Does GMO = OMG?

In the first post about the Heirloom Exposition, I touched lightly on some of the issues with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), at least as they were discussed at the Expo. What’s the big deal with genetically modified organisms anyway? Haven’t we always been genetically modifying organisms through selective breeding?

Well, yes and no: through selective breeding, we can encourage traits in organisms that we find to be beneficial: grow faster, stronger, healthier. With genetically modified organisms, we tweak the genetic code directly to get a desired result.

The net effect may be the same: producing an improved organism. In fact, genetic modification can introduce traits that otherwise cannot be found in the organism, giving it an extreme advantage in its environment. Why on earth would this be something that people are opposed to?

Because it’s scary as hell.

OK, this is a hard topic to summarize, because it’s huge. It really boils down to two factors:

  1. Do we know the full effects on the organism from genetic modification?
  2. What side effects does the result of genetic modification have on the ecosystem and economy?

The biggest unknowns from genetic modification come from the first issue: we’ve messed directly with a system that is extremely complex and interconnected. We’ve not incrementally selected for fitness, we played with the source code of life. Do we really have the ability to do this correctly?

As a basic overview, the process of genetically modifying an organism involves taking genes from one organism and grafting them into another – like placing a gene that makes jellyfish glow into an unrelated species, like a zebrafish. No, really, this is a real thing: you can buy a GloFish.

I use these little fellas to find my way to the bathroom at night.

According to maizesequence.org, a project that is devoted to mapping the genome of corn, there are 3,232,254,451 base pairs in the DNA of corn. For a rough (very rough) accounting, If you printed the sequence as a string of characters, like “ATGCGCAT”, on a dot matrix printer, it would be 1,346,773 pages long. 1.35 million pages long.

The genes of an organism, again very roughly conceptualized, are sequences of DNA that specify a useful genetic instruction. Maizesequence estimates there to be around 110,000 genes in corn. You can imagine a gene for “kernel color” or “making the organism glow” as something you can pull out of one organism and put in another.

You can imagine it that way, but you would be quite wrong. Less roughly defined, per wikipedia, a gene is “a molecular unit of heredity of a living organism.” They don’t specify an independent unit of behavior, they are the smallest chunk of inheritable data that DNA encodes. The genes in an organism are interconnected – it’s not like we can pick and choose which gene affects a characteristic of the plant in a 1-to-1 fashion. We, and corn, are the sum of our parts.

We don’t even know the number of genes that contribute to our own eye color, but it’s not oneif we look at six, we have a 90% accuracy of predicting the color they produce. If we make a plant that can generate poisons similar to those that naturally occur in bacteria - Bt corn, I’m looking at you- can we have made a plant that has side effects that are harmful to us? The reality is, we just don’t know. The field of “everything bad that food can do to us” is impossibly large, so we just have to monitor the effects of genetic modification. Good thing we’re doing a small scale controlled study – only 85% of the US corn crop is genetically modified, and nearly every processed food has a corn by-product.

"God help us, we're in the hands of engineers."

Related to the process of creating a genetic modification, how is it really done? The most productive approach has been to introduce the gene with chemicals or a virus that will splice genes into the DNA of the plant – both the gene for the desired trait and a marker gene that imparts a resistance to an antibiotic. Then that antibiotic is used to selectively kill all the plants that do not have the marker gene installed.

The problems with this approach may be:

  1. The genes are smashed into the DNA any which way. Just because the genes take in one spot doesn’t mean they don’t take in another spot. It is impossible to test the entire “cornness” of corn to make sure that we have only added the set of genes in one location.
  2. It is not guaranteed to work, because we’re dealing with two genetic modifications. In 2001, the EPA removed a variety of Bt corn from the list of approved varieties of Bt corn because it doesn’t produce Bt toxin. Oops.
  3. We have introduced a man-made resistance to antibiotics into our food. It’s bad enough that we are doing this accidentally with CAFOs. Now we are intentionally making one of our antibiotics useless?

Which brings us to the second issue with GMO crops: what do they do to the ecosystem and economy?

First, the obvious. Herbicide resistant plants enable us to douse the plant with herbicides.

In studying herbicide use with GMO plants, it has been discovered that use has increased with GMO plantings to the point that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO fields in 2008 had 26% more glyphosate applied (the main active ingredient in Roundup) than their neighbors who are not using GMO crops. That’s a pretty nice return on investment for Monsanto in side-effects alone, because, of course, the same company owns the seeds and the herbicide.

"Glyphosate used as an alternative to mowing". It's come to this?

Let’s talk about Glyphosate and its effects for a second, to understand if this is a bad thing. Glyphosate acts as a chelating agent - it binds strongly to metals. How this works as a herbicide is that the glyphosate bonds with an enzyme that is used for building essential amino acids only in plants, and this bonding prevents the plant from growing and eventually kills it. This is good for animals because we get the same amino acids in our diet. This makes Glyphosate incredibly safe for humans – it’s something like half as toxic as table salt.

So why would more of this stuff be a concern? Well, for one thing, since glyphosate is such a good chelator, it is suspected of bonding to the nutrients in the soil and making them unavailable to the plant, even if the plant itself is not sensitive to the herbicide from its genetic engineering. The loss of nutrients can weaken the plant regardless, reduce yield for the farmer, and make the plant less nutritious for us.

Also, just as bacteria are adept at growing resistance to antibiotics if they are given the correct dose – enough to be annoying, but not enough to kill – we are breeding “superweeds” that are resistant to glyphosate. These plants have evolved to find workarounds to glyphosate’s method of herbicide, leading us right back to where we started: pulling weeds by hand.

"I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."

It’s the same story with pesticide-generating GMOs, but scarier, because pesticides can be harmful to us. The pesticide that Bt plants produce is widely used in the industry as an externally applied pesticide, and it is washed off and degrades in the sunlight, so we don’t ingest it, theoretically. It’s generally regarded as safe. So far, so good.

When we eat it, which we do when we eat Bt corn and soy – it’s inside the plant, and so can’t degrade in the open air – it is supposed to break down before it enters our bloodstream, according to the manufacturers, who are really the only ones looking at this. Thankfully, they have the incentive to tell people their findings in an independent and unbiased way, and would be funded even if they found problems with what the investing company is doing, right? (End sarcasm.)

It is awfully hard to get the political support to fund an expensive independent study with lab conditions, and more expensive to market any contrary results against a company with unlimited funds. However, in less rigorous – but cheaper – population studies, it seems the assumptions are wrong: Bt toxin breakdown in the body may not happen before entering the bloodstream. In a study in Quebec, 93 percent of pregnant women and 69 percent of non-pregnant women with conventional, average-person diets had Bt toxin in their bloodstream. What’s worse, 80 percent of the unborn fetuses had the toxin in their bloodstream. Not only did the mothers have the toxin, it managed to pass the rigorous filtering exchange that happens between mother and baby and enter 4 out of 5 babies’ bloodstreams. For well-controlled AIDS, the transmission rate can be as low as 1 in 50. It certainly seems that the original study – how can we put this politely – may not have been scientifically sound and should be independently verified.

Oh, and the very pests that Bt corn was developed to kill are now developing a resistance to it a few years after its introduction.

So that’s the ecosystem. How might genetically modified organisms affect the economy? Some people believe that the whole reason they exist are for the economic benefits of developing patentable organisms.

The introduction of engineered genes make the whole plant patentable by the company. That means that any farmer found in possession of the gene can be sued for patent infringement. OK, so, if you don’t want to pay for the gene, don’t grow GMO crops, right?

The problem is that GMO crops don’t live in a clean room – they live in the real world, and plants in the real world have evolved to reproduce as wildly as possible. It is still unknown whether the GMO crops are cross-breeding with our crops, or whether it is just poor segregation of seeds, but farmers who have never bought GMO crops are finding them in their pure crops.

In the best case scenario when this happens, without the GMO creator having made an effort, without the farmer having done a single thing wrong, the creator now owns a part of the farmer’s field, and can sue them for patent infringement. This is like getting a computer virus that walks your computer on its USB cables over to the mailbox, addresses itself, and ships itself to the maker of the virus. And it’s all legal.

In the worst case, if you’re producing a crop for organic purposes (as organic products cannot have GMOs), or for human consumption with contamination from a GMO that is not approved for human consumption, and you get caught with a contaminated product, you must discard an entire year’s work out of your own pocket. What farmer, with razor-thin profits, can afford that?

In addition, the large agrobusinesses have enormous leverage in the life of a farmer, even one who is non-GMO. They supply industrial seed, equipment, fertilizer, own grain elevators – all of the externalities in an industrial farmer’s life. To be truly independent is all but impossible.

The history of the large agrobusinesses is not particularly humaitarian abroad, either. US tax dollars for foreign aid are going to large agrobusiness contractors that then use the leverage of that capital to control foreign markets. This has happened in India with GMO cotton, according to Vandana Shiva, a well-known human rights activist in this space. This can have disastrous results, including destruction of livelihoods for farmers – and sometimes their lives, as they commit suicide by ingesting the pesticides that they couldn’t afford to buy in the first place to prop up crops that were supposed to make them rich, but in practice did the opposite.

The farmers can’t change it themselves, because the supply chain is controlled by a few large companies. The government can’t change it, because the same corporations have too much lobbying power. That only leaves the power of the market.

So does GMO=OMG? Is it worth it for cheaper food? Each of us has to decide, and vote by choosing where to spend our money.

If you want to avoid GMOs, what can you do about it? You cannot avoid eating GMO food. It’s everywhere. You ate some with your last meal. The only thing that anyone can do is to avoid GMO products as much as possible.

Buy organic. Organic products cannot be made with GMO sources, though it is not impossible for them to slip into that supply chain, as we have seen. Shop at Whole Foods – they are partnering with the non-GMO project to actively test for GMOs in their brands. This is why you can’t buy the most familiar name brands at Whole Foods. They fail the test.

Buy local; for example, from a farmer’s market. This way you’re more likely to use an alternative distribution system that simplifies the life of the farmer, gives them more reward for their effort and can talk to your producer about how they make your food.

It may cost more than what you can get from the supermarket, since your tax dollars contribute $20 billion dollars a year to agricultural subsidies that really only appear in the cheapest processed food. If this were not true, it would only be marginally more expensive, if not on par, with supermarket goods. One reason supermarket food is so cheap is that Uncle Sam has used your money to pay for part of it already.

It’s true: you get what you pay for. Organic, while not enough to get a magic double gold star (that’s another post), is a step in the right direction – it’s better for you, better for the environment, better for the farmer, and better for the market. You’re not being leftist when you pay more for fresh, non-processed local food – in fact, you’re doing the opposite. By buying local, you’re being an informed capitalist and avoiding uncontrolled government spending.

Put your money where your mouth is, vote with your dollar. Are the advances that GMOs have brought us worth your money?

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