Right. This post is spawned by my recent stumbling-across of an article that’s almost a year old, but it’s apparently a straw that’s broken a camel’s back. Said article, published in the Telegraph in May 2014, is titled “Don’t Vote Green Until They Drop The Anti-Science Zealotry“. “Damn!” I thought, “I thought I liked the Greens!” so I read on.
Before I continue, I’d like to ask you how much you know about GMO’s, and if you actually know what GMO stands for. I’m not on a high-horse, this is an important exercise before we take any stance on an issue, as Jimmy Kimmel so nicely illustrates here:
If you did know that GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism, well done; you’re more informed than some Americans. But seriously, ask yourself, why do people feel so strongly about GMOs, and should they?
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a complicated issue and that’s largely why there can be so much mis-informed, ill-informed and (sometimes) informed debate around it. But really I feel the big problem with it is that the animosity is currently wrongly directed.
Initially it can be a knee-jerk reaction to the concept of Genetic Engineering, in a similar way to the term Radioactive. Most-people’s first introduction to the concept of genetic engineering, mutation, radiation and such like has come in the form of the X-Men sagas, or Peter Parker’s enviable interactions with a Radioactive, Genetically Modified Spider. So there’s that fear that, if you change something’s genes, it becomes The Hulk. Thanks, Stan Lee.
We’re getting increasingly better at understanding the workings of the genome – the beautifully complicated instruction manual that codes for all life. That means that we can work out what gene in an aphid makes said aphid produce a pheromone (smell) that tells other aphids to stay away from a danger. We can take that gene out of the aphid’s DNA and put it into the DNA of a plant that will mean that that plant will inherently smell bad to aphids. That, in itself, is incredible! But, to be fair, we don’t yet know everything, or don’t give it adequate time, and this can lead to some quite reasoned fears of the whole GM thing. For example, on this page titled Frankenfood=Genetically Modified Foods (it’s actually quite good), they talk about fears of un-predicted health-problems when, say, we make a plant toxic to aphids and then we eat that plant. Well, scientists do a lot to work out that we’ll definitely be fine eating this thing that kills aphids, cos we’re not aphids (essentially). But it still pisses people off that scientists can take genes from nuts, put them in things that aren’t nuts, and make people with nut allergies go into anaphylaxis.
BUT GM, in this case, ISN’T THE PROBLEM. The problem here is that the researchers have not investigated a toxin thoroughly enough, or simply made a school-boy error. It’s like building a new car and putting asbestos seat-covers in it. The problem there isn’t that you made a car… it’s that you put asbestos seat-covers in it.
Another perceived problem is that the GMO’s might ‘get out’ and wreak havoc in the natural ecosystem. It is very true that novel species can spread voraciously through a population – please see my earlier post on Chinese Mitten Crabs – and some of the worst for this are naturally-occuring plant hybrids that no-one ever suspected of being able to inter-breed and GM-themselves. But this is phenomenally unlikely and can be precautioned against – one of the first things we understood about genetic engineering was how to make things sterile, and that’s very often used as a primary measure in GM experiments to prevent things spreading, or there are even cooler ways to doing it. Let’s assume that we’re working on a new form of pest-resistant wheat, for example, and we’ve not sterilised it, and it gets out into the wider ecosystem. Now, wheat in general isn’t competitive, and we won’t have interfered with the genes that code for it not being a good competitor with other plants. But still, it’s got out and is growing in some places we hadn’t planned. What’s the big deal? Oh No, we’ve gone and made too much food? When most of our GM ambitions are focused on more efficient agriculture to combat global hunger??
GM here isn’t the problem, it’s what we create with it.
But here’s a real problem. I’ve mentioned that often GM crops are purposefully made sterile, and one of the reasons for that is to prevent uncontrolled spread & reproduction, hybridisation with wild species etc. It’s also aesthetic – you know seedless grapes or strawberries, or any seedless fruit you buy really, has been treated with something called Auxins to prevent seed formation? Auxins are naturally made by the plant (there’s certain genes that code for it, and for seed formation), and they tell other parts of the plant what to do. The plant has the ability to make seeds the whole time, but the genes to make seeds aren’t doing anything (they’re ‘turned off’) until they get a chemical cue that the time is right (at which point they ‘turn on’, or are ‘expressed’). Auxins manipulate the expression of those genes to get the desired result – that you don’t get seeds stuck in your teeth and, by proxy, that grape will never be able to grow into a new vine.
But if a crop can’t produce fertile seeds… where do the farmers get next year’s crops from…? Yep, they have to buy them all over again from the manufacturer of the aphid-resistent wheat, or whatever. Now this raises serious legal and (far more importantly) ethical issues. What if we have a miracle-crop that will grow anywhere and end world hunger, but the guys with the seeds won’t let them go for cheap… or will take serious legal action against anyone who grows their seeds (even accidentally) without buying. The big guilty one for this is Monsanto, who are far more driven by the moolah than the helping-humanity feed itself. What if GMO’s could mean that some company could directly control the world’s food supply?
But the problem here isn’t GM; the problem is Multi-National Arseholes.
GM should not be the focus of your animosity; it should be who does what with it.
There is huge potential in the field of Genetic Modification – we could feed the freaking world and do the planet less damage in the process – that’s a pretty freaking tantalising proposition! Also fish night-lights will be cool. What we need is to focus all our interests into what is definitely best for us all – to the point that it’s indisputable, like that breathing clean air is better for you than not breathing clean air. And researchers – step up your game a bit. You’ve got a bunch of frightened people here thinking that you’re maniacally twisting nature into producing vegetables of mass destruction; do everything in your power to reassure them and just make the world a better freakin place.
So, The Green Party, right, a year ago, expressed desires to not GMO – on the grounds that we don’t understand it well enough! That, oh Green Party, is actually a reason to do it more, whilst striving to do it perpetually better.
Oh, and as if this post weren’t already controversial enough; if we carry on as we are in our knowledge of how genes work, maybe one day we’ll be able to breed a new Panda 2.0 that isn’t fundamentally doomed.