On GM foods.

CaptureI thought Mark Lynas‘s New York Times editorial about genetically-modified foods was quite good.  Well worth a read, if you have a minute.

And it inspired me to jot down something that I’ve been meaning to write for a while: I wish the concepts “grown without pesticides” and “not genetically modified” weren’t so intertwined in this country.

I often buy “organic” fruits and vegetables.  Not because they’re healthier, or appreciably better for my family (in the short run, as we’re eating them).  I wash vegetables before I cook them, and with most pesticides that’s enough.  But, when I can afford to, I buy organic produce out of a sense of civics.  Pesticides are bad for all of us in the long term: costly to manufacture (with many of the costs being negative externalities, not raw materials or labor costs imposed on the actual users), harmful to the environment when sprayed onto fields (and then being washed away by rain into nearby rivers), reducing their own efficacy with use because, as with antibiotics, multi-generational exposure to poisons helps select for poison-resistant pests.

So, yeah, I appreciate that grocery stores give me an option of paying a little bit more to compensate farmers for not engaging in harmful practices.  That old “vote with your wallet” adage made easy.  But my vote might be misconstrued, because most stores give consumers no way to cast a “please grow crops without pesticides” vote that can be distinguished from a “please grow crops that aren’t genetically modified.”

When I buy corn, I don’t want grass.  Corn is genetically modified grass.  The main difference is that our genetic modifications can now be effected some 10^2 to 10^3 faster.  I don’t think any research groups are even working on modifications as drastic as the difference between Zea perennis and Zea mays.  Teosinte, a scruffy grass, and corn, the buxom-kernelled nutritional staple of many cultures.

And, yes, DNA sequences can be transfered between species, even very disparate species, “naturally,” via several mechanisms but most commonly by viruses.  Something like golden rice (which seems like a great idea for fighting malnutrition, but has been extensively protested, and test fields of it have been vandalized, destroyed, because genetic modification sounds scary) eventually could have been created using the same ancient technologies that were used through prehistory to genetically engineer corn.

The problem is, we don’t have another 9,000 years to wait.

People are hungry now, and people will be hungry next year, and, given that the population seems not to be anywhere near leveling off yet, there will be many more hungry people within a generation or two.  It seems foolish to wait for traditional agricultural practices to engineer crops that can effectively combat our world’s current malnutrition epidemic.

CaptureOf course, not all genetic modifications are equivalent.  On the one hand, there are crops designed for higher yield in harsh environments.  There are crops designed to provide essential nutrients.  There are crops designed for toxicity to insects, to reduce the need for chemical pesticides.  All fine and dandy, in my opinion.  Yes, there should be some safety testing, but let’s face it: our world won’t be able to support the population we seem headed toward if all we have access to are our current agricultural technologies.  We might not be able to support our current population, given the revamped climate we might encounter in the future.  So there’s a need for change.

I’d like to think that part of the change will be a decrease in our population growth rate, but I have to acknowledge that I’m a breeder too.  Part of the problem.  So, at the very least, it seems good to try to prepare for the world’s people having enough to eat.

But there are other types of genetic modifications.  Like, seeds engineered to resist a specific herbicide and yield no progeny.  That type, to me, seems rather evil — farmers needing to buy new seed every year, and being locked in to spraying their fields with herbicide, a specific type of proprietary herbicide, even.  Yeah, sure, that’s bad.  But it’s not bad because of the methodology, it’s bad because of the intent.  It seems unfair, to me, to equate that kind of profit-seeking genetic modification with efforts to make food more nutritious, or able to be grown without chemicals.

And, look, all of these, the evil pesticide-resistant progeny-less seeds, the beneficent nutrient-containing rice, could’ve been created by the old methods.  Wait for chance mutations, weed out the plants you don’t want, hope that after many many generations you have something approaching what you want.  The resulting foods aren’t unnatural.  Not really.  Sure, you could create toxic varieties.  But you could do fancy cross-breeding and create, via time-honored slow-ass methods, toxic varieties of many foods.  Peppers, for instance, are a relatively recent evolutionary off-shoot from their common ancestor with tomatoes.  A genetically-engineered tomato, created by prehistoric methods.

And, based on how they make my stomach feel, I’d call habaneros toxic GM tomatoes.

I guess the main difference, in terms of public outcry, protesting, etc., is that it’d be a huge pain in the ass to build a time machine and then go back to harass the many generations’ worth of habanero designers, whereas it’s pretty easy to tromp off and wreck somebody’s study plot of golden rice.  But I wish people wouldn’t.  I’m not sure who they think they’re helping.