June 8, 2015

OMG . . . GMOs!!


The alarm over what the current narrative calls foods that are, or contain, “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”, is interesting to me and, perhaps, a bit misguided. Not that the alarm is not appropriate, rather that I suspect most people who are alarmed don’t really know why they should be alarmed or concerned about the role of new genetic technology in our food system.

By way of background, humans have been manipulating the genetic makeup of food for many thousands of years; but this genetic manipulation has always been accomplished by simply expediting nature’s way of breeding for specific characteristics in plants and animals. During the earliest times of human agriculture, our ancestors slowly learned to take native plants, such as wheat, and animals, such as cattle or chickens, and cross pollinate or hybridize them through controlled breeding in order go to cultivate the most desirable qualities and quantities of nutritious foods.

Such selective breeding began with hardly any technology as we know it today, and it has only gotten more sophisticated with modern technology. But selective breeding has never involved modifying the genes of plants or animals; rather it merely takes the genes that nature provides, specific to each plant or animal, and either encourages or discourages the presence of  certain genes based on the expression of these genes in the plants or animals that result from the selective breeding.

What the current narrative calls GMOs, however, is a different story. The genes in these plants or animals are not just modified, rather the genes from entirely different plants or animals are introduced into the resulting food crop in order to create a trait in the food would not appear there naturally. In my view, GMOs would be more accurately termed “GEOs” or genetically engineered organisms. In most cases that I’ve studied, industries are not just modifying the genetic makeup of food, but engineering entirely new unnatural plants and animals.

Although there is no evidence that such foods are dangerous or unhealthy in an of themselves, people should understand two things: 1) the system of growing these foods is, indeed unhealthy and unnatural since it requires the use of chemicals that are known to be unhealthy to humans and the environment; and 2) GMO plants such as soya and alfalfa can cross pollinate with conventional varieties and create unintended consequences that may not have been considered by the farmers who grow them.

The use of genetic engineering in foods started innocently enough in the early 1990s with the introduction of  the Flavr Savr tomato, which added a trait to the strain allowing it to ripen on the vine and maintain a level of ripeness for  a long time. This was simply to improve shelf life of the tomato, but it wasn’t a commercial success and it, pardon the pun, died on the vine.

With the advent of glyphosate-based herbicides in the 1970s (Roundup, etc.) came the blockbusters of Monsanto – “Roundup Ready” soybeans, corn and cotton seed. Roundup Ready crop lines contain a gene derived from Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4, encoding a glyphosate-tolerant enzyme, the so-called CP4 EPSP synthase (1, 2). In other words, Monsanto took one gene from a bacteria and added it to the corn, soy, cotton, etc., seeds that it engineered, in order to make those crops impervious to the effects of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup).

Likewise, since 1996 crops have been modified by adding to plants short sequences of genes from the naturally occurring bacterium –  bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) – to express the crystal protein Bt makes. There are at least two proteins snatched from Bt and implanted in crops to kill many species of insect pests that prey on cotton, corn and potatoes – mainly worms.

More recent food crops mutated by man are rice, apples, salmon, bananas and potatoes.

In the case of rice, scientists have taken a gene from a cold water species of fish along with one from carrots, and added them to rice in order to make a rice crop that is yellow and containing higher levels of beta carotene, an important anti-oxidant and source of vitamin A in humans. This strain of rice has not reached commercial success as yet.

Just this year, the FDA approved the Arctic apple, which has actually had a gene removed that causes an apple to turn brown after it’s cut. Granny Smith and Golden Delicious are the two varieties to look for on the grocery shelf that won’t brown.

Ditto with Simplot’s potato, the Innate, which the JR Simplot company has produced. It contains no foreign genes; rather scientists have modified genes already in the potato (Russets) so that, if we fry these potatoes, the Innate russet Burbanks will have less than half as much of a worrisome chemical called acrylamide. That chemical is supposedly not good for human health. This potato’s flesh also is less likely to turn black when bruised.

For the past 19 years, a company called AquAdvantage has been developing a strain of GMO salmon. It’s an Atlantic salmon with one gene from a Chinook salmon and another from an ocean pout which, together, ensure that the fish produces growth hormone year-round, rather than only part-time. The AquAdvantage fish reportedly grows more than twice as fast as its unmodified brethren. It has its production facility in Panama, but the fish has not yet been approved by the FDA. It would be the first genetically engineered animal to be introduced into our food system.

Finally, the ubiquitous banana has entered the realm of genetic engineering. Among the controversial projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the development and testing of a biofortified GMO banana developed to boost its iron, Vitamin E and proVitamin A content.  To this end the Foundation, via its Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, has so far given $15 million to Queensland University of Technology for the program run by Professor Dr James Dale, with a latest tranche of $10 million handed over this year. The declared purpose is to roll out nutritional benefits across the tropics, but initially to India, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda – all countries that suffer from widespread nutritional deficiencies.

They say you are what you eat. The research thus far shows that our GMO food is not “bad” for human health. But being “not bad” is not the same as being good or healthy. Certainly the growing trend of using pure science to determine the health of our food and the system in which it grows, has its pitfalls. With the introduction of animal and bacterial genes into plants and so forth, it seems that we are trying to make one too many improvements on the natural order of things. All this is going to have some unintended consequences that even the smartest scientists have not dreamed of.

Let’s hope those consequences are not some that we cannot reverse.