Need, Greed, and GMOs: Genuflection in All the Wrong Directions

Images of scientists inserting eye-of-newt genes into escarole, or wool-of-bat genes into watercress stalk the nightmares of pure food proponents, and up to a point– rightly so. Even if the intentions of those tinkering with foods are good- such as putting antifreeze genes from amphibians into oranges so they are not destroyed by an early frost- the law of unintended consequences pertains. There is ample reason, in principle, to be wary of Frankenfoods.

There may be reason in epidemiology as well. We are substantially uncertain about why rates of gluten intolerance and celiac disease are rising; genetic modification of food may be a factor. Some go so far as to declare modern wheat a ‘poison,’ lest sugar get all that negative attention. The hyperbole is unwarranted in both cases, but the basic concerns are valid. Genetic modification may be a factor, as well, in everything from food allergies, to irritable bowel syndrome, to behavioral and cognitive disorders occurring with increasing frequency in our children.

The food industry’s well funded opposition to GMO labeling is almost certainly about more than the inconvenience of mandatory disclosure, and probably about more than what such disclosure may do to consumer choice. Monsanto and other companies with skin in this game are no doubt concerned that labeling is the first salvo in an all-out barrage directed against GMOs. Certainly opponents of GMOs in our food supply would like more than labeling; they would like this putatively malevolent genie back in its bottle.

I understand that yearning, but I can’t entirely share it.Genetic modification is not all bad. There, I’ve said it.

Without it, we would not have broccoli or navel oranges. We would not have pink grapefruits. We would not have amaranth or quinoa. And for that matter, we would not have our dogs, our tea roses, or- arguably- our children.

Opposition to genetic modification comes easy in principle, but is a slippery, treacherous, obstacle-strewn slope in practice. If we consider sexual reproduction a form of genetic modification, and in literal terms it certainly is, then we have been in the practice since before our species was a species. Natural selection is a process of genetic modification.

If we limit the definition to willful manipulation of gene combinations to produce specific, intentional effects- we have still been at it since the very dawn of agriculture and the domestication of the wolf.

Virtually none of the produce that now constitutes the most nutritious part of our diets existed before the dawn of agriculture only 12,000 or so years ago. Whole grains, which are a mainstay ingredient in some of the world’s most healthful diets, did not exist in their current form and were not part of the human diet (for the most part) prior to that same, recent revolution.

To some extent, arguments against all genetic modification represent a longing for an elusive kind of food purity. But arguments for such purity tend to devolve under scrutiny. To paraphrase, one proponent’s purity is another’s contamination.

Some purists argue that our grains should all be unrefined, and free of genetic modification. But another band of purists points out that our Stone Age ancestors did not eat grains at all. And, furthermore, the grains we consume today are all a product of genetic modification of the selective type. We didn’t tinker with genomes in test tubes until recently- but we did it in the dirt long before.

If we adopt the most restrictive definition of genetic modification and say it refers only to combining genes from different breeds that would not normally mingle in nature, we have still been at it for millennia, in the form of horticultural grafting– which is said to have begun around 2000 BC in China. Monsanto had no shareholders at the time.

If the basic objection here is to bringing genes together in an “artificial” manner, then the same objection should apply to in vitro fertilization, and dog breeding.

Our dogs are products of willful genetic modification. It wasn’t done in test tubes- it was done in the wombs of bitches. But it is genetic modification just the same. Frankly, I’m glad for it. Three of my best friends on the planet- Zouzou, Bramble, and Barli– are products of it. They don’t much resemble wolves, or one another, and genetic modification is the reason.

Perhaps the fundamental objection is to mingling genes from different species. But almost anything in a nursery that says ‘hybrid,’ such as hybrid tea roses, indicates that different plants were mated to create a ‘blended’ offspring with the desirable traits of both parents. We have this to thank for many of the wines we drink, the diverse colors of roses and tulips that grace our gardens, and so on.

Our own bodies are a mix of genes from different species. Normal human physiology is a product of native DNA, and the DNA of innumerable foreign bacteria that populate our inner and outer surfaces. We can take the argument a step further than that, a step inside our own cells, where our mitochondria reside. Mitochondria are the energy generators of our bodies. They are a fixed, essential part of us- but they have a distinct set of genes. They are, emphatically, the insertion of genes from one species into another. That is classically genetic modification- with us the product, rather than the engineers.

Admittedly, the genetic modification within us is naturally occurring. But tempting though that tack may be, it quickly degenerates into the contention that nature is good, and science is bad. That, of course, is just silly.

Science can go badly awry, of course, and certainly has. But it can do- and has done- enormous good. Nature can be bountiful and beneficent. But anyone paying attention must concede she can at times also be downright nasty. Smallpox virus is a product of nature; smallpox vaccine, a product of science. Ditto for rabies, and polio and the corresponding vaccines; and for Hurricane Katrina, and better levees.

Genetic modification is a product of both nature and science. Nature modified our genes to protect us from malaria, for instance. And, just as it can be with human-mediated genetic modification, the law of unintended consequences was invoked. We wound up with the misery of sickle cell anemia.

There are other forces to consider here. Anyone opposed to GMOs should be donating routinely to Planned Parenthood, because those more knowledgeable on the topic than I contend we are unlikely to be able to feed 10 billion of us, or 12, without crop yields buoyed by genetic modification. We are already consuming near the limits of our capacity to supply, with climate change likely to impact that further. Growing crops becomes an increasing challenge when water supplies run dry. Population growth, unfettered, will give Monsanto several billion more reasons to make fortunes. One of our political parties opposes both family planning, and disclosure about GMO ingredients. Anyone care to guess what’s in their stock portfolios?

Climate change is already a serious threat to food production, with pseudo-debate about our rather obvious implication in it a pointless distraction. Whether because of us or otherwise, it is happening- and we can address it, or fiddle while Rome burns. As the planet becomes ever less hospitable to the crops we know and love, we either need new crops- or need to get used to being hungry. And, frankly, the recent advocacy for eating animal products will also compound our woes- since that is vastly less efficient use of the sun’s energy, and of water, than eating plants directly.

Genetic modifications can increase yields, reduce use of chemical pesticides, lower costs, and/or foster tolerance of drought, heat, or frost. If the matter is on trial, both prosecution and defense arguments are warranted before a rational verdict can be reached.

With regard to chemical pesticides, or more accurately, their close cousins, herbicides, the GMO debate wanders off along a very lamentable tangent having little to do with the needs of the people, and altogether too much to do with greed, and weeds.

The real concern about Monsanto among those well informed on the topic is not the GMO crops, per say- but the glyphosate-containing herbicide, Roundup, sprayed on them. Crops have been genetically modified specifically to tolerate high exposure to Roundup, so that high doses may be used to kill all of the competing “weeds.”

I leave for you to chew as the cud moves you on the financial advantages of selling both the seed crops designed to tolerate a potent herbicide, and the potent herbicide the crops are designed to tolerate. I have to presume whoever cooked up that business model got one helluva Christmas bonus.

Is Roundup safe? I don’t know. Argentina doesn’t seem to think so.

Studies have suggested that glyphosate, alone, is acceptably safe at the levels routinely encountered. But Roundup is not just glyphosate, and independent scientists reporting in the peer-reviewed literature have raised concerns that the whole herbicide may be toxic in ways greater than the component parts. Subsequent reports of potential Roundup toxicities have been published by the same group again, and again, and again. I would gladly defer to an unaffiliated toxicologist to say how concerning this literature is, but my own training certainly allows me to say that reports of “no cause for concern” are premature, and unjustified. The shadow of legitimate doubt has been cast.

The notion that GMOs are always good and safe is shockingly dismissive of the law of unintended consequences, and the innumerable unintended follies of history. The notion that GMOs are inevitably bad is at least comparably fatuous. It’s a method, and the results can be good or unintentionally bad.

Even on the issue of labeling, there are arguments going both ways. But I think we must concede that withholding information from consumers on the basis that they won’t know what to do with it is a rather significant foray into Nanny-state ideology. Rather shocking to find Monsanto in the position of “nanny,” with an entourage of the very republican support that generally assaults any such proposition, but it is what it is.

Given the usual devotion of republicans to state autonomy, let alone opposition to nanny-ing, republican sponsorship of the DARK bill borders on the surreal. But apparently, what Monsanto wants, Monsanto gets. And all this fuss, by the way, not over some radical, uniquely American fastidiousness; but over labeling and disclosure that most developed countries around the world already require.

Whether or not we address the urgent issue of controlling the population of our species, we already have too many mouths to feed sustainably. The enormous growing pressures of the global population are exacerbated by dietary trends in countries undergoing rapid change, and by the fast-evolving consequences of climate change. This is an area of clear and omnipresent danger, and urgent need, whatever the role of GMOs in meeting it, a matter currently subject to lively debate.

Good and bad can result from the machinations of both nature, and science; and from the genetic modifications endowed by each. The right effort is directed not at carte blanche endorsement, or stem-to-stern renunciation, but at distinguishing the bad from the good. Monsanto’s personal security force in Congress is not addressing this need; they are serving greed. Those who rail against GMO’s most ardently are failing to allow for the crucial differentiation of baby and bathwater. So here we are: where need is too often neglected; greed is too well served; and far too many of us are too busy genuflecting in all the wrong directions with our hands over our ears – to stand up, and find a safe and sensible way forward, together.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP has a strange psychological affliction that precludes genuflection.

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine

Founder, The True Health Coalition

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Author: Disease Proof

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