Wednesday, August 1, 2012
The Irish are fighting, and I am not referring to the Notre Dame football team. At odds, according to the BBC, are organic farmers and government agriculture officials who want to field test genetically modified (GM) potatoes. Organic farmers, concerned about unleashing harmful genes into the environment, and the potential for “contamination” of their organic crops with GM ones, have launched a firestorm of angry rhetoric.
What the government scientists want to do is grow a small plot of potatoes that have received genes from a wild potato variety in an attempt to confer resistance to late blight, arguably the most destructive potato disease, and one that is beginning to develop resistance to existing control methods. Because the genetic manipulation was done in a few weeks in the laboratory, rather than over a period of two decades of traditional plant breeding, GM opponents are upset.
The debate in Ireland offers an all-too-common example of politics trumping science. The type of genetic manipulation being done with potatoes is known as “cis-genic,” meaning a transfer of genes between species that are closely related to each other. This is essentially traditional agricultural breeding, speeded up via modern technology. It is a technique unlikey to produce “Frankenfood.”
It is ironic that much of the concern over GM varieties and organic agriculture represents unintended consequences of government regulation that was initially requested by farmers themselves. Organic farming was well out of the mainstream 40 years ago when I first started learning about it. As the 60s generation grew up, the market for organic foods grew also. Advertisers began throwing around health and nutritional claims related to “organic” foods, and soon the organic farmers began clamoring to have their brand (which at the time could command a 50% premium over market prices) protected. So the USDA finally came up with a program for organic food certification. In the intervening years, this has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of supporting the small farmers who were producing artisanal products, the rules began shutting them out of the market and favoring big companies who could afford not only the high cost of certification, but also the futures contracting power necessary to arrange for, say, 50 tons of organic wheat flour.
If you go to the farmer’s market, you are likely to find only one or two certified organic farmers. Most vendors are advertising themselves as “pesticide free” (= we sometimes use chemical fertilizer), “naturally farmed”(=we try to be as conscientious as possible), “biodynamic” (=naturally farmed, rama dama ding dong), and so forth. It costs several thousand dollars to certify a farm, and sweet corn is $5 a dozen ears. Do the math.
One of the tenets of organic production is a prohibition on GM crop varieties. No distinction is made between cis-genic modifications (equivalent to modern plant breeding on fast forward) versus trans-genic modifications (putting bacterial genes into corn plants). Let us note, further, that the Ireland dust-up is over a carefully planned trial on a relatively minuscule acreage. The potato is self-fertile, so the wind cannot carry pollen from the fields. Upon rare occasion, members of the potato family are pollinated by flying insects, but separating the fields by a couple of miles solves that tiny concern. Yet, this experiment will have “grave consequences” for Irish agriculture, according to some.
With all that in mind, take a look, please, at the image at right. This is a tetra, Hyphessobrycon eques, a South American fish that has been in the aquarium trade for decades. It happens also to be albino. This particular fish, however, has had a bacterial gene for bioluminescence spliced in, and therefore it glows in the dark. I shot this photo at a local aquarium store. They have a tank full, along with albino zebra danio fish that also carry the bacterial glow-gene. Cute, huh? They sell like hotcakes, too, according to the store manager.
These fish are typically produced in Asia, shipped as small fry to Florida, grown to market size in outdoor ponds, and shipped to stores all over the country. During that entire cycle, no regulation, other than the strictly routine fish import permit, affects who may handle these fish and what they may do with them. Should a flood happen in east-central Florida (perhaps due to excessive rain from a hurricane), these fish could easily enter a river system and establish themselves. Although they would have nothing to interbreed with, as there are no tetras native to North America, their potential ecological impact is unknown. Numerous other species of tropical fish have established themselves in Florida waters, both fresh and marine, and some have caused serious problems.
One concern with all genetic modification is that it is difficult, although not impossible, to know if additional genes, of unknown effect, are present on the piece of DNA spliced in. Probably not, but still…you would need a complete DNA sequence of both this fish and a normal one for comparison. Given that two genes can be adjacent to each other and have wildly different biological effects, there is potential for harm. I’m willing to bet no such study has ever been done on these fish. I have no data for the tetra, but human beings share 85% of their genes in common with the zebra danio fish, so in the case of the tetra it should be similar. No apparent concern exists about importing thousands of these fish for pet stores everywhere, either.
I find it ironic that people get emotional about cis-genic potatoes, and think nothing of moving trans-genic animals all over the world, willy-nilly. Trans-genic plants are everywhere, too. The noteworthy “Mosquito Plant” which turns up in garden centers every spring, is a trans-genic variety. It is a geranium with citronella genes stitched in. Although there is no evidence the plant does anything to repel mosquitoes, people buy them. No outcry over “Frankenplants.”
In the United States, almost everyone eats GM foods without knowing it. If you consume French fries, corn chips and just about anything fried in a restaurant, you have very likely consumed GM corn, potatoes, and soybean oil. There is no requirement for food producers to label foods as containing GM ingredients. This, it seems to me, errs too far in the direction opposite an outright ban on GM foods.
There are some serious questions regarding the wisdom of allowing trans-genic hybrids into the environment, despite the fact that the horses are already out of the barn in many cases. We need more public discourse on the whole issue of GM organisms in food, what “organic” should really mean, and what regulatory structures might be most appropriate. People also need a better understanding, in general, of what GM actually invovles, on a species by species basis. And all of this needs to be approached without hysteria about “grave consequences” from either side.
Please add your comments to the discussion. What do you think about GM foods?