Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
One notable exception to the public health successes of Election Day was the failure of Proposition 37, on the ballot in California, which called for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.
There seems little basis for opposition to an initiative that is, ostensibly, just about transparency. But food and agricultural companies, with Monsanto in the vanguard, may not reliably be fans of telling the whole truth. More surprising are opponents of Proposition 37 among staunch advocates for pure food and public health who saw unintended consequences in the bill. Perhaps so.
Genetically modified organisms- GMOs- are something the public loves to hate. Images of scientists inserting eye-of-newt genes into escarole stalk the nightmares of pure food proponents. Even if the intentions of those tinkering with foods are good- such as putting antifreeze genes from amphibians into oranges so they are not destroyed by an early frost- unintended effects are cause for concern, and passionate opposition.
But such passions often leave a balanced perspective behind. Without genetic modification, we would not have broccoli or navel oranges. We would not have pink grapefruits. We would not have amaranth or quinoa.
Virtually none of the produce that now constitutes the most nutritious part of our diets existed before the dawn of agriculture only 12,000 or so years ago. Whole grains, which are a mainstay ingredient for some of the companies most adamantly opposed to GMOs, did not exist in their current form and were not part of the human diet prior to that same, recent revolution.
To some extent, arguments against all genetic modification represent a longing for an elusive kind of food purity. But arguments for such purity tend to devolve under scrutiny. To paraphrase a famous adage, one proponent’s purity is another’s poison.
Some purists argue that our grains should all be unrefined, and free of genetic modification. But another band of purists insists that our Stone Age ancestors did not eat grains at all and neither should we. And, furthermore, the grains we consume today are all a product of genetic modification of the selective type. We didn’t tinker with genomes in test tubes until recently- but we did it in the dirt long before.
Our own bodies are a mix of genes from different species. Normal human physiology is a product of native DNA, and the DNA of innumerable foreign bacteria that populate our inner and outer surfaces. We can take the argument a step further than that, a step inside our own cells, where our mitochondria reside. Mitochondria are the energy generators of our bodies. They are a fixed, essential part of us- but they have a distinct set of genes. They are, emphatically, the insertion of genes from one species into another. That is classically genetic modification.
Admittedly, it is naturally occurring. But tempting though that tack may be, it quickly degenerates into the contention that nature is good, and science is bad. That, of course, is just silly.
Science can go badly awry, of course, and certainly has. But it can do- and has done- enormous good. Nature can be bountiful and beneficent. But anyone paying attention must concede she can at times also be downright nasty. Smallpox virus is a product of nature; smallpox vaccine, a product of science. Ditto for rabies, and polio.
Genetic modification is a product of both. Nature modified our genes to protect us from malaria, for instance. And, just as it can be with human-mediated genetic modification, the law of unintended consequences was invoked. We wound up with the misery of sickle cell anemia.
Anyone opposed to GMOs should be donating routinely to Planned Parenthood, because we can’t feed 10 billion of us, or 12, without crop yields buoyed by genetic modification. Population growth, unfettered, will give Monsanto several billion more reasons to make fortunes.
So will climate change, as the planet becomes ever less hospitable to the crops we know and love. And, frankly, so will eating animal products- since that is vastly less efficient use of the sun’s energy than eating plants directly.
Our great big Homo sapien brains are themselves a product of genetic modification, albeit of a naturally occurring variety. We need them to get past passions and profiteering alike, to balance, and the innumerable practical advantages of genetically modified…perspective.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com