Wednesday, May 22, 2013

GMO fear mongering

I'm not a scientist, but from the summations that I have heard scientists make, genetically modified foods are safe as long as the manipulations are safe.  GMO food is not necessarily any safer or less safe than a natural food, but the implications of the modification must be fully understood.  The modified organism should behave exactly as predicted each and every time it reproduces.  Of course, if the modification itself is dangerous, than the product will also be dangerous.  But, these modifications are not done by lay-people.  They are done by people who know what they are doing.  Or at least that's what we would all hope to be true.

But, is food ever totally safe?  One argument I hear is that people want to be in control of what they eat.  That argument is rather ridiculous.  Do you know every single compound or molecule that naturally exists in your food?  Do you control every single atom which enters your body?  Do you even understand what is your body and what isn't your body?  Consider for a moment that the vast bulk of DNA found in your organism is not human DNA, and consider that the percentage of the DNA in your body that is human is almost identical with that of the chimpanzee or the carrot.  Why be worried about the genetically modified components of food when we don't even know the non modified components of food.  To me, this seems like a generalized fear of the unknown.

Another argument I hear is "the right to know".  The problem with this, in my eyes is related to the previous argument.  Most of us, myself certainly included, do not know the chemical names of naturally occurring compounds anyway.  Does a GMO contain a different molecule than that which already enters our body through one mechanism or another?  Would we be able to understand whether or not that molecule is useful, harmful or simply not absorbed?

Would we be able to understand if the change is dangerous to the naturally bred plants?  Should it not be enough to have a trustworthy regulatory agency certify that the food is safe for consumption?  There are lots of naturally occurring compounds which are also dangerous.  GMO does not equate with toxic.  And, GMO's often require fewer pesticides and other chemical additives which are known to be hazardous in high enough doses.

I also, frequently here the argument that what is natural must be better.  Again, there are lots of naturally occurring toxins which are far more dangerous than an insect resistant soybean...snake venom comes to mind.  In fact, some of the most dangerous chemicals known to science are readily available in forests all over the world...completely GMO free!

Does this mean there are no risks?  Of course not.  But, it does mean that GMOs are not necessarily any more or less dangerous.  It's like saying that computers are useful, or shoes are stylish.  Some shoes are hideous, and some computers are absolutely useless.  But, we don't outlaw all computers because Dell makes a few doozies...nor do we protest against shoes because some are ugly.  Genetically modified organisms can be safe, or dangerous depending on what the modification is.  Shoes with nails in the sole are probably not a good idea...of course if the shoe company was in league with the sinister doctor, this might make some business sense, but I digress.

A lot of the arguments are based on fear, misunderstandings, conspiracy theories with little factual basis and argument by analogy.  Okay, yes...I just argued by analogy...but I'll ignore that convenient fact.

Time for the climbdown:  GMO's need to be very carefully researched and studied by experts.  Any potential interaction has to be known, and a good regulatory framework is needed.  Also, food producers, like Monsanto should not be protected from judicial inquiry.  Though I doubt the funny talk that Monsanto hates you and wants to poison your family for profits has any truth, they should not be exempt from normal, legal exposure.  If they were to screw up, than they should be made to pay.  That in itself would very much help to keep them honest.

And why do we need these GMOs?  Food costs are rising.  Millions of people can't afford to eat properly as it is, and as the climate is warming and the population is increasing, this problem is not going to just disappear.  Should we just shrug our shoulders and say that we should freeze farming in the 1950's even if it means that some people can't afford to eat well, or even eat at all?  Should we just say that we've learned enough and we are happy with our pesticides, failed crops, subsidies of products no one wants and just leave it at that?

Where do we draw the line?  At what point do we say that the technology is okay and that anything after that is dangerous?

People are always afraid of new things.  There is always a fear of new, and poorly understood sciences.  I remember as a kid hearing that invitro fertilization was going to lead to franken babies.  Still haven't seen any of them running around.

We need to progress, and we need to do more.  Science can dig us out of many of our current problems and perhaps even save our species from extinction.  Curtailing it based on scary pictures and faulty arguments is very, very scary indeed.

Ignore all those pictures of fetuses growing in tomatoes, silly pictures of strawberries with kiwi inside, slug-strawberry hybrids, zombie Obama Monsanto clips and colourful syringes sticking out of fruits and vegetables.  That stuff is all a bunch of silly fiction.  The actual science focuses on small, genetic changes to improve the quality of food.  Food is good.

Oh, and if you really want to help your body, make sure you are eating enough fruits and vegetables, cut down on red meats and sodium, avoid soft drinks and get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.  Also, cut down on naturally occurring snake venom...that stuff will really kill you, natural or not.

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