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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Genetic Modification of Organisms

Today my son-in-law suggested I watch the film The Future of Food online with him.

The film clearly has the worldview that corporations have taken immoral measures to consolidate power and reap profit via biotechnology. The film makes no attempt to find any virtuous motive for the technological tinkering corporations have been conducting with biological organisms. For this post I'll ignore the legal and market implications, and focus on the biological implications of genetic modifications.

To create a genetic modification, they invade the original DNA with foreign genes. This part I actually don't mind.

Often the invasion is done by linking the gene with a viral delivery system. This I mind.

To mark the fact that the gene splice has worked, they include an anti-bacterial marker. This I mind.

And for an un-known motive, they are now including a termination function, rendering future seeds infertile. This I wouldn't mind *if* biology was controllable.

The result engineered plants that:

  1. Aggressively crowd out natural plants,

  2. Arguably reduce consumer resistance to antibiotics, and

  3. Produce sterile seeds, so future seeds must be bought from the corporations.

Resistance to Anti-biotics. Beginning with Louis Pasteur, mankind was able to curb infection with antibiotics. Over time, however, bacteria evolve, so that some strains are no longer harmed by antibiotics that killed earlier generations of bacteria.

Future infections will eventually have full power to kill again, as the vast majority of bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. Broadcasting antibacteria-imbued matter like so much seed corn across millions of acres can't have a zero impact on creating that resistance.

Viral invasion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). Biology is messy. The film shows multiple cases where GMO crops have shown up in fields where they were never intentionally sown. A discussion of genetically modified salmon projected the modified salmon could crowd out all the native salmon in a matter of 40 generations.

The very modification was inserted by linking it to a viral component. The viral component in something good at invading cells, like E. Coli. GMOs are intended to thrive, to be stronger, better, more aggresive than the native parent organism.

Over time one could imagine the GMO variant replacing the native parent crop, as well as the native variants of the crop, leaving a monoculture. This biological Ponzi scheme eventually defrauds humanity of the biological diversity that protects us the way a diversified financial portfolio protects and investor from failure of any one monetary asset.

The Irish potato famine happened because blight killed the near-monoculture potato crop. A million lives were lost.

But it's OK if we design GMOs to self destruct, right? Recently an additional bit of genetic stuff gets added when organisms are modified. After the GMO seed has grown, produced, and died, the seeds of the GMO are sterile.

This works just fine for the corporations selling GMO. That way customers always have to come back to buy, year after year.

If this self-terminating gene remains in the GMO and doesn't contaminate other organisms, we're good. In fact, this could be a great way to eliminate all GMO from world food production. Stop allowing sale of GMO, and the seeds from existing GMO will fail to reproduce.

But what if the self-terminating gene cross-pollinates into native stock. What if, after years and decades and centurys, we've created a world where the plants and animals we eat cannot reproduce without the technological interference of man?

Evils and Designs of Conspiring Men. I now understand why members of the European Union and other nations adamantly oppose allowing GMOs into their food supplies.

I understand afresh the concern about buying non-organic food.

And I read with new eyes a warning we Mormons believe God gave over 150 years ago [D&C 89: 4, 10-11]:

In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you...

God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof...

Those who first heard this could hardly have imagined a world where produce travels on average 1500 miles from farm to plate, where less than 3% of the population is involved in farming, where people consume food without thought for what season or continent is actually appropriate for that food.

Every time we purchase food, we're voting with our wallets. Those planes and trains and combines are forcing world food supplies to do un-natural things because of how we choose.

Let us choose wisely. Else a just God will lay blame for the consequences at our feet.

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