Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Having family members who come to me for my take on various issues makes for great blog fodder. This time we have someone asking for my thoughts on a petition going around to stop the FDA from approving a new genetically modified variety of corn. My response follows:

I love that you come to me for this sort of thing. It’s a great way to keep my brain exercised through the occasional stints of mindless tedium at work. Without spending the 4 hours of research I took on our last topic, I do have a few thoughts on the matter.

First of all, as mentioned in the article this is simply a preliminary approval. This means the FDA has seen research showing it’s safe, and it’s en route to general approval. This is exactly when public input is at its most meaningful, but the tone of the article makes it seem like they’re trying to pull one over on us. In spite of that attitude, I fully recommend people share their thoughts, scientifically based or otherwise. If there were indeed shenanigans during the Bush administration, now is the perfect time to ferret them out.

As to the science itself, you can probably imagine I’m less cynical about GMO and herbicides/pesticides (-cides) in general. One interesting side-effect of the organic food movement is that synthetic -cides have become safer for humans and more effective on the target organisms. Oftentimes, there is a far higher quantity of organic -cides on organic crops than there are synthetic -cides on conventional crops (i.e. you should still be washing all your produce). Another side effect of organic farming is that it takes many more acres to produce the same amount of food. Ironically, organic farming is a pretty big contributor to deforestation. But this is starting to get away from the topic...

Back to GMOs, a lot of the fear is simply fear of the unknown. New technology has scared people since the dawn of time (the church’s enforcement of this fear is known as the Dark Ages). If you understand the science behind GMOs, they lose a lot of their mystical ominousness. GM research is really nothing more than accelerated selective breeding and hybridization. Instead of selectively breeding whole organisms, though, they directly select an individual trait from one organism and incorporate it into the other. The vast majority of modifications are simply usurping otherwise naturally-occurring genes. If it’s safe in the original organism, there’s an extremely small chance that it would be dangerous in the new one. And the difference would likely be obvious in the rare case it did have a deleterious effect.

Even if we do design genes from scratch (I’m not sure we’re there yet, at least as far as work on GM food goes), the end result is nothing but the addition, removal, or modification of one or more proteins from the resulting organism. Proteins themselves are completely broken down by digestion. Since they can catalyze other chemical reactions in the organism they may end up producing unexpected substances, but these would be easily detected when comparing the GM organism with the original. Assuming the side effects are safe, the proteins themselves wouldn’t pose any threat.

To reiterate, if you take the message as a simple request to share your thoughts with the FDA, then have a blast. As for their points of fact, it’s worth being a bit cautious though. For what it’s worth, we always default to organic when shopping, but we aren’t afraid to fall back on conventional if selection or quality dictate.

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