Our food source has been modified. Genetic engineers are hard at work to improve the virulence and abundance of the human food supply. It is no longer sufficient to be at the top of a dying food chain. Our dominance has resulted in imbalance and the imbalance has led to a global food shortage. Overpopulation has bastardized the supply and demand cycle. Food animals can’t reproduce as quickly as we consume them. Plant growth cycles are seasonal. Millions starve while, somehow, millions of others grow fat. We tinker with genetic code to remove vulnerability and replace it with hardiness, to reduce gestational period and improve yield, while hoping we haven’t traded quality for quantity. As a global community, we aggressively pursue methods of mass production while corporate drones struggle to create logistic streams for mass distribution of the end product.
Chickens without feathers, tomatoes that don’t ripen, bananas without seeds, corn fields that deter formation of weed choke at the biotechnical inception of a seed. All to save time, energy and resources while increasing output. All with an eye to ending world hunger.
This sounds like the jacket of a tawdry dystopian novel. It’s not. This is not science-fiction, it’s science-reality. Today’s post is about the ramifications of genetic modification from the perspective of scientific advancement.
Scientifically speaking, genetic modification is a monumental achievement. Monumental.
It allows us to manipulate the DNA of a living organism at the most basic component level. Using genetic engineering technique we suppress, modify, remove or even add characteristics we desire (or detest) in our plants and animals. In 1982, insulin producing bacteria were commercialized; 9 years after the first bacteria had been genetically modified. This benefits us through simplification of process, reduction of natural and human resource while increasing our yield. Overall a profitable proposition.
Science is not the grand demon of innovation, it is the grandfather. Like a grandsire, Science lovingly (though unemotionally) hears ideas, is inspired by ideas and then works methodically to prove or disprove ideas. Most often, it does this for the greater good.
One cannot deny the benefits of scientific advancement as they relate to eradicating disease, inventions designed to improve our quality of life and our productivity* as well as the intellectual comfort provided by a general comprehension of the macrocosm of the universe and how our microcosmic planet fits within. The truth is, we all have examples of how scientific advancement has improved our quality of life and we are grateful for it.
On the flip side, science has a lot to answer for in terms of creating negative side effects. The most easily illustrated examples are in the field of medicine. We eradicate a bacterial disease only to force the evolutionary mutation of a more resilient bacteria. A tougher, meaner bacteria, who laughs in the face of our antibiotics, evolves requiring us to work harder again; only this time to eradicate the mutation. And each time we conquer it, that defeated bacteria comes back out of the corner at the bell, kicking and screaming. Negative side effects of scientific advancement.
So, what are the negative scientific outcomes of genetic modification? And more specifically, genetically modifying our food source. We are talking about genetic tinkering, not cloning (though some genetic engineering technique may use cloning as part of the process). Currently, only agricultural GMO products are commercially available and we are researching and studying animal application. While our meat source is not currently modified, they are being fed modified grains in their feed. What indirect impact might that have?
Before we move all production into GMO, we need to understand whether this genetic alteration will create more problems, reduce existing problems or, better, cause no problems at all. Of course that neutral state is the ideal; after all, we count on food to keep us alive! One might ask if by playing with the genetic bonds, are we creating pathogens that will ultimately lead to our demise?
Always bear in mind that science and its proliferators are not some nameless, faceless robot. We are people! Sometimes geeky, curious people, but people. Forgetting the distraction, let’s focus on what I like to call the “curiosity enthusiast”. That’s what a scientist is: a person so compelled by their curiosity they spend an inordinate amount of time theorizing about “why” something is or does, then they create ways to test the validity of those theories, and ultimately prove or disprove their own original hypothesis in an effort to apply the learning to real life.
While there are examples of those who, out of hubris, try to rush or make their data fit their original hypothesis, the large majority of the community is made up of honest, hard-working curiosity enthusiasts who have no vested interest in what the answer is, they really just want to be the one to prove it!
And yet, we criticize the audacity of science. Doesn’t it seem that scientists always come up with a “what else” for us? As in, we created Viagra® to control hypertension. But hey look! While we were treating his hypertension, Charlie also an enjoyed an unbelievable erection that lasted for hours….it seems to have a desirable side effect, I wonder “what else” it can do!
However, we push our curiosity enthusiast community to not only answer “why”, and “what else can we do with that knowledge” but we rush them – We want the answer now! And it is at this point we pass into the murky waters of morality. In the end, you can’t rush an answer. It takes as long as it takes and forcing, even a scientist, to provide answers that aren’t ready will always lead to the telling of half truths.
So, are there harmful side effects to removing seeds from bananas, or delaying ripening of tomatoes or a corn plant that deters weed choke? Are we sacrificing quality for quantity? Is it worth the risk to end world hunger? These are questions that await answers as we continue to study and learn. We simply don’t know yet if there are harmful side effects to playing God in this way. At this point, we have only questions and willing scientists to answer them. Understanding the full ramifications will take generations as we witness evolution unfold.
The concept of genetically modified food is still a very young one. Essentially GMO foods have only been commercially available since 1994, (FlavrSavr tomatoe) making this field of study less than 20 years old. 20 years is hardly enough time to work out the kinks, let alone time enough to determine the long range effects of said tomatoe.
When the folks at Monsanto, the innovators of “Round Up” started asking “what else” can we do to improve yield, reduce soil/water consumption, reduce time and energy for the farmer, they naturally started playing with genetic coding in farm crops. As pioneers into the universe of GMO food, they are currently the world’s top producer and researcher** at 23% share: Providing support to farmers through innovation in biotechnology is what they do.
Does it bother you that one of the largest producers of genetically modified food is also the inventor of the world’s most destructive herbicides? Or does this seem a logical transition?
*(no, don’t argue that increased productivity is increasing our levels of stress, decreasing our levels of contentedness and might not be a benefit at all – I’m making a point here!)
** Source: ETC “Who Owns Nature” Report