By popular demand (and by popular I mean that one person asked) I’m going to write a bit about GMOs. First off, lets define GMOs. They are foods that are genetically modified. Genetically modified is not a problem in itself. If you look at the variety of tomato or potato plants, and if you understand that we’ve been breeding these plants to do that for centuries, this is obviously not a problem. Varying genetic material is what makes plants different and gives us a variety of nutrients. All good things.
There are a couple of directions that I want to go in discussing the problems with genetic modification.
First, lets look at some of the problems with breeding practices. Here I’m going to talk about pollen and normal selection processes. Yes, there are problems with that. Lets look at tomatoes first. If you go to the store looking for a tomato, you will find the reddest tomato that you can. That is how people choose tomatoes. If the tomato still has green on it, that means that it is not yet ripe, so you overlook it. If the tomato has purple on it, it means the tomato is over ripe and ready to go bad, so we don’t take those.
For decades, we have been selecting tomatoes based on their redness, but just recently did they do a little research and find that genetically the redness gene is closely associated with the ‘tastes like dirt’ gene. So as the tomatoes have become a prettier red, the tomatoes at grocery stores have tasted worse and worse. To provide a specific example, my wife grew up not liking tomatoes, but once we have started growing them, she has found that she likes them. To be fair, the taste of store bought tomatoes has grown on her a bit as well, but they aren’t nearly as good as what grows in our garden.
The same thing can be seen with red delicious apples. The deep red gene is closely associated with a gene that makes it taste more bitter. After decades of trying to make the perfect red apple, people no longer like the taste of it, but it looks really good.
OK, what people really want to know is about scientists going in and messing with the genetic materials of plants that we are going to eat. First, lets look at the direct health ramifications. When you eat the different genetic material, it will have absolutely no adverse effects on your health. No matter what gene they stick in there, eating the genetic material is just a bunch of proteins and your body can easily deal with that.
The thing is, scientists don’t put genetic material in a plant just for the genetic material. The genetic material does something. Lets talk about the substances made by the genetic materials. In theory, the materials made by genes are proteins and the human body can digest those. BUT, some of the proteins made by genes can be toxic. As an example, they have genetically modified corn to produce a pesticide that kills a bug that attacks corn. On the one hand, how cool is that, they have made the corn plant so it can protect itself. But on the other hand, we are either going to eat that corn or feed that corn to animals that we are later going to eat. Now it may very well be that this pesticide that is produced by the plant will not influence animals besides the insect that it kills. We are different enough that the chemical may do nothing to us, but it could also be like eating a chemical production facility. In the end, it is possible that you could have genetically modified foods that don’t effect health adversely.
The big health problem with genetically modified stuff is that we don’t know. Are the new chemicals bad for our health? We don’t know. We haven’t had time to really study it and we just simply don’t know. Theoretically you should be able to do this in a healthy manner, but we just don’t understand everything well enough to really be sure. Are you willing to take the risk? Well, you are already part of the experiment because GMOs are in the food supply and you probably eat them. The problem there is that they don’t have to label foods with Genetically Modified ingredients. That is a completely different issue, but it seems that the public should be able to make that choice and not industry.
OK, lets get on to the big problem with GMOs. Just like with organics, the greatest problem with GMOs will likely be in the impact on the environment and long term health ramifications. So what happens with GMOs is that we produce a super-plant in order to maximize yield and feed people. Let’s look at corn a bit more. We have corn that produces a chemical that protects it from its biggest pest problem. Now we have this corn out in the field that spreads its seed and has the potential of reproducing.
Hypothetically, if you have two fields. One field produces a chemical that protects it from pests, the other field does not make this chemical. Where do the pests go? Of course they go to the crop that is not protected. Which crop is better able to spread its seed? The chemically treated field is going to have more seed and that seed will have greater odds of moving and producing more corn that is chemically protected.
Project this forward 20 years and we see Darwin at work. Survival of the fittest. And pretty soon the corn that we have produced to make a chemical is the dominant corn found in regions if not the world. So what is the problem, we have this super-corn that produces a chemical to protect itself and we no longer need the other types of corn, right? Sure, except the way nature works is that eventually a pest will find a way to attack the new super-corn either because the pest targeted by the chemical will mutate or a new pest will find opportunity. If we have this super-corn as the dominate corn in the world and a bug suddenly appears and takes it out then we have major problems. First, we don’t have any food to feed our livestock or produce high fructose corn syrup. Even more importantly we will have lost much of the diversity in crops so that we may not have access to the genetic code to protect corn from this new bug. Then what? Then we need to find an alternative to corn to feed the world (which would be a wonderful idea from a health perspective)
This GMO question becomes even more important when we talk about animals like salmon that have been genetically modified. They have been modified to grow faster and get bigger. And they have been made sterile so you don’t have to worry about them reproducing. Now the problem is that in breeding, the native fish prefer the bigger, stronger fish and breed with them… except they are sterile so the eggs don’t hatch and we have fewer and fewer salmon. They weren’t supposed to release the fish into the wild, but some have escaped (as I recall) so the GMO fish will eventually die and the fish will be reproducing again… unless more GMO fish get out or we deregulate and allow businesses to do what they want and we end up with no wild salmon and we have to do all of the breeding and everything in a hatchery and mankind has been put in control… and that is not good.
So the solution is diversity. Instead of producing a super-corn or chemically treating the corn, grow a HUGE variety of corn and the odds of some of it surviving increase dramatically. You won’t end up with extremely high yields, but the fields will be healthier, the foods will be healthier, the water will be healthier and we don’t have to worry about the health of our children and grand children.
I am often asked about what I am going to specialize in as a farmer. Because if you own a farm, you need to have a specialty in order to compete and market. I have no specialty. I grow 4 rows of tomatoes and those 4 rows are in 4 different areas of the field so that I don’t create a single spot that is especially attractive to pests. It makes it annoying to harvest tomatoes, but the lettuce that is able to grow in the shade of the tomatoes loves it. I grow hundreds (?) of different crops. That is how nature does it. That is how we support the environment and protect the planet for our kids. And I can grow twice (or more) as much food on my acre than a conventional farmer because I do things by hand on a liveable scale. I have some things to take care of before I get to that point, but the solution is to shop at farmer’s markets and support the local guy who does things right. The more we support the big farmer, the fewer small farms there will be and that is a recipe for disaster. So buy local. Buy organic and shake the hand of the person who grew your food.