A Hippie’s Defense of GMOs

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 25 2013 10:48 AM

A Hippie’s Defense of GMOs

I’m a vegetarian yoga instructor, and even I can tell the case against genetically modified food is overblown.

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But hold on a minute. What if they had used a gene from a fish in creating this tomato? Would the tomato taste fishy? Would you have to watch out for fish bones in your pasta sauce? Not unless you've added anchovies.

Genes are basically bits of computer code that are interchangeable from species to species. When you isolate a tiny bit of gene, it doesn't retain the essence of whichever species it came from. You might have a bit of DNA that says simply, "Grow appendage X on the abdomen" but doesn't specify what kind of appendage. If you put that code into a fly, it activates the part of DNA that grows a wing. Put that same code into a mouse, and it grows a foreleg. It doesn't make the mouse any more like a fly.

3. GMOs are radioactive, cause cancer, and/or are bad for the environment.

This is a trickier question to answer, and I'll be the first to admit that we need more research into the long-term effects of GM products. But I'm going to bet that the answer turns out to be something like this: Some GMOs are safe, and others are not. Lumping all GMOs into the same category is like lumping all fertilizers or all pesticides into the same category. Genetic changes are only as dangerous as the proteins they encode for—just as in any plant. Consider how many "natural" plants have genes that produce poisons and toxins.

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In the case of the Flavr Savr tomato, I wouldn't be too worried. It simply blocks a protein that the tomato itself produces. In the case of herbicide-resistant soybeans, I'd want to know more. What kind of herbicide is being sprayed on the plants? Are traces of the herbicide still found in the food when it reaches our plate?

While I voted for the labeling act that was on the California ballot last year, a simple "contains GMOs" label would be of little use to me. I want to know what specifically about the organism was modified so I can reach my own conclusions.

Personally, I think the GMO scare is a distraction from far more important issues going on in the food industry:

  • A factory-farming system that's abusive to the animals we raise and results in unnatural, highly processed meats
  • An obesity epidemic resulting from subsidized corn crops and unchecked fast-food marketing
  • A glut of "natural and artificial" flavorings, sweeteners, and colors
  • Lack of access to quality produce in urban "food deserts"

If we really want to do something about public health issues, then these are the problems we should be focusing on. I'm not going to object to something that could have a positive effect on the world's food supply because there's a chance that something I eat might give me cancer 10 or 20 years down the line.

That risk already exists. I'm just as likely to get cancer from the unmodified but highly processed foods that are already in the market.

In the meantime I'm going to support those GM efforts that might actually do some good for the world. There's the Golden Rice Project, which fortifies rice in developing countries to combat micronutrient deficiencies. There have been attempts to genetically modify trees both to fight pollution and to decrease fossil fuel dependency.

And then there's the banana vaccine for Hepatitis B, which, due to regulatory restrictions, may be reworked into a nonedible vaccine in the tobacco plant.

I don't know about you guys, but these sound like pretty liberal objectives to me.

GM crops, combined with sustainable and organic agriculture, might do more to advance our cause than any other scientific advancement of the modern era.

By all means, let's march against Monsanto. But then let's put genetic engineering into the hands of forward-thinking, progressive scientists so we can start a real agricultural revolution.

This article is reprinted from Saul Of-Hearts’ blog.

Saul Of-Hearts is a writer, musician, videographer, and yoga instructor based in Los Angeles. He’s lived among various subcultures, and blogs about Burning Man and other places where art and science meet. Most recently he's launched a project called The Lateral Freelancer: How to Make a Living in the Share Economy, and an accompanying e-book.