Editor’s Note: Tell us what you really think, Dr. Wheeler! This scathing, one-sided opinion piece, which could air on any number of American right-wing talk radio shows where environmentalists are routinely derided as “whackos,” nonetheless raises interesting points. To develop policies governing production of food, energy, water, based on the “precautionary principle” may sometimes be an unaffordable luxury.
Wheeler can’t refute the premise of anti-GMO activists, that “the bar for risk has been raised to the threshold of possible extinction itself” but he is correct that proving a negative – this GMO will never hurt anything – is impossible and the consequence of unfliching adherence to the precautionary principle dooms any further GMO development, and many other promising new technologies. The challenges GMO innovations help solve; hunger, disease, scarcity, pollution, poverty, are also grave threats to humanity – which is worse?
To say GMOs pose no danger at all is an overstatement. But environmentalism cannot become an absolute authority, the ethic that trumps everything. The sanctity of the earth must be balanced by the needs of humanity. Alarmist, black-and-white arguments against GMOs will ring as hollow in the ears of skeptics as might Wheeler’s testimony here. With GMOs, the truth of their efficacy or danger is situational or unknown. Moreover it is crucial that activists distinguish between the economic issues associated with GMOs; globalization and trends towards corporate consolidation of agriculture, and the health and environmental issues surrounding GMOs. These issues are correlated, but are problematic for completely different reasons. They should be separate debates.
Genetically modified organisms according to Wheeler can in some cases enable more commercial crop diversity. For example, currently there are only a handful of hybrid varieties of corn and soybeans that comprise a significant portion of world output. There is nuance to genetic science. Is it all bad? Probably not. Are there dangers? Of course. What of rice that’s been genetically engineered to contain vitamin A, an innovation that has prevented literally millions of children from going blind? Should we never have done this? Are there always preferable alternatives to genetically modified crops?
Media iconoclast H.L. Mencken, around 1925, wrote that “the whole aim of politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”. Well, the hubbub about GMO is less about the science than it is about politics. A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there.
Humans have been genetically engineering their food crops for, oh, maybe 10,000 years. Suppose you’re a subsistence farmer in 3000 B.C. and it’s a year of drought. You try to gather enough of your crop to feed your family, and you save the seed from the most robust (drought resistant) plants for next years planting. After some years, you have engineered a drought resistant strain of wheat or millet or whatever. Later we learned to cross-pollinate our food crops with wild cousins or some mutant weed having properties we wanted, such as resistance to insects or to fungus. We’ve done the same with all of our domestic animals. We’ve been messing around with genes FOREVER, even when we had no idea that there was such a thing as a gene! The bottom line is: NOTHING we eat is “natural”!
So what is the difference between traditional selective breeding of crop plants and most modern biotech manipulation? Easy answer: the traditional way is much less exact and lots slower. And because it is less exact, there is a greater chance for some unknown rogue gene to express itself. So why are so many people afraid of biotech crops? The reasons the fear mongers like Greenpeace put forth are that genetic modifications of plants may produce crops containing unknown toxins and allergens (aren’t many of us allergic to lots and lots of “natural pollens,” so what’s a few more— take your antihistamines!). Or perhaps a gene such as the one that makes corn resistant to the corn borer bug will jump into wild cousins and kill bugs (hopefully, mosquitoes). We could even have super frankenweeds appear (as if we don’t have lots of those already, like crabgrass). The fact is that after more than 20 years of research and development; 86% of soy, 46% of corn, and 76% of cotton crops grown in the U.S. are bio-engineered crops. And to quote a recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The bugs are fine, super weeds are science fiction, and no one is breaking out in hives”.
The answer to my arguments that the anti-GMO people put forth is something they invented that they call the “precautionary principle”. Anti-every new technology “activists such as Jemery Rifkin state it thusly: “because the stakes are so high, we have to weigh even the most dramatic benefits against the prospects of even more destructive consequences. The old Enlightenment science is too primitive to address a world where the bar for risk has been raised to the threshold of possible extinction itself.” So to these folks, scientific evidence doesn’t matter, science itself is irrelevant. If you really don’t believe in science, I suggest you go out on the roof of a tall building and jump off while flapping your arms. Maybe Newton was wrong and you will float around instead of falling to your unanticipated death. Only one’s religious belief that new technologies could kill us all should be considered. By this “principle”, stone-age activists and “tribal interest” groups would have seen to it that the wheel, fire, stone axes, and riding horses would be banned. Later, we would have banned electricity, railroad trains, automobiles, antibiotics (penicillin can kill those allergic to it), indoor plumbing (you could drown), television (in the 50s, it was thought by pre-greenpeace groups that rays from TV tubes could cause cancer), cell phones (more cancer) and chocolate lattes.
In the real world today, people are starving in Africa because government won’t allow them to eat genetically modified corn meal. I guess it’s better to be dead now than to have to worry about turning into a mutant later! It is true that at least in Mexico, some GM corn genes have spread to some wild corn cousins. So now you have some wild corn that is resistant to the corn borer bug; so what? Where is the danger to anything? What if scientists inserted an anti-freeze gene from an Artic flounder into an orange tree that could make the orange tree frost resistant, no polluting smudge pots needed. The orange tree could maybe even grow in Montana where there are no wild cousins to spread any “mutant” genes to? You may be worried about mercury levels in fish, but you know that fish oils are really good for your cardiovascular system. Why not insert a salmon gene into soy so that soybean oil could be rich in fish oils? A great potential health benefit without any danger; unless you think you might grow fins or gills by eating such a GMO. Hey, you could become a much better swimmer!
A recent study (conducted by folks with an anti-GMO agenda, perhaps?) showed that fields of organically grown crops had far, far more bees and butterflies buzzing and fluttering around than herbicide resistant GMO crop fields did. Of course, the American media jumped all over that study with the message that GMO crops kill bees and butterflies and probably every other bug there is (again, hopefully mosquitoes). DUH! If you were a smart bee or butterfly, would you want to hang out in a GMO field of herbicide resistant corn or soy? “Gosh darn, say the bugs, there are no flowering weeds around here thanks to all that Roundup stuff, maybe I should try out that organic farm over there across the road that has lots and lots of flowering weeds for my dining pleasure”! In other words, upon reflection, such a “study” means nothing except that it is trying to advance an anti-GMO political agenda.
In the late 1960″ and early 70′s, after world famous fear monger Paul Ehrlich had predicted that virtually everybody on earth would starve to death by 1980, Norman Borlaugh won a Nobel Peace Prize for developing (by traditional breeding techniques) monocultures of VERY high yielding wheat and rice (compared to what was being grown at the time) that now are grown everywhere in the world. This “green revolution” is the reason India and China now can feed themselves; and which is why there are about 2.5 billion people alive now than there would have been, whether you like it or not. However, these now ubiquitous crops absolutely need a gazillion tons of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and lots and lots of water every crop year. This is the stuff you are all eating now. Because they are essentially monocultures, some mutant strain of wheat rust could come along some year and wipe out most of the world’s wheat crop. This is a legitimate doomsday concern, as opposed to the not at all legitimate concerns about modern GMO. Wouldn’t you rather have some alternative crop options available? Ones that have been engineered to not need a gazillion tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizers??
OK, you still insist that “organic” crops are so very safe and superior, and you don’t care that they are also far more expensive than “regular” crops. Here is only one example of many I could give that show the opposite about “safety”. In England, 6 tested brands of organically grown corn meal were recently recalled after they were found to contain dangerous levels (more than 20 times the safety limit) of fumonisin, a very potent natural carcinogen produced by a fungus. It is interesting (check this out, greenies) that there has been no testing of organically grown corn meal in the U.S. The reason for the high level of fumoniusin is that chewing insects break the outer coating of the corn kernel (even in corn sprayed with conventional pesticides), allowing free entry to mold spores. GMO corn, however, kills the chewing bugs immediately, so that no mold spores get in. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service (for whom I used to work) found that fumonisin levels were about 40 times lower in GMO corn than non-GMO corn sprayed with the usual pesticides.
Finally, are those of you who are against biotech crops also against biotech drugs? If you had cancer, would you refuse treatment? If you are a diabetic out marching against GMO, do you realize that for the past 20 years your daily dose of insulin is produced from a bacteria or yeast genetically modified to produce human insulin? I have not heard any protests about this fact.
Edward Wheeler, Ph.D in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley (long ago during hippie times), is a noted biochemist who has had extensive experience in food chemistry, cancer research, and toxicology. He has authored numerous articles in refereed scientific journals on those subjects, and holds 12 U.S. patents in the areas of reduced calorie foods and lower calorie “natural fats”.