GM must be banned, risks and benefits aside.

This was a response that the researchers found puzzling, and then they understood that a simple human reaction was involved, the emotion of disgust. People who are strongest in their opposition to genetic modification are disinterested in balancing risks and benefits. They oppose any product that has been genetically engineered, because the very concept of that interference with nature is what disgusts them; their reaction is a visceral, not a reasoned one.

And the operative word here is 'natural'. Anything that is 'natural' is fine; anything that has been tampered with by science is not. Balance that against the estimation by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that the world must grow 70 percent more food by 2050 to match population growth. And that climate change will have the effect of complicating farming on some of the world's most arable land. And here is where GM crops walk into the picture, capable of producing higher yields, of being grown on dry and unsuitable land, withstand high and low temperatures and tolerate the presence of insects, disease and herbicides.

All of which seems to fail to impress the majority of the public who reject genetic  modification of food, even though it has taken place forever by nature itself, and for thousands of years by human intervention. Much of the world at the present time is banning, restricting and shunning GM foods. Almost all corn and soybeans out of the U.S. is genetically modified; the European Union accepts only two GM crops. India and China have not approved most GM crops. Inclusive of an insect-resistant rice producing higher yields with less pesticide.

Millions of Africans regularly face starvation, yet countries there refuse to import GM foods, lower costs aside. Kenya, where widespread malnutrition stalks the land bans GM foods. Golden Rice, a special rice crop engineered to include vitamin A is not accepted, despite that vitamin A deficiency is the cause of over a million deaths annually and a half million cases of irreversible blindness in the developing world caused by a lack of vitamin A in diets.

Twenty-five years ago celebrity figures went public with their distrust of GM foods, convincing the general public there was much to distrust and fear. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader, Prince Charles and many celebrity chefs stood foursquare against the use of genetically altered foods, causing European consumers to view them with alarm. And the truth really is that no one really knows whether plants with altered genes could change our own DNA. Theoretically it is considered by some to be possible, albeit improbable.

The viruses and bacteria whose genes appear in GM foods are those we are in any event regularly exposed to and consume. Some bacterium are used in organic farming as natural pesticides. Naturally occurring viruses have inserted their DNA into crop genomes for millions of years. "When GM critics say that genes don't cross the species barrier in nature, that's just simple ignorance", says Alan McHughen, a plant molecular geneticist at U.C. Riverside.

The human race has been selectively breeding crops and in the process altering plants' genomes, for millennia. Ordinary wheat would not exist outside of farms, because its seeds do not naturally scatter. It has been 60 years since scientists have used "mutagenic" techniques, scrambling plant DNA with radiation and chemicals, in the creation of strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that are now agricultural mainstays. 

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