Those who know the Quieter Elephant in the real world would be amongst the first to agree I was a bit of a geek. I love technology. But there are limits. I also espouse “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Falling firmly in this category for me are genetically modified organisms. GMOs.
Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a religious position. Far from it. I don’t have a religion, so it would be a little difficult.
I have a lot of respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson but I’m afraid his stance on genetically modified foods was a bit off target for me. The question asked in the video was specifically about transgenic plants. It was in French though, so I’ll give him the benefit. He gave a totally reasonable monologue about how foods are virtually all genetically modified – in the sense that wheat is a selectively bred form of grass, that cows are selectively bred wild bovine, etc. As far as this goes – I’m with him.
But that’s not the point.
To get from wild grasses to productive wheat fields there were a whole series of ever more productive – genetically naturally viable – intermediate steps. Each step was viable in its own right. Seeds were selected, and the next step grown. In a field. With rain. Same thing with cows. Modern cows could never exist in the wild. They produce unnaturally massive quantities of milk. If they were not milked by humans twice a day they’d likely die. However, each step prior to the modern cow was born naturally of a naturally viable earlier form of cow. Stretching right back to a natural wild cow, producing milk, but at a lower volume.
For me, the important point is that this selective breeding – though technically modifying the genetics of the breed – iterates through a series of intermediate steps that are each naturally “validated”. Each step must be viable in the world we all share. It must be born, survive to an age fit to reproduce and then produce viable offspring.
There are a few exceptions in the plant world where cloning is possible. The word is laden with science fiction potential, but in the plant kingdom it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon every time a branch breaks off and re-roots. It has the exact same DNA as the original plant yet now lives a separate existence. This phenomenon was used to save the ancient, spiritually laden Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii. It was felled by a disgruntled logging employee, and was thought lost forever – it was a male tree and therefore unable to produce seeds. UBC scientists managed to clone it from cuttings though.
Golden spruce clone
This phenomenon can be used to reproduce plants without the more normal form of seeds being used. This is how the seedless watermelons Tyson refers to are produced, and yes, it is true that in a human-free world they would be highly unlikely to reproduce. Same thing with bananas. Their seeds are not viable any more… for human convenience. However, by and large, our “genetic modifications” are bound by the normal processes of seeds/birth and natural reproduction. Forced, guided, evolution, you might say.
It is true that these processes of selective breeding can lead to some abominations. Just look at the French poodle if you need further argument!
Wikipedia: French poodle
However… they are genetically viable in their own right. “Natural” is a subjective word, but the intermediate steps were at least not creations of some Frankenstein process.
And then we get the “oo, I wonder what would happen if…” brigade. To be fair, some of our most exciting leaps forward have come from “blue sky” ideation. Just trying something to see what happens. Unfortunately though, we are all too capable of creating things that really have no place in our world. Like creating an explosive device capable of generating the heat of a small sun for example. And then trying it out on Japan. And then trying out an even “better” one, just to make sure we got the maths right.
So, whilst I can understand the excitement of seeing what might happen if you take a gene from a firefly, capable of making it luminous, and placing it in a plant, I shudder at what might happen next. This is what I refer to as a GMO. An organism that is genetically modified outside of the natural process. It is true that a few cross-species boundaries can be breached in nature (a mule is a sterile result of cross-breeding a donkey and a horse), but there is no possible natural way a firefly gene could naturally find itself inside a plant. There were no shortage of Kickstarter funders though…
Kickstarter: Glowing Plants
These laboratory procedures don’t merely speed up the process that could be done naturally through careful selective breeding. They break the rules. They merge genes that have no business being merged. This is where my problem lies. Natures checks and balances are being subverted. The natural balance that aborts “unfit” organisms, that sterilises incompatible organisms so that they may not breed further, these are all circumvented. Instead we humans are left as the only arbiter of “valid”. We, who have only inherited this finely tuned ecosystem for the blink of an eye. We who are ourselves an experiment in one solitary line of evolution’s grand enterprise. Yet somehow we ended up with the keys to the entire toolkit. The capability to disrupt the very processes that nature itself has relied on for eons.
Life itself will look back on humans and chuckle. Those silly little hairless apes. They gave the Earth luminous plants, four-legged chickens and perhaps some other things from Margaret Atwood’s all too prescient imagination. They have gone now. Long forgotten. The planet spins on. Better for their passing.
In the meantime, people are slowly waking up. Monsanto was met with stiff resistance in the UK and the EU around 20 years ago. People didn’t see the need for genetically modified foods. There was outcry that US food labelling laws meant that soy beans from there might contain some proportion of GMO content and not declared. It could therefore slip past EU labelling rules. Soy beans and soy extract were in everything. Same with GM canola oil. It was a huge issue.
And then we emigrated to Canada… and food labelling of any kind was rare. Sell by date? Best before date? Why would you need that? Over the years it’s got better and better. And then today, we visited the US and I was delighted to see that there was very prominent shelf labelling for non-GMO products. A real ground swell seems to be starting . It’s taken a while, but it’s arrived.
GMO? Not on my shelf!
For further reading, check out the Non-GMO Project.