Family Politics and GMOs

Ever since the F-bomb got dropped on my grandmother many years ago, we’ve had a tacit understanding in the family that we should not talk about politics. Well, we’re all opinionated, intelligent people who like to drink so that rule can rapidly get thrown out the window. Aside from the perennial arguments about feminism, many of us are involved in either the health care industry or somehow involved in the food industry. It took approximately 34 minutes into Thanksgiving dinner for the topic of GMOs to come up.

The problem with the entire discussion about GMOs is that it’s exhausting. Trying to figure this issue out or talk to anyone with an even enough temper is a Herculean task. And when you do find that person, it’s a 270 page academic paper, and it reads like sandpaper.

Even those resources probably only cover one aspect, i.e. economic viability of American farms. What about the economic viability of global farms? (Food aid, there’s some interesting reading.) What about the economic prospects of the consumers? Health concerns? This conversation is endless, and whatever your feelings about GMO foods are aside, we can talk about some shady business practices employed by companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, among others.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all very civil, if loud. But I’m right, and everyone else is wrong. (Seriously.) That being said, I’m not a plant breeder or a genetic engineer, so what the hell do I know? And there are different levels of education on the subject, and different priorities when thinking about the issue.

Normally, I’m pretty dead set against having these endless conversations where there isn’t any clear cut answer. Free range Chicken or the affordable egg? But food systems are constantly evolving, and a myriad of needs are on the table, so let’s keep talking.

A lot of what supporters of GMOs will claim is that is just an extension of naturally breeding processes, and has the advantage because it can be done more quickly and more accurately. This is not entirely accurate. And since people hiding behind intentionally misleading language is a pet peeve of mine, let’s define some terms.

GMO stands for Genetically modified organism. GEO is also used, genetically engineered. This is compared most frequently with natural breeding. Natural breeding requires two closely related life forms, cats and cats, wheat and wheat. GMO crops can take disparate plant and animal DNA and through laboratory processes (transgenesis) insert them into the desired plant. Here’s a neat picture:

600px-Breeding_transgenesis_cisgenesis.svg

And here is where the muddy language comes in. The tricky thing here is drawing a distinction between what “GMO” may refer to, and what it actually does refer to. Technically speaking, traditional breeding does modify the genetics of a plant. But technically speaking, dumb means you can’t speak and that is not what people mean when they say dumb and it’s not what people mean when they say GMO.

Genetic engineering has come to the aid of traditional breeding in the form of marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS helps identify which genes are linked to what desirable trait. I.e. what genes make tomatoes set fruit twice instead of just once? But again, this isn’t what the industry means when they say GMO.

Biotechnology is not synonymous with GMO. It’s a lousy trick of language and propaganda, but there you have it.

The argument against GMOs as best as I can formulate is as follows:

1. Systemic pesticides. GM crops are engineered to produce what is called a “bt toxin” Bt is a soil bacterium that is used as a natural pesticide. GM crops have had the genetics of this bacterium spliced into their DNA, so they produce it themselves.

In naturally occurring instances of Bt pesticides break down rapidly in sunlight, and only become actively toxic in the gut of the insects that eat it, typically caterpillars. The GM version has the plant producing active toxin in every plant cell, which is then ingested.  This can have impacts on human health, including food sensitivities and allergens.

2. Poor testing. We can take our old friend Bt toxin again. The regulatory tests to determine its safety were not grown from GM crops, but from genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, which can be truncated and different from what the GM crops are producing.

3. Cross contamination and outbreak. A lot of the icky sentiment around GMOs are that we just don’t know what the consequences will be. But once the GM crop is out, it’s out. It cross pollinates with other crops, getting into their DNA. If it turns out that GM crops are disastrous, will we be able to go back, and quickly enough where there won’t be drastic food shortages?

4. Patent laws. Seed companies own patents on their GM crops. But, plants cross pollinate, and these large companies then sue farmers for growing their patent seeds without permission. Large companies also modify their patents to be sterile, so farmers will have to re-buy seed every year, instead of saving seeds traditionally. (This becomes especially important in developing economies.)

Anyhoo, as usual, I don’t have any answers. Except for the need for some real talk on the issue. And having reading. Always so much reading.

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