Monday, March 8, 2010

the big bad GMO thing

Well - I should be working. I completed a content audit of my client's intranet last week. I'm preparing to interview my staff and stakeholders this week and formalizing the content audit into "the way things are". My next steps are to start concept for the new intranet - but I really want the user input so I figured - let's publish that GMO thing so I can get back to the food - because I'm using the tagine again tonight for moroccan meatballs - or kefta.

Today’s entry is about our food and how it is grown. There’s so much fuss about GMO and insistence that it is all safe (reminds me of vaccines) – I thought I’d lash out a little bit and let you decide for yourself.
First I'll discuss nature's way.
What is open pollination? Letting nature do it (with a little help from us).
Open pollination refers to the pollination of traditional varieties by insects, wind, birds or other natural mechanisms (although I’ve been known to smooch a couple of zucchini flowers, use a Q-Tip to pollinate cucumbers or shake some corn and sprinkle on another plant). They have been selected and grown throughout history for their strong traits. They grow well in their designated climate without artificial inputs because nature has selected them to be winners!
Typically they have better flavor, disease resistance, and less of a failure rate if climate fluctuates slightly. These seeds are more adaptable. And one can sometimes expect variations in the genetic traits. It is thought that open-pollination increases biodiversity.
Popular examples of plants produced under open pollination conditions include the heirloom tomato. One of the bigger challenges in maintaining a strain by open pollination is avoiding introduction of pollen from other strains. Based on how broadly the pollen for the plant tends to disperse, it can be controlled to varying degrees by greenhouses, tall wall enclosures, or field isolation.
Some plants are self-pollinating. These crops will grow true to their parents even under open-pollinating conditions. Some variation can occur through gene mutation. This is an important place to stop – genetic recombination of plants occurs naturally without the influence of man.
So what I ponder here is the crops we grow in California and how many are really meant to be here? If you lose your entire walnut crop due to drought were those walnuts meant to be grown in California? In my mind – water should not be shipped in to grow the food we eat – this too is unfortunate.
Our Native American ancestors grew corn, beans and squash (incidentally – this is how I grow my corn, beans fixing nitrogen, squash providing shade and crowding out weeds below my corn) – directly in California they had many cactuses, tubers, tree fruit and other naturally occurring food stuffs – many did not have to cultivate crops.
The way Native Americans cultivated corn was to use a large group of plants with various characteristics, corn loves to cross pollinate – so they could easily create new cultivars naturally. You can then make your cultivar selection without controlling the pollen. For your fancy science folks this is called ‘half sib’ pollination.
At the beginning of the last century scientist began to self-pollinate corn and created some very vigorous strains by "weeding" out the weaker varieties.
For instance, there’s a particular type of corn that is heartier in dryer conditions – but it is multicolored. We (citizens of the USA) prefer yellow or white sweet corn, so this multicolored corn will be cross pollinated with the sweet corn to yield a new cultivar (simply put). For what it is worth I grow and eat the multicolored corn and it is WONDERFUL. Here is what Botanical Interests Seed Company says about the corn I grow:
No two ears are alike on these colorful 8"-10" long multi-colored ears that can include beautiful shades of gold, orange, yellow, blue, green, pink, red, and brown. A new selection of an heirloom dent corn, its ears are lovely for fall ornamental displays or for grinding into cornmeal for a delicious and colorful cornbread. (Dent corn is named for dent in the tip of fully mature kernels. It is higher in starch and lower in sugar than sweet corn.  
Note: to avoid cross-pollination, do not plant within 250 feet of sweet corn varieties. Or, stagger plantings of varieties with similar maturity days, 15 days apart. Or, you can plant varieties with differing maturity days at the same time.
The end note is quite serious – a hybrid sweet corn can ruin your Dent corn crop.

What is hybrid seed? (not quite the big bad GMO but still bad)
In agriculture and gardening, hybrid seed is seed produced by artificially cross-pollinated plants. Hybrids are bred to improve the characteristics of the resulting plants, such as better yield, greater uniformity, Cultivars are crossed to breed improved color, disease resistance, and so forth.
Today, hybrid seed is predominant in agriculture and home gardening, and is one of the main contributing factors to the dramatic rise in agricultural output during the last half of the 20th century. In the US, the commercial market was launched in the 1920s, with the first hybrid maize (corn). Hybrid seed cannot be saved, as the seed from the first generation of hybrid plants does not reliably produce true copies, therefore, new seed must be purchased for each planting.
They are the first generation of two different parental lines of the same species. They are however, an experiment, sometimes the traits you wanted to pass don’t, and sometimes they don’t germinate.
One issue to bring to light is the fact that farmers were being forced to buy new seed every year because of the thought that the hybrid seed cannot be saved and used again. Unfortunately it has also been reported that certain hybrids are difficult to germinate and maintain causing the purchase of artificial chemicals and excessive irrigation.
So is hybrid seed GMO? Technically – yes. But it must be noted that you can create hybrids of different cultivars in a more natural setting.
The actual production of hybrid seed is also an expensive process. 
This is quite unfortunate – the hybridizing program should focus on reducing those factors, not increasing them.
What is Genetically Modified Seed? (just a note – big baddy corporations that make this seed have actually tried to charge farmers when the GMO seed accidentally cross-pollinates with another crop not owned by the big bad corporation – that’s really disgusting isn’t it?)
Genetic Engineering is a subject of great controversy and debate. In the case of GMO and our food it is defined by altering the genetics of an organism to get desired traits. However, nature has been doing this for a very long time. Naturally, we should leave it up to nature and be very conscientious of what and where we are growing our own food. Nature has its own way of genetically modifying organisms through bacteria and pollination.
When we decided to try it for ourselves in a lab we got mad scientist about it and decided to build “tricky genes”. That is – taking genes from something that is not the actual plant or a relative of the plant, tricking the bio-chem, inserting it into the genetics of a plant at the right time and boom! New plant.
A little science lesson first:
Cells – base structure of all living matter – humans have approximately 3 million cells. They are composed of membrane, organelles for digestion, storage, excretion, and a nucleus – where the genetic code is stored. Proteins are the basic building blocks of cells. DNA is the genetic material that makes up the information a cell passes on when it multiplies.
The idea behind genetic engineering is to take parts of the DNA of one organism and put it together with another. You can’t just do this willy nilly you have to alter the communication of the genes to speak to each other because you can’t cross a fish with a tomato or an insect with corn.
How do they do this? Well – they use viruses. Viruses love their hosts and really want to start multiplying given the right environment. So all the scientist has to do it figure out what works together. Very simply put - you take a plant virus, the bit of code that controls the virus and the organism that you want to eventually steal a trait from and put into the genetics of a plant and “infect” the plant organism with it. (anybody remember Jurassic Park?)
This is not precise or perfect, cannot be controlled and can be unpredictable.
What do the companies that are modifying foods say are the positives?

  1. There are too many people and more on the way – lets create food for them! AND let’s make it more nutritious!
  2. There are too many insects eating crops – farmers suffer, people suffer, make plants that are insect resistant!
  3. It costs too much to hire people pick weeds – we can’t till the weeds – we can’t spray herbicides – or can we? Hey! If we create a plant that is RoundUp resistant – we can spray once? Right? One application of roundup is okay?
  4. Viruses and disease will destroy the crop I planted and spent lots of money fertilizing, watering and helping to grow in a climate it isn’t meant for.
  5. Our CLIMATE IS CHANGING (not Global warming – but climate change – the South East USA had 4 major snow storms this year – as compared to maybe 1 per year from 1980-2000) – frost killed the seedlings – let’s put fish “antifreeze” in there!
  6. Let’s change rice so that it has more vitamins so that the third world countries can stay over-populated but well fed.
  7. Vaccines require storage – let’s make edible ones that grow in the ground – just slice up a tomato and get your vaccinations.
  8. Let’s grow some trees that can suck lots of the toxic metal tailings we’re putting in the ground out and our ground-water will be cleaner! (uh...)

What are the drawbacks?

  1. Insects can be affected. Toxins in the GMO plants affect the insects that depend on pollen.
  2. The GMO plants can significantly reduce the effectiveness of pesticides and herbicides (we make resistant ones, nature makes stronger ones)
  3. Cross pollination and cross breeding – remember the first couple of paragraphs? Well – hello?
  4. Allergies anyone? Some of these gene cocktails could create new allergies or make existing ones more severe.
  5.  If it is hurting insects – do you think – maybe - it might hurt us in the long run? We have no idea what the long term affects are.
  6. It is expensive, all the way around – and the poor farmer who accidentally lets nature take its course and end up with an open pollinated cross breed? Well you get to pay Monsanto for your new cultivar.
Are the governments of the world wary? Of course they are – it is very early in this process and while some people have banned them outright – others have such concern for the poverty in their nation that they may end up utilizing them.  We need to approach this with our eyes and ears opened.
What about the good ole US of A? We’re so freaking bureaucratic that we have 3 agencies and multiple departments that deal with the regulation of these items. USDA (United States Department of Agriculture – yes – the ones who are responsible for e.coli and salmonella inspections) are in charge of deciding which foods are safe to grow. The EPA is in charge of deciding what could harm the environment and humans. Bottom line is the FDA can only deal with food additives, but in the end decides whether a food is safe to eat and because GMO foods are considered equal to their non-GMO counterparts they are not subject to FDA regulation.
The Earth offers us an opportunity for symbiosis. We have seriously scarred and hurt what we have been given for our lusty desires. We are messing with evolution, we see people dying because there is not enough food, and that one of the excuses for playing Creator (did we cause some of the poverty? Yes. Are we responsibly for raping the Earth? Yes.). We were given great minds – but also morality, if we cannot see and understand that in some cases this devastation is to create balance, that the Earth was not meant to sustain our current growth, we are blind. Misplaced morality for profit is just as dangerous as ignoring those in need.
What you can do:

  • Avoid engineered foods – and even avoid foods that are not grown with an organic process. Unfortunately – this doesn’t mean that massive amounts of money weren’t spent to amend the soil, create and apply organic fertilizers and pesticides, and that essentially illegal slave labor wasn’t used to harvest. It also doesn’t mean it is within your 100 mile food shed.
  • Demand clear choice and non-GE products from your supermarket
  • Join a local environmental group and campaign against GE crops and GE food.


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