Monthly Archives: July 2013

Myth Of The Hero-Scientist: Your Food In The Lab

The New York Times featured article last Sunday about genetically engineered oranges was so comically one-sided and histrionic in it’s support for the genetic modification of your food that it actually was funny.  It wasn’t really an article- it was much more like a lengthy film treatment for a Hollywood movie.

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The plot centered around hero scientists, with their brave leader perfectly costumed in his introductory shot, with Clint Eastwood’s rugged snarl under hip sunglasses, posing outdoors, braving the elements alone, next to his vulnerable new genetically modified orange-tree progeny, for now hiding safely under his protection. He is also appropriately scientist nerdy with dress slacks and shoes, and for a costume ‘hook’ probably aimed at some of the females in the audience, he wears a pink button down shirt tucked in over a nerdy paunch.  He’s a sensitive tough-guy leader of scientists!

The article reads just like direct-to-film pulp fiction and has the effect of a thriller on it’s readers- it’s a cliffhanger, jam-packed with good guys and evil antagonists- with the fate of a sacred American treasure (that must-have glass of orange juice for breakfast) hanging in the lurch.

What is so fascinating and comical about this article/film proposal, is that while it rattles on and on for page after exciting page, it never once, not once mentions the negative environmental and health impacts of laboratory modified, genetically engineered food.

In effect the grim enemy our hero scientists face in this film proposal/article are not super-weeds, antibiotic resistant bacteria, ADHD, autism, severe food allergies, mysterious new pathogenic soil micro-organisms, increasing cancer rates or even the total control of our food supply by corporations that specialize in things like agent orange and dioxin, but no!  Wait for it… the enemy is environmentalist throwbacks, scare mongering, regulation loving, precautionary principle elitist foodies!  GASP!

A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA July 28, New York Times

Despite overwhelming scientific validation in both theory and experiment, that altering a food by laboratory cross-species genetic manipulation is reckless, dangerous and toxic, our hero scientists and their scriptwriter soldier on into a land where the people desperately need to be saved from ignorance, and triumphantly show them the salvation of genetic engineering of food.  Our hero is both man of action and a thinker, a philosopher, a brave man unconcerned with one of nature’s most sacrosanct boundaries.  That boundary is that different species, even of the same family, do not contribute directly to each other’s genetic pool.  A human being cannot mate with a whale and produce viable offspring.  A human and a whale do have some of the same genes, and are both mammals, but they are different species, and as such, we do not mate.  Mating is nature’s way of genetic modification.  Jellyfish do not mate with monkeys, but they have traded genes in the laboratory.

Human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals for years using techniques like selection for desired traits, and grafting.  But never have different species been bred together that create a viable genetic offspring.  The species-specific gene boundary is a natural boundary that is foolish to cross for clear scientific reasons that remain unspoken in the film proposal  of an article.  The corn plant’s giant fruit- the corn cob, was actually created by human beings by encouraging certain traits in the corn plant by selection over many generations.   That would be a form of natural selection.  One thinks the orange tree could be saved in a similar fashion, or the bacteria threatening it could be controlled in a similar fashion.  Those approaches receive short shrift in this thriller and are in fact barely discussed.  It probably would have disrupted the flow.

Ultimately the star of  ‘Heroic Race to Save the Orange’ is a tragic hero.  In an angle ignored by scriptwriter Amy Harman, but sure to be told in the film’s inevitable sequel, we discover that while walking roughshod over nature with the new tools of genetic modification, our scientist heroes ignored even their own principles in their arduous quest to preserve America’s breakfast options.  Fame, glory and a patented life form (the ‘new’ orange tree) yielding handsome profits for generations to come would be, of course, totally secondary and unmentioned in the article.

The evidence that the Clint Eastwood scientists ignore is that genetic information and the process of genetic expression and it’s influence is far from understood, to say the least.  It is now known that a single gene performs multiple tasks, and has multiple paths of expression.  That the corresponding complexity within a single species’ DNA creates conditions where it is impossible to predict what will happen when a strange gene from a different species is introduced into a host plant.  That a gene codes for a protein, but that it may code for multiple proteins by influencing other genes, or even code for a protein not to be made.  A single strange protein, like a prion, which causes mad cow disease, can be as toxic as agent orange.  Want more new science?  Your digestive system produces most of the serotonin your brain needs to function properly!  Got depression?  Check your gut.  Still feel like we really have to have genetically engineered food?

The science of genetics has now been completely rewritten since Monsanto and other hero scientists bent on feeding a starving planet (satire) began tinkering with plant DNA.  (Genetic engineering is really about being able to patent food, which is not a heroic act) This new field of science is called epigenetics, and it has rewritten everything we thought we knew about genes.  Our hero and his scriptwriter seem not to have heard of it.  This is odd since the New York Times reported on it in 2007 in an article which states:

“Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, (United States National Human Genome Research Institute ) these findings will challenge scientists “to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do…The presumption that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built.”

This new evidence of the complex not fully understood network of genes means that our hero, by making a genetically engineered orange in order to save the holy morning glass of juice in America, may potentially be submitting any and all juice drinkers to some form of severe allergic response, or over time, to something even worse.  Even a mild allergic response can eventually maim and even kill.  Strange proteins will most likely be created.  Strange proteins cause inflammation in the body.  Chronic inflammation, especially in the digestive tract can lead to any major disease.

Genetically modified food has been proven many times in strict scientific trials and studies, and in numerous field reports from livestock breeders, to cause  gut inflammation in the animals that are fed GMOs.  How can it be that our hero scientists don’t know this?  How can it have been ignored by their scriptwriter?

Our heroic scientists display profound ignorance and what must even be called mendacity when they state:  “It’s not where a gene comes from that matters,” one researcher said. “It’s what it does.”  Because in fact, they don’t fully know what it does. And couldn’t possibly know without generational safety studies, that should really be carried out on humans, since humans will be the ones eating the oranges.

It is only halfway through the article when we learn that there really is no crisis at all!  Just a potential one: “Only Dr. Mirkov’s newly fine-tuned trees with the spinach gene, Mr. Kress and Mr. Irey agreed, could be ready in time to stave off what many believed would soon be a steep decline in the harvest.”  Then comes the only nod to potential health problems, which are implied to be solely problems of perception amongst consumers: “But the subsequent broader use of the chemical (glyphosate)— along with a distaste for Monsanto’s aggressive business tactics and a growing suspicion of a food system driven by corporate profits.”  No mention of glyphosate’s link to obesity, serotonin deficiency leading to ADHD, anxiety and depression, or to birth defects, all proven scientifically many times. No mention of  the fact that Monsanto has claimed glyphosate to be “almost completely harmless”.

But the story gains traction when we are introduced to the enemy: elitist activists who can afford to eat what they want and who don’t seem to care about hungry people!  Ominous music swells: “Some of Mr. Kress’s scientists were still fuming about what they saw as the lost potential for social good hijacked both by the activists who opposed genetic engineering and the corporations that failed to convince consumers of its benefits. In many developing countries, concerns about safety and ownership of seeds led governments to delay or prohibit cultivation of needed crops: Zambia, for instance, declined shipments of G.M.O. corn even during a 2002 famine.”

Imagine that!  Zamibians don’t want their food genetically altered in a lab!!!  Even when hungry!!! It turns out neither do Haitians or Hungarians or the Irish or Peruvians, where GMOs are completely banned from being grown.  And neither do 64 other countries in the world where GMOs are labeled and hardly anyone eats them.  In fact they are pretty much used only as food for livestock, and as cheap food additives like soy lecithin or high fructose corn syrup, mostly here in the USA, which is in the middle of a health crisis.  And they create health problems in livestock that need to be addressed by excessive antibiotic use, thereby contributing to bacterial resistance, one of our most pressing health problems.  Since the GMOs create diahreea in the animals, they also have to be given medications for that.

And perhaps corporations haven’t convinced consumers of the benefits of genetically modified food (GMOs), because their just aren’t any!  No increase in yields, no increase in nutrional content, no decrease in pesticide use, as we were promised many years ago.  Just an increase in profits for a chemical company.  In fact, genetically altered food had less nutrients than normal food, uses more pesticides than normal food, and creates even less of a yield, especially in drought conditions.  Hmmm.  Wonder how our heroic juice savers did not know this information.

Our heroes seem unaware of these consequences of laboratory altered genetically modified food impacting the mammalian digestive tract and immune system, and sullenly voice their charitable concerns “…”It’s easy for someone who can go down to the grocery store and buy anything they need to be against G.M.O.’s,” said Dr. Jaynes, who faced such barriers with a high-protein sweet potato he had engineered with a synthetic gene.”  I can almost hear him say “What’s a little goddamned  diahreea!!!??”

Then comes the knock-out punch on all those bad activists and their terrible fear mongering- delivered with stupendous ignorance or well feigned mendacity, letting us know that taking a gene from a spinach plant and inserting it into an orange plant was just another day in the sun for these brave men and their government regulators. “Dr. Mirkov assured him that the agency’s requirements for animal tests to assess the safety of the protein produced by his gene, which bore no resemblance to anything on the list of known allergens and toxins, would be minimal.”  Minimal safety tests!  What more could a cowboy scientist want?

“It’s spinach,” he insisted. “It’s been eaten for centuries.”  Tell that to the United States National Human Genome Research Institute.  They seem to have not been given a part in this movie.  Tell that to the people with severe allergies that have cleared up when they stop eating genetically modified corn.

Spoiler Alert:  The film/article ends a with a shot of disease resistant genetically modified trees growing right next to trees suffering from the potential devastation of the bacterial disease that initially led our heroes off on their genetic quest.  A nice, hopeful, picturesque ending.  Yet those terrible activists are not yet vanquished, and seem to lurk menacingly near the vulnerable new trees, whose location is a secret behind a locked gate somewhere in Florida.  The science appears to be working, especially with minimal safety testing and no labeling.  And never one mention of the potential consequences of one strange protein.

End of Part 1

 

Next:  The History of the Hero-Scientist Myth