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