Monday, November 24, 2014

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Genetically Modified Organism

Today, those three words (or the three letters, G, M, and O) are enough to send the media and consumers into a frenzy.

In all seriousness, though. GMOs get a bad rep from large corporations, like Monsanto, who engage in rather ruthless business tactics and from the opposition who, more often than not, pick out key phrases and use them to play on the fears of the less scientifically literate.

Let's face it, GMOs have been around for millennia. As long as agriculture has existed, genetic modification has been a part of its practice. Cross-pollination and hybridization are two terms long familiar to many farmers. By taking pollen from plants that exhibit desired traits and crossing them with other plants with different traits, we produce better crop yields, greater crop diversity, and better crop survival. This process dates to the neolithic age, for crying out loud!

Do you like citrus fruits? Guess what, with the exception of a small handful, all citrus available on the market is a hybrid of that small handful. Oranges, grapefruit, kumquat, lime, satsuma, etc. all are hybrids.

Do you like cereal or baked goods? Well, again, all modern strains of cereals are hybrids, cross-bred to produce fuller heads of larger seeds (and I'm not even starting on the "GMOs").

So, what's the big deal?

There seems to be a marked fear of science. Well, for certain sciences, that is. Nuclear science is feared, thanks to Chernobyl and Hiroshima, despite the fact that the latter is banned and the former is so much more unlikely, thanks to modern understanding and safeguard technology. Medicine used to be feared until necessity provided much-needed miracle cures and, now that many of these cures are less-needed, many of those fears are creeping back in (see the vaccine-autism plague). Similar things are happening in the realm of agricultural science.

I would argue much of the source of these fears lies in too much information paired with too little understanding.

  • We know that DNA contains the blueprint of the entire organism. Many don't understand the processes by which it is read, maintained, replicated, and passed on.
  • We know about the danger of infectious bodies, like bacteria and viruses. Many don't understand the uses these microscopic entities are put to. (Diabetics, you can thank bacteria and yeasts for your insulin shots).
  • We know the dangers of certain chemicals. We don't understand how they affect the body, whether they even affect humans, and what concentration is required to do so.

I could carry on; these are just three of the critical failings of modern scientific education and science journalism, which pertain to the GMO debate, but I think Alexander Pope did a fair enough job of that himself:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Now, yes, there are many sites and blogs declaring the benefits of GMO foods, trying to be heard over the clamour of their anti-GMO counterparts and they do an excellent job summarising and presenting the benefits thereof, but that is not my goal. After all, while my degree is in biology and I am science literate, I am not an active part of the agricultural science/biotech research circles. While I may read articles and journals, I am not involved in the testing. No, my purpose is one of my grander, overarching goals: to promote improved, free-thinking, critical learning, which, in turn, creates a wider scope of knowledge and greater depth of understanding, leading to a society of humble intelligence to replace that of proud ignorance.