Frankenfoods

There has been and continues to be a lot of discussion regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetic engineering (GE).  While there are many things that fall under this category, I’m going to stick to food crops (which is an expansive category in itself).

This is what I’m not interested in.

Although it looks pretty cool, and might entice children who are picky eaters to try something nutritious, I find the blue hue of strawberries completely unnecessary and unnatural.  It looks radioactive and reminds me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Speaking of which, who thought it was a good idea to let kids pal around with teenaged mutant turtles who were ninjas and took orders from a sewer rat?  That said, I loved that cartoon.)

What intrigues me is the possibility of using genetic engineering to reduce the use of pesticides, reduce environmental impact, and help create a more sustainable agricultural system for the future.  The blue strawberry above is an example of one kind of genetically engineering a transgenic crop.  An arctic flounder gene coding for an antifreeze protein was introduced to strawberry to help protect the crop against frost.  In theory, it seems like a pretty good idea to protect crops.  But I’m curious to hear the reasoning for using a fish protein in contrast to a cold-hardy plant from the tundra regions of the world.

Another hot commodity in the Frankenfoods debate is Bt corn.  Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacteria currently used in organic agriculture as an insecticide for particular crops.  Different strains of Bt are effective against different kinds of pests which means not all pests are susceptible to the insecticide.  The bacteria produces proteins which disrupt the gut membrane of insects, causing pests to stop feeding.  Currently, Bt has been genetically engineered into certain field crops like corn, soy, and potatoes.  Instead of the pest coming into contact naturally with the bacteria, the plant continuously produces the protein toxic to insects.  This dramatically reduces the insecticides necessary to control pests, as is the case with Bt corn and the European Corn Borer.  But it’s important to keep in mind that all the concerns about insecticide resistance and resistance management still exists for Bt crops.

Photo courtesy of Iowa State Entomology

Genetic engineering is not a cure or a method.  It’s merely a tool that might assist with production and the promotion of sustainable agriculture.  It is equally important that we proceed with caution and concern for social and cultural values.  It’s a complex issue that has no singular answer.  And that seems to be my answer for everything.

For more information, Harvest of Fear was a televised report by NOVA and Frontline exploring this issue.  The report can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here.  The Future of Food was a documentary on the same issue produced by Deborah Koons Garcia.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erin on May 1, 2011 at 16:43

    I wonder if the reason the gene came from a fish is just that someone was already studying that fish and its genes, so it was well known and available, as opposed to a hunt for a gene in a tundra plant.

    This also makes me think about the idea of putting an animal gene into a plant crop, and how this affects vegetarian/veganism. Would a label have to disclose the animal origin?

    Reply

    • I was thinking about that too. Scientific discovery seems to be a combination of hard work, coincidence, and luck. We don’t have any labeling in place in the United States. Although labeling of GMOs in the EU has been in effect since 2004, it doesn’t seem like it’s as effective as the proponents originally hoped. Totally uncharted territory with a complete new set of playing rules. Kosher labels may be greatly affected if pigs come up with something awesome to share with plant crops.

      Reply

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