Day 9 and 10 Blog Post
By now we’re well aware of the effects of western ideals about land ownership. This country was founded on the grounds of land acclamation, “Manifest Destiny,” and the wild frontier. We’ve reached it, right? Geographically, yes, but now what about feeding all the people who are repopulating all the new land, on this continent and on others? The carrying capacity of the earth has been breached, and now there’s not enough affordable food to feed all the mouths, at least by organic standards. But human ingenuity has found a way to overcome yet another problem, and this solution is the creepiest yet – genetic modification. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, have been around since the 1990’s. Regulation and labeling policies are obscure, so it’s probable that you’ve eaten tons of genetically modified meat or produce without even knowing. The industry depicts these GMOs as a “biological revolution” in that science has altered the culture of our cuisine so much that environmental journalist Michael Pollan calls it a “new paradigm shift.” But which is heavier, the benefits or the repercussions?
Scientists are taking genes from organisms with desirable traits (like resistance to cold or increased speed of growth) and splicing them into the genomes of common crops. The huge agriculture company Monsanto developed its NewLeaf potato that has a gene taken from the bacterium bacillus thuringietisis (Bt) that allows every cell of the potato plant to produce a compound that is toxic to the Colorado potato beetle, essentially making the potato itself a pesticide. This removes the need to spray crops with other toxic chemicals, but since Monsanto patented the Bt gene it also makes every potato they produce technically the intellectual property of the company. This means that farmers can buy a bag of spuds for one season, but if they grow the potatoes from the same offspring they are legally committing fraud and are therefore punishable by law. What are the ethics of cell ownership? Weird, right?
This way of farming is unsettling because it completely changes the human relationship with nature. Darwin’s pioneering studies have shown us that in natural selection species will evolve traits that make them more adaptive to their environment. It’s a very long process and it only happens by chance of mutation. There’s also artificial selection, which when practiced was the first time humans had a direct impact on the continuation of other varieties of life. This is when people cause organisms to breed in ways they wouldn’t in their natural setting; for example most dog breeds and the mule exist thanks to artificial selection. However, genetic modification changes everything. This is the “first time the genome itself is being domesticated – brought under the roof of human culture.” It defies Darwinian rule. Darwin said that “man doesn’t actually produce variability” (in artificial selection) but now he does. The language on Monsanto’s own website is even a little unsettling: “Our breeders work every day to create vegetables consumers want to eat” …create? The scariest part is that we can’t really foresee all the consequences of physically changing the genome of a species and then letting this man-made piece of nature out into “real nature.” The idea is very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s recent movie, Prometheus.
The weirdness continues. We can’t predict fully what will happen when these genetically modified plants release their pollen into the wild for bees to scatter all throughout the ecosystem. We do know that transgenic genes tend to migrate more readily, creating hybrid organisms fairly quickly, but we have no idea why. “Jumping genes” pose the new environmental problem of ‘biological pollution.” Oil spills are disastrous, but physically they can be cleaned up – biological pollution is virtually impossible to clean up. The organisms with these new genes will continue to grow and reproduce and eventually become integrated into the ecosystem, essentially becoming a new part of nature, and the process is irreversible. Again, remind anyone of Prometheus?
An example of a possible problem we could face is if some insects develop a resistance to the NewLeaf potatoes. What would we do then? Resistance occurs all the time in nature. It’s part of the evolution of life. What happens when the super potato you just invented doesn’t do it’s job anymore? Now you have a useless organism containing manipulated genes that will just have its way in the environment. What’s even weirder is that the NewLeafs aren’t even regulated by the FDA, but rather they’re under the jurisdiction of the EPA because the patented Bt gene renders it a pesticide – a pesticide that will be eaten by tons of people. Another example of GMOs gone awry is the new salmon that have been genetically modified to grow twice as fast as regular salmon. But what would happen if these salmon found their way into the wild? Growing twice as fast, they’d out-compete all the natural salmon lagging behind. This could either decimate the population of their prey and/or cause the eventual dying out of the “natural” salmon, leaving just the super salmon with potentially no food left because they’re functioning at a pace that the ecosystem hadn’t been built on and therefore can’t keep up with. The snowball effect could prove fatal for the super-growing salmon because they’d have eaten all their food, and thus you’d be left with an ecosystem that ends up with no more salmon at all. This is why the Union of Concerned Scientists called for more comprehensive testing of GMO crops before widespread release into the environment. The way genes function to produce traits and evolutionary differences doesn’t jive with the brute-force genetic modification imposed on nature by humans. Stephen Palumbi gives a great metaphor to show this:
“Virtually all genes are orchestrated by other genes, and without such controls, gene expression would be like the whole orchestra playing every note of a symphony at once rather than letting the music flow out one harmony at a time.”
This is why we shouldn’t tamper with the interworking laws that nature has so intricately set up before we even appeared on the scene. This habit of “playing god” that we have will most likely cause more harm than good if left unregulated.
The National Academy of Sciences used its National Research Council to draw up a report on the application of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture and found five very possible issues: it could pose a threat to human health, a possible disruption of natural environments, threats to agricultural production from more rapid evolution of resistant pests, a disruption of third work agricultural economy, and there’s the principled objection to “unnatural interventions.” Basically it’s a dice toss every time you play with the genetic fabric of life. In an attempt to create a tomato that resists frost, you could end up triggering its mRNA to read the genetic code in a way that produces toxicity in not just the leaves and stem but also in the fruit – leaving you with frost-resistant, enduring, poisonous tomatoes. The scare of “super weeds” is also something to be weary about. The introduction of an herbicide gene into the natural order could cause hybridization that turns out more herbicide-resistant plants that will not only over crowd fields and strangle ecosystem balances, but in time will be ill-suited for the wild because of their dependence on unnaturally high amounts of fertilizer that only cultivars can provide. The real victim, though, is the farmer; who are slaves to the economic machine and to the price determined by the aggregate production of all farmers. Agriculture’s design around the monoculture – vast fields of just one crop – is ecologically backwards as it is. This infrastructural problem is a literal breeding ground for pests who feed on the one crop and makes it really efficient for them to wipe out entire fields. Now imagine if the pest develops a resistance to the genetically produced pesticide? Without the freedom to set their own price, they need to adapt to the whim of the market, and such a technology as this could easily ruin the livelihood of small business farmers. It’s a lose-lose situation for both people and the environment.
It should be noted that some genetic modification is great and necessary for some people. Without modifying bacterial DNA to produce insulin, diabetics in our world would be at a complete loss. However, it’s not likely that insulin-producing bacteria will cause harm in the natural environment if released from labs. So should that be the line? To limit our research and god-playing to the lab and only on innocuous organisms that pose no threat to the giant interconnected web of life? Liberty Hyde Bailey in his The Outlook to Nature said “If nature is the norm then the necessity for correcting and amending abuses of civilization become baldly apparent by very contrast,” and in his The Holy Earth he expands, “To live in right relation with his natural conditions is one of the first lessons that a wise farmer or any other wise man learns.” In looking back at the perfect wisdom that history has to offer, we can see that the destruction of the Native Americans were the “things that once possessed cannot be done without.” Let’s not reach that point, where we become so dependent on living by such artificial means, and the slightest miscalculation could doom the entirety of our species all for the sake of the perfect french fry. With all that science has provided for us, it would mean the most ironic end to the promising organism that we are.