Monday, December 6, 2010

The Myth of Franken-Foods

My friend Will was proudly showing me his new big/flat screen TV purchase the other day. With regard to operating the remote, he is still on the uphill side of the learning curve, however he was soon flipping through the myriad of channels. The picture quality was exquisite. At one point the channel surfing landed on one of those science archeological reenactment programs about the ancient indigenous Americans and their simple agrarian villages in pre-historic North America. The scene we watched was a beautiful Indian maiden harvesting huge ears of “maize” from a primitive field roughly 10,000 years ago. But something was majorly wrong with this picture – Corn back than was about the size of your thumb with gnarly irregular kernels, not the big yellow sweet buttery corn-on-the-cob of modern summer BBQs.

Corn has been modified by humans over centuries where today there exist about a thousand varieties – corn varieties selected for starch content, for popcorn, for animal feed. In fact, one of the country’s largest crops, the corn grown for making high fructose corn syrup, is completely inedible. Most consumers don’t realize that all the produce we enjoy today has been modified by human hands through selective cross-fertilization and hybridization from their original wild forms. There were no Fuji or Granny Smith apples, no Thompson Seedless or Red Flame grapes, cherry tomatoes or tender asparagus until agriculture scientists, and very cleaver amateurs, selectively crafted them.

Recently a judge ordered that several crops of genetically-modified beets be destroyed. The concern was over the environmental “safety” of these crops possibly inadvertently seeding other nearby fields. But often, when the skin is peeled back from these controversies, the core issues are economic, not food safety. Patent and intellectual property concerns – It’s who “owns” the patent on that crop.

Most of the public do not realize that a sizable amount of the food they consume today, both fresh and processed is at least partially genetically modified. Genetic Engineering involves using a micro-pipette and microscope to lift individual genes responsible for some specific trait and placing that gene in another plant. It is a technological advance no less remarkable than open heart surgery or satellite imaging.

Recently I asked my father-in-law Melvin, a retired professor of Agriculture from Oregon State University, how they used to develop crop plant hybrids at the university a few short decades ago. “We would take plant seeds and radiate them x-rays”, he told me. “About 99% of the seeds were destroyed by the radiation, but the few that survived we would plant and see what mutations developed in the growing plant.” Selecting for the few beneficial mutations was simply a game of odds back then; a hit-and-miss proposition. Occasionally they got lucky and a mutation turned out to be beneficial. They then would try to propagate that beneficial trait into a new plant species.

Scientists would also discover natural plant mutations in the wild. They would collect these plants, graft or hybridize them with other plant species. The successful progeny of these modified plants would find their way into commercial orchards, fields and nurseries. One of the most beautiful trees I had in my garden was a flowering crab apple tree which Mel hybridized from a species which had a natural immunity from a form of disease called Pseudomonas.

The term “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” brings forth images in people’s minds of dangerous and toxic “unnatural” substances potentially poisoning our bodies. In reality the only thing that has changed is the technology used to selectively manipulate the evolution of plant species. Man has done this for thousands of years; and with animals as well. There were no prehistoric cows, goats, pigs, chickens, until man selectively bred domestication into wild species.

No studies have found any health risks to the consuming public from foods modified by modern genetic engineering over the analog hybridization that has been done by hand over the millennia. We are far more at risk from our eating habits than from the foods themselves that we eat.

Patent #PP4591 - Autumn Blaze Pear
September 9, 1980
Melvin N. Westwood, PhD
Oregon State University


PeterDeMan said...

All explanatory enough. But I'm still grappling with whatever genetic mutations resulted in me having a large barrel chest, a long torso and short, stubby, tree trunk legs. From the waist up I'm about equivalent to a man who is 6'-4"; from the waist down, about 4'-4".

Gorilla Bananas said...

Are people scared of genetically modified food in America? I thought that was more of a problem in the UK, where Prince Charles has been making waves about the issue. Dogs are another example of a genetically modified species created by humans. Most of them are less dangerous than the wolves they were bred from.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Peter You'll need to take that up with your parents.

Bananas Prince Charles - now there's an intellectual giant! But I guess he needs to do something with is spare time.

Yes, this is an issue with Americans, though surprisingly it seems more so in Europe. I think that Americans don't really care what they stuff in their maw so long as it has sugar, fat and is cheap. Marketing types have jumped on this, though, slapping "Organic" labels on everything... not that "organic" has any clearly defined meaning. You can get away with charging more for the stuff carrying the moniker, though.

Rain said...

What I object to is the modifications that means you cannot save the seed. That seems to me potentially dangerous if our culture went through a time where buying seeds was impossible. It also is cheaper to save them but they don't want that and have worked to make them not reproduce the same plant

Kay Dennison said...

Ohhh geeeez I eat those lil' grape tomatoes like candy. They are so good! Sue me. A regular size tomato is a waste for this old gal and they're probably genetically altered, too.

PeterDeMan's comment reminds me that we are all products of a genetics experiment that ran amok. My stepmom and I walked into the VFW post in my home town and a old guy yelled, "Hey guys!!! It's Gene's daughter." And no, Barb hadn't told them I was going to be there and I wouldn't know that guy from Adam.

I'm with Rain on being able to save the seeds. That smacks of a ripoff and greed.

Culture Served Raw said...

Robert that's a great way to sum it up. This stigma attached to the term "genetically modified" in most cases is largely unnecessary. Giant, buttery corn-on-cobs are divine :)

Great research, I really enjoyed this post


DJan said...

Well, I read a very scary article by Barbara Kingsolver (who I think is really smart) about GMO and how it has caused grains, which used to be multi-resistant to different strains of bacteria to be modified so that any one nasty bug would be able to wipe them out. I only eat organic soy, organic wheat and try very hard not to get GMO stuff, only because I don't want to support the industry. I don't think it hurts us at all.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain and DJan I don't want to gloss over some of the pros and cons of this issue. I found these comments on the web: "The gain in terms of higher yields or reduced pesticide use is usually a lot more than the increase in the cost of the seeds."-Carl E. Pray, professor with the agricultural, food and resource economics department at Rutgers University

On the other hand:
"March 12 (Bloomberg) — Monsanto Co., facing antitrust probes into its genetically modified seeds, may benefit from previous court rulings in which intellectual property rights trumped competition concerns, antitrust lawyers say."

It is true that we have been drifting toward monoculture in plant and animal food production, even before GMO's were commonplace. In discussing this with my father-in-law who has made crop production his lifetime work, Organic methods do not have the capacity to keep up with population growth and sustained (and inexpensive) food crop production.

The fact that farmers cannot hold back and "clean" seeds is troublesome to me as well. But then patenting genetic sequencing is a completely odd concept to me as well.

Someone once said that the US Patent office now, instead of patenting Ely Whitney's "cotton gin", what is patented is the concept of removing seeds from cotton, thereby eliminating any form of competing devices being made. Strange times.

The Mother said...

EVERYTHING we eat is genetically modified. Period.

People who are afraid of it don't understand it. But what's new?

I for one LOVE seedless grapes, purple cauliflower and navel oranges. My son picked up a valencia the other day and absolutely whined about the seeds. He doesn't even remember that regular fruit has them. (Or that computers once filled basements.)

Love this generation.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay Not only is our agriculture becoming a "technology" controlled by a few, but in the future water resources will as well. More and more water supplies are falling into private hands.

Raw Culture It is amazing how terminology can influence people. Say "test tube babies" and people get up in arms (or used to) but say "in vitro fertilization" and their eyes glaze over.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom I was griping to my father-in-law about all the seeds in my "seedless" Hermiston water melon this summer. "They aren't viable seeds, they're not pollinated." He said.--- Oh. Pfft.

secret agent woman said...

I worry less about genetic modifications than I do about hormones and pesticides and the like.

Artist and Geek said...

The pros and cons of Modern biotech is too big a topic to be discussed in a comment.

The effects on our health of GMOs are not yet known. Gluten intolerance is on the rise and is attributed to GM high-yield wheat. Splicing cold-water fish genes into tomatoes, potatoes to make them frost resistant, also unknown. The effect of mono cultures on pollinating insects, potentially devastating.

To compare traditional agricultural biotech with modern biotech: gene-splicing, transbacter gene transfer, recombinant DNA, genetic incorporation of unnatural amino acids into proteins...

Never mind.

Check out the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway's Permafrost.

You've Got to Be Kidding Me said...

Life is too short to worry about things I didn't know I should worry about until I read an article on the internet.

Entre Nous said...

Bravo for this.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent Well just one of the goals of GMO crops is to make plants resistant to pests so that lest pesticides and herbicides are required. Like my father-in-law's tree that is resistant to Pseudomonas thereby not requiring chemical treatment.

Artist It is a huge topic. But the point of my article was that manipulating our food supply has been going on for centuries. Is gluten intolerance on the rise or are we just more aware of these problems? I never heard of gluten intolerance or peanut allergies when I was younger. The reality is something has to give... we either need to increase food production or limit population growth. (I would prefer the latter, myself.)

Kiding Yes, I have the same problem when I look up health information on the Internet... I start noticing similarities to the symptoms of horrible diseases. I am sure I am coming down with Dengue fever.

Entre Nous Much thanks.

Artist and Geek said...

Robert-the point of my comment was that the selective breeding of the last few centuries cannot be compared to what we are doing now.

Look up what is happening to the yellow banana (Cavendish), which may go extinct, because monocultured and seedless for decades and the wild bananas that could re-introduce some genetic variability are mostly, well gone. There are cultures that depend on it and even grind it into flour. And that happened using old methods, we're speeding up the process.

And with all of the GM/GE for over a decade, we still haven't solved world hunger.

Where we do agree on is population control, we can't even sustain the global population today, if predictions are true we'll add another 3 billion by 2050.

Artist and Geek said...

P.S. Food allergies/intolerance are increasing. "New" proteins.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist I found this article online: Food allergies on the rise? To draw a line between GMOs and food allergies/intolerance is not clearly substantiated. From the article:
"… allergy rates might have as much to do with how and when the food is introduced as with the food itself"

The CDC reports that: "Children with food allergy are two to four times more likely to have other related conditions such as asthma and other allergies, compared with children without food allergies."

One recent article talked about kids raised in "antiseptic" conditions (alcohol wipes, etc). In studies between the "hand wahsers" and the "dirt-eters" it was found that exposure to more antigens, the immune system grows stronger. Now they are sying about peanuts, for example,"In the study, Duke University Medical Center and colleagues at Arkansas Children's Hospital found a way to desensitize children to peanuts by using the very thing to which the children are allergic — peanuts."

I am aware of the banana issue, there is a danger in having a monoculture, although there are a variety of bananas out there, I love the Apple Banana, and we pick up many varieties at the local market when we go to Hawaii.

And no, I think that the way to solve world hunger is to produce more food... I think THAT will produce more people who need to be fed. I go around and around with my father-n-law on this issue. The lack of population management is going to make this planet very uncomfortable.

Here's the thing, we need rational discussion, scientifically-based. What we are getting now are noobs like Prince Charles getting people excited about conclusions which may have no scientific basis. Whether it's cell phones increasing brain tumors or tax cuts creating jobs; a corelation is not necessarily causation. I'm not saying be glib and trusting; I'm saying sort out the fact from the fiction and especially the false-positives.

BTW you are a bright guy, you really should blog.

Artist and Geek said...

Dear Rob,
You are a bright guy too, although Prof. Hawking once stated that "revealing IQs is for losers".

I had hoped that we were past our growing pains. I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, when I offered you to remove my science related comments, rather than aggravate you.

However, being informed by you that "science is the study of the natural world" or of the existence of the "scientific method" was amusing at first, but you keep resorting to personal jabs, rather than discussion or productive counter-arguments.

I had also hoped that based on some of your posts you would realize that scientific research has not remained untouched by the interests of corporate giants, which often decide which studies are funded and which information is disseminated to the media/public.

I left you bread crumbs, anticipating that this time you would read between the lines and follow up on why we are investing in seed banks (over the last decade). TO PRESERVE THE BIODIVERSITY WE ARE LOSING. I did this because I care deeply about our future generations and because humanity needs to wake up.

Instead, offer Prince Charles and an article from a popular science site.

I truly appreciate your passion for science and encourage it, but I would never dismiss your knowledge on e.g. film making because it is not my field.

I'll be back to visit, your Russian bride post was entertaining, but I do not want to upset you, so for now I think it's best to stop commenting.

One of the reasons, that I don't have a blog, is because I simply don't have the time.

In all fairness, you have never removed my comments, so I'm hoping that you don't remove this one.
Take care Rob, live long and prosper. ;)

BTW, I miss Pluto too.

GutsyWriter said...

I am not sure, but I think genetically modified crops are not allowed in certain European countries. Do you know if that's true? I'm almost sure France is one of them. Is that why they stay thin? LOL.

Rain said...

We have seen the results of this thinking in our NW forests that used to be filled with diverse types of trees but then became monoculture for logging through replanting all the desired type of tree-- leading to the death of so many of them and miles of devastated forests where all the trees are ripe for forest fires. It's always about the dollars but nature's rules don't take dollars into account.

Robert the Skeptic said...

First, I am looking over my responses to your comments and trying to find where I have resorted to “resorting to personal jabs, rather than discussion or productive counter-arguments”. I have not attacked you personally and have cited and linked specific counter arguments in response to your comments.

In previous comments you seem to be very sensitive that your comments are not welcome, having often suggested I might want to remove your comments. I have never done that; rather have said repeatedly that your comments are welcome. If you feel I have offended you personally (frankly I don’t see it) please point that out. But I would never attack someone for personally for their opinion. I look back and have repeatedly welcomed your comments, even though I may not agree with your position.

My blog on most controversial issues is a summary of my opinion; to cover a topic such as GMO in depth and detail would require an extensive essay much longer than anything. That’s not what a blog is about – these are like “op-ed” pieces, not position papers. I can’t cover all aspects of a topic in a blog; and even less so in responding to reader comments. The point of my post was that much of the concern over GMO’s is misunderstood and overblown; not that there are not legitimate concerns of some aspects of this technology.

Regarding the scientific method: You are correct, all science is not equal – dubious scientific research has been done and can be questionable where self-interests of the people doing the research are concerned. As I am sure you know that is why many independent studies are required to construct a body of scientific knowledge. Continued...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Artist ... Regarding the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, I am very familiar with this concept; my father-in-law was the head of setting up the National Clonal Germplasm Repositories all over the world, the first one being here in Corvallis. This project was stated long before Svalbard.

Your comments have never aggravated me, not once. Your repeated statements about fearing I would delete your comments make me feel you may be somewhat over-sensitive. I will be sad if you choose to no longer comment on my blog, having people just agree with everything I say is boring, I am not the “world’s authority” on everything I blog on.

If you wish to write an essay or position with a contrary position, and since you do not have your own blog, I would be happy to post your writing as a “guest” author on my blog.

My e-mail address is in my profile. Please write me directly, if you wish.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I don't know if GM crops are allowed in Europe, but there seems to be more controversy there regarding them. My guess is that there are already GM products on the shelves there of which most people are not aware.

Rain This is true. I recently discovered that much of the forests in Eastern Oregon are only about a century old, having been almost completely stripped to build the railroads. There is also the issue of fire suppression which has gone on for decades. We now know that fires are natural events which clear the forest floor and allow diverse species to germinate. If not careful, we can even turn our natural areas into "farms".

billy pilgrim said...

i watched king corn a few years ago and learned just how much of our diet is based on corn. we are now corn junkies.

sadly, with global warming and diminishing arable land we're probably going to need more and more genetically engineered food to feed the growing population.

Nance said...

I so appreciate this lesson! I suspected that genetically engineered plants had simply gone through a shorter, more efficient process than their hybridized great grandplants, but I hadn't had time to look into it.

Excellent job! And thank Melvin for the gorgeous pear, too. That may well be the variety we have in our yard.

Stinkypaw said...

Pretty scary when we think of it, how we're playing with genes and such... there's not much left out there that is in their true form, sad but our reality nonetheless...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy "King Corn" was an excellent documentary and also some what scary about how so diverse few mega-corporations control the food production for the planet.

Nance Yes, the one thing that hybridization could not do was splice a gene from a tomato into a trout. This is what has so many people worried. On the other hand, there was a time when people thought vaccinations were thwarting god's will. Even today, there are those who believe vaccinations cause autism. Again, my post was not that GMO should not bu held up to scrutiny, only that we need to rational about it and not make up fears out of the woodwork.

Stinkeypaw I agree. I go to the store and so much of our food has picturesque farm scenes on them.. those places don't exist much any more. As much as I applaud Organic foods, they are expensive and cannot be produced in sufficient volumes to feed us all. That is the world we live in.

Snowbrush said...

PBS had a show about a year ago about the heavy-handed way Monsanto goes about economically destroying anyone--not only farmers who won't buy their seeds but even the seed cleaners who clean those farmers' seeds. Basically, they sue the hell out of people until those people run out of money defending themselves. This means that Monsanto ALWAYS wins even when they themselves know that they don't have a case. Such suits aren't of course, only an indictment against big agra but against our judicial system. As someone on the program said, the purpose of those scales Lady Justice holds is to weigh gold and silver. I believe that to be true because I've seen it happen too many times.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Snowbrush I recall seeing that specific piece you mention. I think it says more about predatory corporate power and it's hand on the throttle of the judicial system than anything about the fears of GMO itself. I agree, how could a handful of "seed cleaners" be any threat to Monsanto?

For all the lip service corporate Americas babbles about "free markets" and "competition" they would cut our throats to have a monopoly in a heartbeat.

Snowbrush said...

Yeah, they would cut our throats, and in the name of god and county, at that. Then they would go to their mini-mansions and their maxi-mansions and sleep like babies.

Micropipette said...

For sure. Rather I think perhaps during a cursory course on chemistry, those who have made lab work their career use a much wider variety of pipetting instruments.