Genetically Modified Foods

All human foods that come from plants are genetically modified (GM).  What do I mean by this statement?  I mean that all plant foods that are mass-produced throughout the world for food (wheat, corn, barley, rice, vegetables, fruits, etc.) have been selected by humans over time and/or modified by chemical or other procedures.   The simplest form of genetic selection is that a farmer will select seeds from the most productive plants or fields to grow a more productive crop (i.e more tons per acre).

Another way that farmers have used from the beginning of farming is to supply various fertilizers and even more recently to add various bacterial strains that produce greater yields.  The current crops of cereal plants are so removed from their origins that they can be unrecognizable, with much larger edible sections and hundreds of times more nutrients and they are unable to reproduce themselves, with no viable seed dispersal means without human intervention.  Thus, the current development of GM crops using methods of molecular biology is merely a more efficient way of selecting crop seeds for greater yields with superior insect resistance.

This article is based on a talk that Irwin Weintraub, an agronomist, gave at the English Speaking Seniors Discussion Group in Beer Sheva, in which he showed a short video (at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqJAeReFr8I) by Nina Fedoroff, a leading geneticist and molecular biologist, who has written a book entitled “Mendel in the Kitchen.”   In this she points out that the prediction by Robert Malthus, a British scholar who wrote a book in 1798 entitled “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” that the exponential increase in population growth would outpace the ability to grow enough food to feed them, has not come to pass.  In fact, as time has gone on, the selection of plants, improved fertilizers, improved irrigation and mechanized agricultural production have produced more food than is needed by the current world’s population.  All over the world supermarkets are packed with a huge variety of foods because of the wonderful advances in production and distribution.  The main current problem is not the lack of production of food but rather that the cost is too high for many people to be able to afford it.

In other words, we need to produce food more efficiently in order that the price does not rise, but goes down, so that more people can afford the food.  This requires not only the most efficient selection of food seeds, but also the use of more efficient means to prevent the decimation of corps by bugs and micro-organisms.  For example, if there had been a means to prevent the potato blight that caused great famine in Ireland in the years 1845-49, then millions of lives would have been saved and the history of Ireland would have been quite different.  Now this can be done with genetic modification.

Similarly, massive famines in the far east, particularly China, were caused by failures in the rice crop.  There are two ways to avoid this, prevent the population from increasing so fast or increase the yield of rice per acre.  The Communist Governments first used the population control method, now they are using the production of improved yield rice.  The Green Revolution that occurred between the 1930’s and the 1960’s resulted from the development of high yield varieties of cereal crops.  Norman Borlaug is credited with pioneering this approach, which saved billions of lives, and he received the Nobel Prize in 1970.  These crops were selected genetic hybrids.

There is a current fad of eating only organically grown (OG) food.  This is a retrogressive step often taken by so-called progressive people in the belief that these foods will be superior to those grown with advanced selected varieties, modern fertilizers, pesticides and even GM.  But, there is no evidence that these OG foods have any advantage as far as nutrition and safety are concerned over regularly grown crops.  Further OG requires old-fashioned manure that is far less efficient than modern fertilizers and with less pest control, much more of the OG crop is wasted.  Given the rapid increase in the world’s population the move to OG products would result in more people dying of famine.

There is no evidence after 30 years of production, testing and use that any GM product is dangerous for human consumption.  In fact, one wouldn’t expect it to be, because the genes that are transferred from one organism to another to produce an improved crop, either for greater yield or pest resistance, have no direct effect on humans.  The changes are so selective and minute that such dangers are highly unlikely.  Furthermore, genes are transferred between organisms all the time.  Portions of the human genome is now known to have originated from viruses and bacteria, and indeed there are such things as “jumping genes” known as transposons discovered by Barbara McClintock who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work.  The fear that genes from GM plants will spread to other organisms is misplaced, since genes do transfer between species as a natural process in evolution.  So to conclude, GM is the only way to increase the yield of crops in order to feed the world’s growing population.

Advertisements

The Plastic Whale

“The Plastic Whale” refers to a Cuvier beaked whale that surfaced near Bergen, Norway, and then died.  When it was opened up it was found to have 30 plastic bags of all kinds and many other pieces of micro-plastic filling its stomach and blocking its intestines.   This is not unique, such findings have been made in other countries where whales are being caught and where they live, including Japan and the UK.

A survey of beaches in places as far apart as the far north of Norway and tiny islands in the center of the Pacific Ocean show enormous amounts of plastic being washed up on shore, so much so that it seems impossible to clean them.  Literally tons of plastic, bags, sheets, lines, buckets, toothbrushes, computer parts, every possible kind of plastic is ending up in the sea, and because it is indestructible it is remaining for many, many years.  A recent survey was made of Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll of the Pitcairn group of islands, and the astounding finding was that it had 17 tons of plastic on its beaches consisting of 38 million pieces of plastic!

And this doesn’t include the pieces of micro-plastic that are ground down by the effect of the sea and waves and are as small as the grains of sand.  All such plastic collects in the bodies of sea creatures, fish, crustaceans, sharks, dolphins and whales, and they are unable to digest/excrete them and it leads to their death.  What is astounding it that whales that spend only a small part of their time at the surface of the ocean breathing have so much plastic in them that they must have ingested in the depths of the ocean.

Who is responsible for this terrible state of affairs?  Of course, the public that uses plastic for so many things, but the consumers can’t take all of the blame.  Those who dispose of trash in the sea and the oceans are chiefly responsible for this devastating infestation. Also, the manufacturers of plastic packaging materials.  They must switch to new kinds of materials that can be degraded by sea and water.  People will be prepared to pay a little more for their goods if they know the packaging will not be polluting the planet and its oceans and killing its wild-life for generations to come.

Generally, I am not considered to be a liberal.  I remember being amused years ago by the bumper sticker “Save the gay whales.”  But this is serious, something must be done! Public pressure in Norway has caused the Government to agree that the Environment Ministry will take responsibility for cleaning the beaches and will change its policies regarding the use of plastic.  Also, they will bring a suitable proposal to the UN, because it really is an international problem.   A whale constructed from plastic found inside whales will be touring the UK.  Let’s try to stop killing the whales.  Let’s stop dumping plastic into the sea, let’s reduce the amount of plastic we throw in the trash.  It can be done.