Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book review: Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods

Yes, I will eventually cover the contents of this book in my review. Skip down to the "This book" section, if you want to get to that part right away.

What is GMO food?
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, and usually refers to genetically-altered food sold for human consumption. Research has been going on since the 1970's to figure out how to manipulate plants' genetic makeup to induce susceptability or resistance to various pesticides, to create produce with longer shelf life , or to impart enhanced nutritional properties. Sounds great, no? So why is there growing worldwide consumer concern about the safety GMO foods? That's complicated...

Fine, but what is GMO, really?
Part of the controversey is that the state of current GMO technology is not the idealized, precise molecular engineering advocates wish it was. GMO foods are not created by neatly placing an isolated gene into a specific, known location in a plant's DNA. It is far cruder: metal pellets covered with (plant) genetic material are shot with a gene gun into an agar plate containing the target plant's germ cells. This unrefined method is called "bioballistics", which is a good name for it, since the word does not conjure the image of an elegant and controlled technology. It is unsophisticated and haphazard. It operates on the principle that physical trauma (on a molecular scale) resulting from the pellet's collision disrupts chromosomes in the target plant, thus facilitating crossover of genetic material. When the test seeds are grown out, and a certain strain expresses the desired gene, you know crossover has occured. Unfortunately, there is no telling what else has crossed over with the desired gene (e.g. other genes, promoters, inhibitors, etc). Furthermore, there is no telling where in the recipient's DNA the material has been placed. Location within the gene is important, because that largely determines how gene expression is controlled (what promoters/ inhibitors it is subject to). By inserting promoters or supressors into the original plant's DNA, the process can interfere with expression of the plant's native genes. So when genetically modified foods are produced, nobody really knows the extent to which the original organism has been modified, let alone all the consequences from the modification.

"Presumed Safe"
If you think that foods created in this manner should probably be thoroughly studied before being approved for general human consumption, you'd be in good company. A lot of people feel that way. Unfortunately, one person who didn't feel that way was then-President George H.W. Bush. Through precedent-setting executive policy papers, he directed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Dept of Agriculture (DOA) to treat GMO products the same as a conventionally-created food product. These policies don't quite have the force of law, but they have a tremendous amount of inertia, especially now that they have been in effect for 18 years, because they essentially create an "industry standard". In this case the industry standard is "no standard": no additional oversight, regulation, or testing is required for producers to bring their bioballistic fruits and vegetables to market. The policy states that GMO foods are presumed to be as safe as non-GMO until proven otherwise. So, when big agribusiness declares GMO foods "safe", they are probably saying either (1) emperically, no GMO-related public health disasters have yet been identified; and/or (2) in-house studies have satisfied company management that the public health risks are "within acceptable limits". They are definitely NOT saying that their goods have been identified as a new sort of product, with uninvestigated properties, which have now been rigorously tested in this context for both short and long-term effects of consumption.
Why would Bush-I do such a thing? The answer lies in ongoing political and industrial shennanigans originating at least forty years ago, and you could write a book on that alone. In fact, somebody has. It's called [book:Seeds of Destruction|2511478], and I highly recommend it.

Ignorance is Bliss?
So where does that leave us right now? Big agribusiness (e.g. ConAgra and Monsanto), with multibillion dollar profits at stake, has no special requirements to investigate or demonstrate the safety of GMO foods. Such research would cost money to perform, and might yield unfavorable results. Concerned consumers, on the other hand, generally would like to conduct more study. Through the miracle of biased media, the vested interests in GMO have done a masterful job of painting themselves as level-headed and scientific, while depicting concerned skeptics as superstitious ,when in fact this supposed "hysterical fringe" are the ones clamoring for rational, scientific investigation. When a company spokesman for Monsanto tells you that in over 25 years of experience with GMO foods, his company has seen no adverse effects from consuming these products... he's telling you the truth! Not because there are no adverse effects, but rather because his company has not looked for any.

Shut up and eat your food
Well, that's the free market system we live in. If consumers are weary of GMO products, they just shouldn't buy them, right? Sorry. As happens too often, big business only likes the free market when it suits them. Purveyors of GMO foodstuffs have so far fought successfully against any requirements that GMO products be so identified on packaging. They wish to leave the safety of GMO foods unstudied/understudied AND to avert market forces from interfering with GMO profits by keeping consumers ignorant of what products even contain GMO. It's an outrageous situation. Without government requirements or big-business desire to study this, information about the effects of GMO is developing at an impeded pace, but developing nonetheless. Epidemiologic studies as well as research and reports on the effects of GMO on nonhuman populations are beginning to raise suspicion about the long-term safety of GMO... which leads us to...

This book (this part is the actual book review)
Genetic Roulette is an excellent companion to [book:The Gmo Trilogy|587099], for readers who wish to go into greater depth. The book explores possible medical risks associated with eating genetically modified foods, and comprises 1-2 page abstracts and essays by researchers. Some of these papers represent areas of inquiry that were (for reasons we are free to speculate) not pursued. Others are write-ups of anecdotal experiences, not intended for statistical analysis. There are a lot more hypotheses than actual conclusions here, so none of these works have reached the stage of becoming peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. Skeptics may attach whatever significance they wish to that fact, but the references to each article are published, verifiable, and legitimate. In fact, if the dangers of GMO foods is a topic of interest to you, this book is a worthwhile purchase for the references alone. The articles are all of a scientific nature, and do not address social, political, or economic issues.

One recurring theme which comes up in these pages is the idea of drug resistance transmitted from ingested foods to intestinal flora. A common trait of many genetically modified plants is selective pesticide resistance. The desired crop can then be sprayed with these pesticides. It was previously believed that stomach acid would break down the plasmids which confer pesticide resistance, but that has been shown to be incorrect. Intact plasmids have been recovered from intestinal washings. There is prescedent to hypothesize that these plasmids could be transferred to gut flora, and under the right conditions, could cause a multidrug-resistant intestinal infection.

If you are looking for clear, definitive answers about the nature and extent of risk that GMO foods pose, you will be disappointed. Declarative data simply does not exist at this time, and powerful economic and political interests distort what little information is available. The value of Genetic Roulette lies in the questions it raises, and in the interest it fosters towards developing a movement that will force these issues to be studied properly.

Power to the People
So that's it? Am I just going to raise your concerns about GMO, and then tell you there's nothing you can do about it? Not at all. If you would be more comfortable avoiding genetically modified foods until more substantial information is available about their long-term effects, there are things you can do to avoid them. Most important it to avoid buying from big agribusiness. Don't shop at WalMart or Safeway. Learn about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Buy from producers in your community, at your local farmers' market. Not only will you be keeping productive jobs in your local community, but if you get to know the people who grow your food, you will have opportunities to talk with them. Unlike with ConAgra, you can ask the person who actually grew your food about the things that concern you: were pesticides used?, was the seed stock genetically modified?, etc. If you don't like the answers you get, you can tell them "I'd like to buy from you, when you stop using GMO seed". CSA farmers as a whole are very responsive to their customers' preferences, and (at least in my area) consumer sentiment is decidedly pro-organic, and GMO-avoidant. With a minimal degree of effort, I have found local (i.e. within 50 miles of my home) producers to supply me with organic, non-GMO products, representing about 3/4 of my total groceries each week. That's not bragging- I'll bet you can do better. An unintended benefit of my farmers' market shopping is that I genuinely feel more connected to my community. I don't want to overstate this and end up sounding saccherine, but I pass a farm each day on my way to work, and it's not a faceless roadside feature; it's Mr.Sutter's farm. I know him. He grew the spinach I ate in my salad last night. I think there's a value to having ties like that with the people in my town.

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