Of Cancer, Greed, and GMOs

I get asked from time to time my opinion on GMO’s. People expect an answer, either pro or con. But like most things in biology, it’s complicated! Which often means that there is not a clear yes or no, that it is nuanced, that it includes lots of factors.

But, GMO crops are bad, aren’t they? Some countries have banned them. Etc. Etc. My reply is often that it depends. What has been modified and how? Some transnational mega corp takes a native crop seed and modifies it so that it won’t breed viable seeds in the field and needs to be hybridized to grow, and then requires the poor farmers to buy seed from them very year? And if you don’t participate, the corps takes you to court to harass you for stealing their patent when their pollen blows in the wind onto your crop? Yeah, that is psychotic greed in full swing. Modify crop plants to tolerate poisons so that you can spray huge quantities of your own patented poison (Round-Up for instance) and trash the ecosystem. More psychosis and short term thinking. Some scientist modifies a self-seeding viable rice plant to put more vitamins into the rice seeds so kids don’t get vitamin deficiency diseases? Sounds good to me. What if someone modified a corn plant so that it produced a complete protein with all needed amino acids in its kernels, and didn’t require fertilizer, and tolerated drought conditions? What would your opinion be? Would there be downsides? (You betcha there would be! For starters, humans would survive in unprecedented numbers and trash even more ecosystems, driving native plants into extinction.) Someone else modifies the genes of a house cat so that her kittens glow in the dark? Frivolous, in comparison to what else they might do, but… You might not believe the number of folks I’ve talked to that wanted to get one as a pet! There are always consequences to things we do. Some we call good, some bad. For a while. Then sometimes we change our minds later.

People are often afraid of what they don’t understand. They dislike it, especially if you get quick results. Cross breed and cull wolf puppies for a few thousand years until you get the genes for not only a husky capable of babysitting, but also a hairless lap dog, and a herder, and a swimmer that points to birds in the bushes – take your time with it and people don’t complain about how you changed the genes of the animals’ lineages. Insert a small suite of genes taken from a dalmatian and put it into a poodle to get spotted poodles and people’s opinions appear to change dramatically.  Kinda like you cheated by not having to go through many generations of cross-breeding to get the same result?

Should GMO be required or allowed on food labels? Of course! So should ice cream be labeled for ingredients like formaldehyde, rather than being exempted from labeling laws. And meat should be inspected using modern technology to protect the consumer against food infections a.k.a. “Food poisoning” or be labeled as having only been inspected by sight and smell.  But that is all about honesty in labeling, not about GMO itself.

The massive amounts of fructose added to our foods are probably more dangerous to our collective health than whether the corn was genetically engineered to produce an insecticide. But that is a “probably.” Something that should be researched before it is simply added to our food supply. People prefer certainties to probabilities. Perhaps such is why we tend to hold onto religions of all sorts, and various other beliefs. Religion deals with belief and certainty. Science deals with probabilities and measurable levels of uncertainty. Maybe this is also part of the religious fervor we see among those opposed to the use of gene modification techniques. A certainty that it is bad.

But often, those opinions change when the effects are direct, visible and prolong the life of humans. Cancer may be caused mostly by environmental conditions, like food and pollution and which microbes you associate with, but if dealing with cancer can be done by manipulating our genes, rather than the more difficult task of changing our life-styles, then GMO is likely to be seen as A-Okay by most of us, including those who oppose all GMO otherwise. Have a look at these recent breakthroughs and you will see what I mean.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-weapon-against-cancer-comes-from-patients-own-bodies/

http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/53784650/#53784650

Your immune system can kick out the bad guys and kill cancer cells. Your immune system can also kill you by over reacting. (Nothing in biology is all good or all bad.) One of my classmates died of leukemia when he was ten. He would be my age today, otherwise… I’ve lost many other friends and family members to cancer since then. Would they have opposed having their genes modified? What if the cancer recognition system in the immune cells could be passed along to their kids? Would you want that gift for your kids?

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