Monday, October 27, 2014

Everything you know about genetically modified food is wrong

An increasing amount of the foodstuffs that Americans consume are so-called “Genetically Modified Organisms” (or GMOs), that is, plants and animals that have had foreign genes inserted into them by some process other than traditional selective breeding.

The public debate is between so-called conservatives who insist as a matter of religious faith that GMO foods cannot be harmful and that they will be essential in allowing the rich to add yet more billions to the global population.  (Of course, these conservatives also insist that GMO foods not be labeled – because that would limit the freedom of large corporations to choose to sell GMO foods to people who might not want to buy them.  It’s all about the freedom to choose, you see). 

And the other side of the 'debate' consists of so-called liberals who insist as a matter of religious faith that GMO foods must be harmful (“Frankenfoods”), and demand that all those billions of new people can be easily accommodated if only they would eat more organically-certified granola at Whole Foods (‘Whole Paycheck’).

As usual the grounds of the public debate are insane.  For one, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS GMO FOOD.  At least, there is not GMO food as a single thing.  To debate whether GMO food is good or bad is as lunatic as debating whether chemicals are good or bad.  That depends on the chemicals in question, doesn’t it?

Now the genetic blueprint of a plant or animal is coded by a pattern of nucleic acids in its DNA.  That by itself doesn’t matter.  Imagine that you have two printed pages, that are made of identical paper and ink.  One page describes a recipe for chocolate cake, and the other page the manufacturing process for the lethal poison tetrodotoxin (that is found in puffer fish).  The two pages are not different – if you were to eat them, the effect would be the same.  It is only the products of the instructions that are different.

Granted that there might possibly be some mischief that biology could get up to with viruses hacking out bits of the genetic code from GMO foods, still the nucleic acids in the DNA of normal and GMO foods will be digested by you absolutely equally, no matter what they code for or how these genes were inserted.

The trick is that the information in the nucleic acids get translated into proteins – and these ARE different.  These proteins can be enzymes, which can among other things produce even more different kinds of chemicals, including chemicals other than proteins.  And these very much can affect you.

So GMO foods are not a single thing.  They are a thousand things.  We should refer to them as foods that contain chemicals that human beings have never in all of history been exposed to, and these chemicals are present in random mixtures and amounts from one GMO foodstuff to another.  You cannot test GMO foods as a single entity, the idea is absurd.

Imagine a laboratory with ten thousand different chemicals in ten thousand test tubes.  Someone takes a random sampling of these and mixes them up in a single cup.  Five drops from tube 101, three drops from tube 5443, etc.  Now, would you drink it?  Would you let your children drink it?  Why not, you can’t PROVE that it’s dangerous, can you?  Because you have no idea what’s in it and nothing has been tested – so no, you can’t prove that something bad will happen.  Perhaps it won’t.  The human body has many wonderful systems for detoxifying different chemicals.  But you’d still be stupid to do so.

And suppose that someone did perform an exhaustive test on this one mixture, and found that it was indeed safe.  That’s just for that one mixture.  You have not proven that all random mixtures of chemicals are safe, have you? 

If you were so foolish to drink a random mixture of chemicals, the odds are that you wouldn’t drop dead instantly.  You might get sick to your stomach, you might get a headache or a skin rash.  You might be 5% more likely to get cancer in ten years.  Or to become allergic to something.  Or have 2% less memory capacity.  Or be perfectly fine.  In other words, the effects, if any, would most likely be subtle and hard to track. 

Now imagine that you are eating random mixtures of chemicals all the time, without even knowing it.  You develop a weird food allergy, or get cancer.  There is no way for you to link this with any specific GMO food that you might or might not have eaten in the past.  And barring some horrific outbreak of something truly injurious, if GMO foods do harm the public health it will likely be almost impossible to prove the link – because the effects will be subtle and varied, because GMO foods are not a single thing, because we won’t have records of who ate what GMO food when.

And don't even get me started on 'bio-pharming'.  Yes, let's engineer cows that produce powerful drugs or industrial chemicals in their milk.  There is no possibility of that milk getting into the human food supply.  There is no possibility of animal breeders losing track and allowing genes for these drugs to get into the general herds.  Mistakes will never ahppen.  

Now some people say that we need GMO foods to feed the world.  Rubbish.  GMO foods may be somewhat profitable for farmers today, because they can make weeding more efficient, but there is ZERO record of GMO foods significantly increasing crop yields per acre.  ZERO.  It’s a myth.  If you want to stamp out hunger, stop the rich from maximizing population growth.  It’s that simple.  Stop bringing GMO foods into it.

No, in the long run the reason that big business wants GMO foods is to copy-protect the food supply.  The goal is to make it impossible for farmers to grow their own seed, and to force them to buy their seeds from a large monopolistic agribusiness.  To this end, it is irrelevant if the GMO plants are better or not.  It is enough that they be patented or copyrighted.

Remember, if pollen from a GMO crop contaminates a non-GMO field, the farmer with the contaminated crops is guilty of intellectual property theft (I am not making this up).  GMO crops will also increasingly be made sterile – and cross-pollinated crops will also likely be sterile.

If farmers have to buy their seed from a monopoly agribusiness, the price of these seeds will shoot up – and the incentive to improve the seeds will disappear, because monopolies don’t need to invest in product improvements.  One is reminded that the old railway monopolies didn’t produce economies of scale, they only produced steadily more expensive and less efficient transportation.  Because they didn’t need to do anything else.

Think also what this means if most crops don’t produce viable seeds and farmers must buy their seeds from an agribusiness.  What if something goes wrong?  You have a potential single-point failure mode.  What if one year some scientist hits the wrong button on the computer terminal and six months later 70% of the wheat crops fail?  You don’t get a rapid do-over during the growing season. 

I have a modest proposal.  If someday something like this happens, and centralized seed production results in a disaster, that all the proponents of GMO foods and their children and grandchildren be locked up and allowed to starve.  What, you say it’s unfair to punish the families of these people for choices that they themselves didn’t make?  Well, is it fair to penalize your family for choices you didn’t make?  Seems like rough justice to me.

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