By Michael Pravica, Ph.D.
As a scientist deeply concerned for the welfare of all humanity, I was very pleased that Russia has banned the importation of genetically modified crop seeds after reviewing a recent French study that showed a strong potential cancer link in mice when consuming Gentically Modified (GM or GMO) corn. Concerning the epidemic of improperly and inadequately tested GM foods contaminating our fields and food supply, we should all be deeply concerned about the hasty rush to adopt GM crops without being fully aware of the longterm consequences to the environment and society.
There are a number of arguments made in support of GM-tainted food that I will refute:
Humans have been "genetically modifying" food for millennia. This is not quite true. Humans have used natural selection by e.g., planting only the seeds from plants with e.g. the highest yields which results in the enhanced expression of desirable traits (such as drought resistance or high energy content fruit/seeds) within the gene pool. This is a far cry from physically interfering with the genotype of organisms by directly inserting foreign DNA/RNA into the host organism's DNA/RNA. This has unpredictable effects that permanently alter the phenotype of the host organism. The properties of an organism are not just defined by the sum total of its genes but by the complex interactions between the genes, the locations of genes along each chromosome, and the proteins that they each produce.
GM crops will aid in feeding the world's burgeoning population. As GM seeds are protected by patents, they cost more and force farmers to be more dependent upon the purchase of auxiliary materials (such as weed killers and fertilizer). The nations that are suffering the most from skyrocketing birth rates are often the least able to afford these seeds. Addressing overpopulation by poisoning people, rescinding their ability to make their own food, and making them infertile is amoral. A more civilized approach would entail improving the education and promulgation of birth control. Also, the vast majority of food is wasted (some astonishing 40% in the US) in wealthy Western countries which are in fact suffering largely from declining populations and reduced life expectancy due in part to their poor, highly "refined" diets. By just reducing the food we waste, we could easily help feed the world's starving populations.
GM crops save the farmer labor. For mega farms, GM crops do help to eliminate the need to pull weeds and eradicate pests. This "scorched earth" policy of destroying everything but the "good" plants may work well for massive agro-business as long as no weeds or pests develop resistance to the chemicals designed to destroy them and as long as the plants don't need other beneficial symbiotic organisms such as Rhizobia that are destroyed with treatment. However, small farmers have for millennia manually tended their fields to support their families and beyond, living in harmony with Nature, without the need to apply toxic pesticides and fertilizer. This only compromises Nature's ability to balance, cleanse, and heal itself.
GM food is safe - it has been thoroughly tested. Problems associated with cancer/carcinogenic agents can take decades to properly test. GM foods were rushed (even forced) through in a matter of years which implies that all those who consume GM-related food are the guinea pigs in a very complex experiment which has an unknown outcome. Along with this, many of the toxic chemicals associated with GM crops that are used as feed may concentrate in the animals which then may hurt humans when they end up on the dinner plate.
Nature has been creating and testing organisms in the field (via evolution) for billions of years. It is the pinnacle of human arrogance and ignorance to expect that scientists will "create" new genetically modified organisms in mere decades successfully coexisting with natural crops and that these brave new crops that will not be toxic to humans and other life forms such as bees which are critical for pollination. We are merely scratching the surface in understanding the complex biochemical mechanisms associated with organisms and Nature's natural checks and balances that assure relative stability of the biosphere. Scientists have yet to create one living cell from scratch. The methods that "create" GMOs take advantage of poorly-understood machinery within the cell and therefore tinker with the essence of life itself. By mass planting GM crops, we are disrupting Nature on a very rapid scale which may irreversibly alter our food chain as these crops supplant traditional crops and/or cross-fertilize with them slowly homogenizing the world's food supply with inferior/untested organisms. The problem with this is that genetic diversity is strength and enables life forms to adapt to ever-changing conditions in the environment. Homogenizing the world's food is very dangerous from a strategic point of view as any novel virus, bacterium, or newly-evolved insect may wipe out these crops very quickly which will almost immediately affect our food supply.
Thus far, there has been precious little informed debate within the corporate-controlled mainstream Western media (which largely comprises scientifically-illiterate journalists) about the potential negative effects of introducing little-understood genetically-modified organisms on a large/corporate scale into Nature which has the potential to irreversibly alter our food supply and exhaust and contaminate our soil to the point of barrenness. I, for example, have sent off a number of letters-to-the-editor to mostly US newspapers about this critical issue to find none of them published. When a professor of physics (the foundation of science) has difficulty contributing to the scientific debate about GMOs due to censorship, politics is trumping science. What is also unfathomable is the massive efforts made by corporate interests to prevent the labeling of genetically-modified foods here in the US (e.g. Proposition 37 in California) and thus prevent US citizens from making informed decisions on the foods that they consume. If corporate leaders were so convinced about the safety and wholesomeness of the foods derived from genetically-modified organisms, what are they so afraid of if these foods are labeled as such?
I would strongly encourage more peer-reviewed, independent and longer-term research on the potential deleterious health effects of GM crops before fully adopting them as a replacement for naturally-derived food sources.
In various depictions of the Devil and other terrible creatures (such as the Minotaur, Medusa or Harpies) among many faiths and cultures, they comprise bizarre mixes of different animal species. It seems that even our ancestors were aware of the dangers/negative consequences of playing God.
Michael Pravica, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Physics