The Original Frankenfoods: Origins of Our Fear of Genetic Engineering

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Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein tells the story of a student named Viktor Frankenstein who performs a scandalous experiment – so scandalous that he keeps the knowledge of it from his closest family and friends. Broken, repentant, and emaciated at the end of the story, he pours out the tale of his hubris to a stranger. He has discovered the secret of life, he confesses; obsessed with
experiments in ‘natural philosophy’, he has been able to fashion a live human from body parts scrounged from graveyards and slaughterhouses.

Frankenstein.1831.inside-coverThe resulting demon’s arms are like those of a mummy; his lips are black and dry; his eyes are yellow. Everyone that looks at him, including his creator, turns from him in utter revulsion. Not even given the dignity of a name, his creator refers to him as the fiend or the wretch. As a sutured set of body parts lying on a gurney he was merely grotesque, but when he moves, makes sounds, becomes animated – this is horrifying. He is not whole. No matter that he can speak or move or think, his origin is not natural. He is an unholy mishmash.

Soul of a tomato

Startlingly, the language and pictures used by GMO critics play directly on language used by Viktor Frankenstein to berate himself.

Some of the first battles over genetically modified foods involved the tomato, and claims that a gmo-tomato-genes-in-fish-splicingtomato had been engineered with “fish genes”. But there are no foods on the market that have been modified by animal genes–that’s a myth that’s grown into a staple criticism by GM opponents.

For example, Michael W. Fox, Vice President of the Humane Society, in Superpigs and Wondercorn, said genetically modified tomatoes were neither whole nor natural. And activist Jeremy Rifkin challenged the ethics of the precise transference of single genes in a way that he never would about other agricultural technologies that involve laboratory-based scrambling of genes, such as mutagenesis, which has been used to create thousands of organic foods and ingredients. Prince Charles wrote a deeply felt article in the UK Daily Telegraph claiming that the realm of gene transfer belonged to God and God alone.

In 1992, a professor of English at Boston College named Paul Lewis coined the portmanteau ‘Frankenfood’ to refer to GMOs.

“If they want to sell us Frankenfood,” he wrote in a letter to the New York Times in response an op-ed that called into question the safety of genetically modified tomatoes, “perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.”

The moniker took off. Pretty soon Jeremy Rifkin was organizing protests with Frankenfood cartoons on placards, and Greenpeace diversified into other ‘Franken’ characters such as FrankenTony the Tiger. ‘Fish-tomato’ graphics were plastered everywhere, some showing a tomato with fins, or, with fish-eyes staring at you from a plate.

But wait. The Flavr Savr tomato – the first genetically engineered food on grocery shelves that set off all this kerfuffle – could not even be characterized as a Frankenfood. It had an introduced copy of one of its own genes, but as a copy-in-reverse, in order to turn off production of an enzyme that causes cell-wall softening by dissolving pectin. By blocking this enzyme the tomato could stay firm longer on shelves. If an analogy is to be made, this is more like a skin graft surgery from one part of the body to another, than say, transplanting a pig heart into a human recipient. Unfortunately, the tomato they used to introduce this innovation wasn’t a very tasty variety, and the fruit flopped with consumers, who seemed at first to be willing to give the curiosity a try.

So where did the fish-tomato caricatures come from? This was a different product entirely, the result of an experiment performed by DNA Plant Technology, that used a gene from the winter flounder that retards freezing to make a frost-tolerant tomato. This tomato never left the labs. But it was this one that became a rallying point for opponents of genetic engineering. A tomato crossed with a fish? Yuck!

That is instructive. What it tells you is that while there were a number of reasonable critiques of the science and politics surrounding GMO foods, what really got people’s goat was the mixing of genes from different species. Jurassic Park had recently been released. It featured a genetic experiment gone awry, where some DNA from frogs is inserted into dinosaur sequences, which allows them to change their sex (like bullfrogs) and breed. Paranoia surrounding this type of radical miscegenation was in the air.

Life as a oneness

I don’t get this fear, but many do. I have tried to understand it; the closest I can come to it is to suggest that people take a soul-based view of living things and do not like to think of them as composed of building blocks. They fear absurd color-by-numbers butchery. In recent times DNA has become a stand-in for this elusive soul and people fear the ripping apart of this soul into bits. It is a form of essentialism.

But genetic engineering is not the first time humans have built living things out of parts. We have been doing so for thousands of years, sometimes with great success. Not necessarily on the level of genes, but rather, with the living bodies of plants.

But, just like genetic engineering, each time these technique have been proposed, they have caused some initial Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

Soul of wine

Wine is spoken of as though it has a personality that does not take kindly to deconstruction. The French have a word for this – terroir, which is the unique stamp that the land, the climate, and the microbes in the air put on the final product. Imagine being forced to perform the crudest kind of color-by-numbers surgery on a grape vine.

hill-of-hermitageIn the 1860’s French grape growers around the Rhone Valley discovered a strange malady infecting their vineyards. The afflicted leaves turned yellow as though struck by an early autumn. The grapes shriveled and were unusable. As described in the book The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell, over the next decade the malady spread to nearly all the wine-growing regions of France. The crisis almost destroyed the wine industry and led to an exodus of small farmers from farms into urban areas.

Eventually (after some absorbing detective work described in the book) the culprit was found to be an aphid that settled on the roots and sucked on the sap, weakening and killing the plant. It had been imported on American grape vine cuttings that had crossed the Atlantic on steamships. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin had just come out; against that backdrop, scientists realized GP_Adults-juveniles-eggs2that since the aphid Phylloxera had evolved in the American continent alongside American grapes, those species (Vitis riparia, V. rupestris) had evolved means to fight them back. The European vines (Vitis vinifera) were new to the aphids and had no defenses. They were sitting ducks.

Some proposed an ingenious solution that drew from an important principle in technology: do not reinvent the wheel. Allow the American grapevine roots to do what they do best – fight off Phylloxera. Allow the French ones to do what they do best – make good grapes for wine. Make a compound organism by grafting French grapevines onto American rootstocks. This would allow the famous grapes such as the Cabernets and the Pinot Noirs to continue to thrive, albeit on foreign legs.

Would it work? The French were not enamored of American wines, to put it mildly. They tasted odd and inferior, with an impossible-to-describe rankness that some characterized as the taste of ‘fox’. It was too much for some to embrace a solution that depended so heavily on these substandard foreigners, the culprits that caused the Phylloxera blight in the first place.

It was the Frankenfood fear of its day.

People worried about the desecration of centuries of French wine traditions. They worried about foxy notes from American grapes creeping into their wines. Then as now, there were proponents of the new science, but there were detractors. Botanist Jules Planchon was an early proponent of the grafting solution who had studied the lifecycle of the Phylloxera in great detail, and believed that salvation lay in the evolutionary secrets of the American rootstocks.

“The goût foxé will never pass in the least degree to the fruits of the vines grafted onto these foreign [wet nurses],” he wrote reassuringly.

Many others were not convinced. Then as now, some detractors were scientists. Lucien Daniel, a botanist, insisted that the rootstock did indeed modify the characters of the transplant and ultimately the wine. The grafted wines by no means had the constitution of the old wines, he wrote in the Times. Then as now, he advocated a return to tradition and nature. “There is only one way, have done with grafting; to restore them by returning to the deserted hillsides; to cultivate the vine once more in accordance with the methods and experience of centuries,” he wrote.

Sound familiar?

Grafting of plants

Would grafting work? Did the foxiness of the American grapes live in the grapes themselves, or was it in the American sap that would be circulating into the grafted French scion? Did the American vines suck up foxy-making nutrients from the ground?

If some believed the latter, they would not be much different from the ancient Greeks, who knew about grafting, but thought that each plant achieved its uniqueness from the ‘specific fluid’ it drew up from the ground. To make sense of grafting, they believed that the grafted scion sent roots down (through the rootstock) into the ground, in order to draw up its own specific fluid. Well, if this were so, American vines were certainly drawing in foxy-making fluid.

But that is not how grafting works – as a matter of fact, it is pretty much a true Frankenfood, because much like the monster created by Frankenstein, it is a compound organism with different DNA in each limb.

Plants have an incredible ability to regenerate organs. The hoariest trees put out new organs – leaves, shoots, roots – all the way into the last years of their lives. The only comparable ability in the animal kingdom is the ability of salamanders to grow new limbs or of some lizards to grow new tails.

We use this ability of plants every time we root a cutting to make a clone. We also use this ability while grafting. The top half of a plant, with its growing tips, is fused onto the bottom half of another. This is more than an uneasy partnership. The wood has actually fused together, the channels within have combined, and the two are now growing as one.

VasCamLocationWhat explains this ability that plants have, and we don’t? Stem cells.

A growing tip of stem cells produces the new shoot as the plant grows. Stem cells at growing root tips do the same underground. But another layer of stem cells along the woody trunk, one that is responsible for growing the plant in girth, is called the vascular cambium. This produces the fused boundary of grafted plants. The newly fused xylem takes water and nutrients from the foreign root system up to the leaves. While the newly fused phloem circulates nutrients down from the foreign leaf system.

In fact, if I might throw out a conjecture, the ‘secret of life’ discovered by Viktor Frankenstein might well have been stem cells.

A type of sex?

This is not much like mating at all. The fruit produced is not a hybrid. In fact, this is pretty much the opposite of sex, which happens through gametes (sperm and egg) containing scrambled half-genomes to give to the daughter cells; while stem cells differentiate into organs, the cells of which have exactly the same genome.

Even when grafting produces the rare so-called ‘graft hybrid’ or graft chimaera, what goes on internally is not mating. A famous chimaera is the Bizzaria orange. This is an orange grafted onto citron. At the graft boundary, it produces a curious fruit that looks like a citron fruit growing out of an orange. But this is due to mixing of cells within, each with a different genome, rather than the mixing of genomes.gustave_foex

But confusions between mating and grafting have bedeviled its history. Jewish religious prohibitions against mating different types of plants and animals were applied to grafting as well; the citron, which is used during Tabernacles, is not kosher if it comes from a grafted tree. The New Testament also uses grafting of olives as an analogy for breeding. The natural graft of mistletoe on oak is a fertility symbol from ancient times.

Humans have instinctive revulsion of the ‘wrong’ kind of mating; partners being too close in kinship, obviously; but also partners without a kinship at all (or a too distant one) arouse fears too. Perhaps it’s fears of becoming too wild; or falling out of cultivation? So it is not surprising that any hint of mating too far makes people scurry underground with their hands held over their ears.

The same fears have bedeviled our modern-day so-called Frankenfoods – genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Many commentators, even usually thoughtful ones, decry that GMOs “do not happen in nature”. Well, almost no food we eat today “happened” in nature. Some, such as Ruby Red grapefruits, were developed by mutagenesis – years of radiation and chemical dousing in a laboratory. I believe invoking Nature is just a code word, and what they really fear is unnatural sex.

So is genetic engineering a type of sex? Just like grafting, it is pretty much the opposite. The random scrambling of DNA is the essence of sex. There is nothing random about the careful choice of a single gene and the splicing into a different genome.

Now when you think of scrambling, prohibitions against too-distant kinship make sense. Just as you would get gibberish if you scrambled two texts together even if they were both written in the same language, results of mating distant creatures are rarely viable. But if you instead took a well-chosen word out of one text to put into a well-chosen spot in the other, it could work. Its very precision and intentionality makes this a different ballgame.

A single word in a book is not imbued with the essence of the book – it is merely English. Similarly, the gene from the winter flounder that makes antifreeze is not imbued with the essence of fishiness. It is merely written in the DNA language of A, C, G and T.

When grafting was controversial

In the Botany of Desire, foodie writer Michael Pollan recounts the story of Johnny Appleseed, the frontier hero who introduced apple trees across many of the states then being settled. Famously, Johnny Appleseed was against grafting. But in order to make sweet, edible apples one needs to grow the exact cultivar by cloning as grafts on rootstocks. If, instead, you grow them from seed, you get the result of apple flowers mating in the wild in their merry way – a heterogeneous crop of crab apples. This was the crop that Johnny Appleseed got – not much good for eating but good for drinking as hard cider.

What did he have against grafting? An early article published in Harper’s Monthly by W.D. Haley claims that Johnny Appleseed denounced grafting as absolute wickedness because it cut up the tree. A later historian claimed he believed that only God could improve the apple. But the grafting of apples was a new technology at the time and its adoption was not seamless.

On the one side were agricultural reformers, the vanguard, who promoted grafting as a means to have farmers make more profit from a uniform crop; on the other – were an assortment of doubters.

Some were simply smaller farmers, who could not afford the expensive apple grafts, nor did they have access to a good road system that could bring them. They mostly grew apples for their own consumption as fruit and cider, and in that way, were satisfied with the random crop from seedlings. Some gave in to superstition against cutting up the tree, much like, apparently, Johnny Appleseed. Then there were the ‘scientific’ theories of Thomas Andrew Knight and Jean-Baptiste Van Mons that spoke of grafts losing vigor over generations, that turned out to not be based on sound science.

But the most eloquent defense of the random crop of seedling apples came from Thoreau. In Wild Apples, he made a very modern argument against grafted apples – that of biodiversity.

“It takes a savage or wild taste to appreciate a wild fruit,” he says, counting himself among the wild ones. Then he went on to appreciate the homegrown beauty of the wild apples; their gnarly, crabbed appearance, stained with red streaks and rusty blotches. Some have called this attitude of Thoreau’s a reverse snobbery, and of course, it is very much that. In his Ivy League philosopher’s life, he could not appreciate the need for a farmer to grow a predictable crop that would sell at a profit.

But I see his point! The wilderness is wonderful, and of course it is the engine of the mind-boggling diversity in apples, and in everything else. There is nothing comparable to the pleasure of running into a wild raspberry bush, for instance, and their flavor is nothing like the ones found on grocery shelves. Many of the more eloquent arguments against genetically modified foods are based on biodiversity as well.

But neither grafting nor genetically modified plants are the cause of monoculture. The cause is the need for a high-yield, predictable crop. If one is to do this for a living, this stuff matters.

So can we call a truce? The wilderness is nature’s technology, and farming is ours. While the wilderness is the wellspring of astonishing variety, our well-being does not enter into its calculations. It does not care about us one whit. But we do. We don’t all want to return to the wild and live by subsistence foraging. Can we steward the wilderness while promoting technology where it makes sense?

What changed

Now of course, grafting is not the least bit controversial (well maybe a little bit) and even the Permaculture Research Institute, a sustainable farming group that is strongly opposed to GMOS, has how-to pages on grafting. This despite the fact that graft cultivars share some of the same features that people complain about with genetic engineering – patents (check), lack of open pollination (check), tinkering with nature (check), focus on only a few genetic strains of plants, i.e. monoculture (check, this is true for all vegetative reproduction, not only grafts), more expensive inputs (check, because growing seedlings is essentially free).

So what has changed? In the case of the French wine blight, proponents showed that grafting made no difference to the taste of wine and was the only practical way to save the industry given the slow march of the Phylloxera, which continues today. In the case of grafted apples in America, the temperance movement’s war on seedling apples sped up the course of history. So, despite emotional resistance, either economic or external forces ultimately won.

In the case of Frankenstein’s monster though, there were no economic or external forces to save him. The irony of the book is that the only mistake Frankenstein made is to disavow his creation. Far from being a demon, his creation was articulate and possessed fine sensibilities. He read and discoursed on Milton’s Paradise Lost. He once saved a woman from drowning. He secretly shoveled snow and collected firewood to help a poor family. He had a deep capacity for love.

One might even call him a genetic miracle.

As for the undiscerning, pitchfork-throwing public–the one that Paul Lewis called upon in his letter? A certain Internet phrase comes to mind, a phrase that is so fitting that Mary Shelley might well have subtitled her book with it. Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt.

Aneela Mirchandani is a software engineer by profession, a writer and biology geek. She blogs about food at The Odd Pantry. Her work has appeared in Harpur Palate and The Indian P.E.N. You can follow @theoddpantry on Twitter or email her [email protected]

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  • Channapatna Prakash

    Absolutely fascinating! Provides much insight and history of why a few people feel squeamish with ‘kinky’ stuff in plants!

  • Sean

    This article failed. It’s simply pretends people are science ignorant and superstitious. There’s zero mention of Monsanto. There’s not a single word about rampant bad behavior by food corporations. Just one long giggle at a strawman.

    • Thanks for your comment. I deliberately did not focus on that aspect because GMOs do not begin nor end with Monsanto. And also, lots (and lots) of ink has been spilled on that particular subject all over the Interwebs, by abler writers than me.
      This may not be your particular critique, but I do hear over and over from people that they do not like GMOs because they don’t happen in nature. This is what I wanted to focus on.

    • Eco-Sustainable

      It’s not that people are science “ignorant”. What the article wants to say is that “genetic modification of crops” stirs irrational fears to people not educated enough to understand them. There’s this phobia of “unnatural”, “abnormal” and “deviant” among many individuals and when they argue about it, they usually spout nonsense, logical fallacies and inconsistencies in their arguments.

    • RobertWager

      Would you mind giving examples of the”bad behaviour” please.

  • mem_somerville

    Did you know grafted plants trade genes too? http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/01/unintentional-genetic-engineering-grafted-plants-trade-gen/

    Yeah. So add that to the list of inconsistent arguments.

    • Very interesting link. There are always wheels within wheels or is that too much of a mixed metaphor.

  • What will happen as insects become resistant to Bt, and weeds become resistant to Roundup and 2,4-D and Dicamba? Well, you gung-ho chemical agriculturalists will turn to more potent (and toxic) variations–and life on Earth will be further degraded. Think that development of resistance is unlikely? It is guaranteed. You better think more about the agricultural system. Our agricultural thinking is juvenile–including the Go-Go GMO camp.

    • Swaygan

      Crop and pesticide rotation is up to the farmers. You have the same issue with already way more toxic organic pesticides. even if we do develope more synthetic pesticides odds are they will be made safer to us and the environment than drenching crops with loads of organic pesticides.

      • I strongly advocate much more study of agricultural ecology, and the vigorous search for alternatives to agriculture that relies on the use of biocides.

    • Resistance is a real issue, but is bigger than GMO. For instance, we use mosquito dunks in our backyard pond to keep mosquitoes from breeding in it. This is recommended as a sustainable and safe pesticide, because it leaves non-target species alone. It is considered organic (http://www.bt.ucsd.edu/organic_farming.html).

      But lately I realized that mosquito dunks are nothing but Bt. This is the same Bt that is generated by GMO Bt crops. The resistance issue is the same in both methods.

      • Organic agriculture uses many techniques to control pests, other than insecticides–like having a healthy and living soil, having a varied biotic community, having hedgerows etc., using nitrogen fixing crops, using crop rotation and fallow, extensive use of compost, “tithing” nature (i.e. letting the bugs eat some), using smart entomological techniques like predatory insects and infertile males etc. And people will have to develop many more. ….. We have to stop our mad use of half-baked chemistry to solve our problems. People’s current employment of Genetic Engineering, unfortunately, is continuing and deepening our over-reliance on quick-fix chemicals that are hugely messing things up. And so many scientists seem totally unaware of this! This is the case partly because rigorous science has not yet made this completely clear, and partly because scientists, like everyone, have limited insight and understanding. ….. When people understand better the nature of life on Earth (if we ever get there), they will look back at our time and shake their heads at our ecological and spiritual ignorance–and chemical madness.

        • RobertWager

          Many of those techniques are also used in conventional agriculture. IPM is good for all forms of agriculture.

        • You make excellent points. So excellent, in fact, that there is no reason GMO farmers can’t use them. As a matter of fact, they do. Some farmers I spoke to in India mentioned that they are taught some of these techniques while using Bt cotton seeds.

          • Well, it is very troubling that one of the most used GM techniques enables the increased use of increasingly dangerous herbicides. I do, by the way, accept the use of GMO’s in a Wise way–which means thorough testing (none of that substantially equivalent stuff), rapidly moving away from using environmentally hazardous chemicals, rapidly moving away from needing fossil-fuel based inputs, and fully involving the public in changes that directly effect them–by labeling GMO’s, and discussing the issues. Stop this corporate coup d’etat stuff. If corporations were people, many would be sociopaths.

          • Jackson

            Well, it is very troubling that one of the most used GM techniques enables the increased use of increasingly dangerous herbicides

            This is not true. You are talking about glyphosate, so the GM technology enables the increased use a less toxic herbicide to replace more harmful means of controlling weeds.

          • Roundup, Roundup Weatermax 2, 2,4-D, Dicamba. And next? Chemical farming is a huge problem.

          • Jackson

            Right, you just named a bunch of relatively non-toxic chemicals.

          • I’m sorry, that is ecological, toxicogogical ignorance. Don’t worry! Many conventionally informed people think that.

          • Jackson

            Where are you getting your information that glyphosate is super toxic? Do you have evidence for that?

          • I said, Roundup, Roundup Weathermax 2, 2,4-D, Dicamba. And next?

          • JoeFarmer

            “increasingly dangerous herbicides”?

            Nonsense. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Be as insultive as suits you. 2,4-D is widely, and by some rigorous science, regarded as more dangerous than Roundup, and a serious problem. Roundup Weathermax 2 is likely much more dangerous than Roundup. Dicamba is more toxic than Roundup. Roundup itself does not have a clean bill of health, and is more dangerous than glyphosate. As weeds develop resistance to these herbicides, more toxic ones will be used by the chemical mindset. Most modern farmers don’t know the ecological chaos they sow.

          • JoeFarmer

            What do the EPA registration and re-registration files say? Didn’t look at those, did you?

          • EPA is a political organization first, a scientific organization second.

          • JoeFarmer

            So, in other words you can’t be bothered to look at the facts in the files.

          • We have to be aware of what we are getting into.

          • JoeFarmer

            Speaking of aware, it’s becoming clear that I’m wasting my time on you.

          • Only because you are totally mired in 20th century mutant agriculture, both its good and its bad aspects. I suggest realizing that both profligate use of fossil fuels and poisoning of the bio-sphere with toxic chemicals have to be abandoned.

        • JoeFarmer

          “Organic agriculture uses…like having a healthy and living soil…”

          That is not exclusive to organic producers. You really spend more time learning and less time preaching.

          • John Zohn

            Look who’s talking. That comment coming from a guy who spends 18 hours a day preaching the gospel of Monsanto, and doing it for free no less.! Hate to think you might just need to get a life

          • JoeFarmer

            You sure are interested in me and what I do! The other day you even posted something about going through all of my posts!

            Even though your agricultural knowledge is limited to picking up a box of something at the CSA, feel free to keep following me like a little lost puppy. You might actually learn something about agriculture in the process.

          • Yea, chemical nitrogen fertilizers are so good for soil. The humus just sucks it up! You can be as chemically mad as you want–but don’t screw up everyone else’s planet, please. Pleas.

          • JoeFarmer

            Do you want to have a discussion about the role of nitrobacter and nitrosomonas in mineralization of Nitrogen in both organic and conventional fertilizers?

            What happens to the bacteria when an organic farmer uses tillage for weed control?

          • What are you chemically dependent farmers going to do, now that fossil fuels are quickly going to become much much less available–which is obviously the case? Are we all going to starve, or just many or most of us?

          • JoeFarmer

            Like I keep saying, you should learn more and type less.

            Where do you think organic farmers get their manure from? They get it from livestock that are fed GM grain, and that GM grain is fertilized with modern fertilizers!

          • Modern fertilizers will rocket in price. Maybe you are one of those blind as a coffin-nail Republicans who do not believe in global warming or peak oil. God help us!

          • Organic farming, using people and animals for all labor, and manure and nitrogen fixation for all fertilizer(*), absolutely works as a farming system! All agriculture was organic, without fossil-fuel input, for thousands of years, all over the Earth! —–note–(*)–I would add a little phosphorous.

          • Jackson

            Probably rely more on GMOs.

          • Agricultural Science

            Organic farmers use cultivation for weed control. Cultivation is a field operation in which a tillage tool is pulled by a tractor. Tractors are powered by fossil fuels. Therefore organic farmers are also dependent on fossil fuels.

          • More human labor will be required. I see no avoiding it, save death.

          • Erin Oakley

            Tractors are powered by fossil fuels.

            I guess you haven’t seen my tractor….

          • Agricultural Science

            Good job JoeFarmer, is nice see someone making comments about farming that actually understands agriculture.

          • Yea. And ecology. And toxicology. And politics. And humanity. And business. And ethics. And history. And truth. And health. And religion. And life.

        • Agricultural Science

          You may want
          to do a better job with your research. Just a few quick facts:
          – modern pesticides are not carcinogens at normal use rates
          – 99% of the carcinogens you ingest are natural (Bruce Ames, UC-Berkley)
          – low yielding organic production (generally 25-50% lower) leads to a need to farm more acres for the same amount of food which means less land for wildlife
          – organic production requires tillage for weed control. This leads to more erosion and
          increase fuel use – global warming.
          http://whyentrepreneurs.wordpress.com/page/72/.
          – cover crops can be very beneficial but in some conditions can also cause problems. In
          dry springs, cover crops can remove enough moisture from the soil through transpiration reducing crop growth. Also, the dry soils can prevent penetration of cultivation equipment
          needed for weed control.
          – organic production does not allow the uses of inorganic nitrogen, the land is often rotated into a legume crop just to build N. This is good, but removes more land from production and will again result in more environmentally sensitive land being farmed.
          – Be aware that organic farmers do use pesticides approved for their use, such as iron
          sulfate, copper sulfate, manganese sulfate, rotenone, pyrethrin, and nicotine-(that’s like forcing cute innocent insects to smoke cigarettes).
          – large independent studies have shown organic food to be no healthier than conventional

          An interesting verse, “In Balance with Nature”:
          http://paradigmsanddemographics.blogspot.com/2009/01/in-balance-with-nature.html

          • Realizing that we would better behave in a ecologically sensible way is not going to return us to the past–living ecologically would bring us to a better future! What are you chemically dependent farmers going to do, now that fossil fuels are quickly going to become much much less available–which is obviously the case? Do you realize that the ecological effects of massive mixtures of many toxins, as occurs anywhere near industrial society, in largely or totally untested? In other words, we are scientifically ignorant about every toxic chemical! That includes Roundup, glyphosate, 2,4-D, Dicamba, and all of the other pesticides that you go, go GMOers swear up and down are as harmless as water. Do you hear that? Shame on all you scientists who think you know so much about the impact of industrial age chemicals on life on Earth. You are all, pardon my saying so, doubly ignorant–you don’t, in fact, know what you are doing, but in your scientific hubris, you think that you do.

          • JoeFarmer

            Please learn more and preach less. You are in no position to lecture anyone that has any knowledge of science.

          • I suggest that you try to put things together better. That is fit work, for a person. Much needed! Helpful! Productive! Good! I would root for you!

          • Pardon me, my lord.

          • JoeFarmer

            You’re a time waster.

          • – . –

        • hyperzombie

          like having a healthy and living soil,

          What about Organic Hydroponically grown crops, no soil needed?

          having a varied biotic community,

          What about all the mono cropped Organics and ones grown in greenhouses?

          having hedgerows etc.

          A fence? most farmers have fences, living or not.

          using nitrogen fixing crops

          I do believe conventional farmers grow soy, peanuts, clover, and alfalfa as well. Jeepers

          using crop rotation

          All farmers do this, well almost all.

          and fallow

          That is just a horrible waste of land and fuel.

          extensive use of compost

          Once again all farmers so this, even more so in conventional farming.

          “tithing” nature (i.e. letting the bugs eat some)

          That is just stupid, if you let the bugs eat some, they will want more next year.

          using smart entomological techniques like predatory insects and infertile males etc.

          That is just IPM, invented by conventional farmers,

          We have to stop our mad use of half-baked chemistry to solve our problems.

          yet you think that chemicals invented 50- 100 years ago are perfectly fine? Copper sulphate any one?

          People’s current employment of Genetic Engineering, unfortunately, is continuing and deepening our over-reliance on quick-fix chemicals that are hugely messing things up.

          What?? sure lets fire the scientists and give them a hoe to weed fields, that is a good plan.

          • Hedgerows aren’t just fences–they are reservoirs of biotic diversity. …..
            When fossil fuels are not available, conventional farmers will rely much more on nitrogen fixation. ….. All farmers are going to have to rely much more on human labor–that is just the way it is. ……There are better ways to farm than using toxic chemicals. …..
            I recommend hiring many agroecologists, and figuring out how we can better do things. And unemploying many agricultural chemists, those who are not also well educated about ecology …. Tithing nature makes total sense–it has to be done in a thoughtful way. If you try to avoid it, you will cause larger problems ….. The biggest key, perhaps, is cultivate biodiversity. ….. Some environmental poisins are certifiable organic–it is a big mistake to use them. ….. compost is very big in organics —– I certainly never implied that conventional farmers are stupid! —– Commercial organic is far from perfect–but is a step in the right direction. We need many more. If we do not make those steps, we will disintegrate–slowly.

          • hyperzombie

            Hedgerows aren’t just fences–they are reservoirs of biotic diversity. …..

            yep, and do you know what is a better reservoir of diversity? NOT plowing in the first place. Support GMOs and reject the land wasting “Organic” system and save the wilderness.

            When fossil fuels are not available,

            Hmmm, a peak oiler as well as an Anti-GMOer. Wow.

          • Yea. Those toxic chemicals sure feed the biologic diversity! And they help us to create such fine minds!….. Peak oil–sooner(Now) or later(50 years?). Deny it–that’s brilliant. I guess our youth, health, and good looks will last forever, too. The truth is, climate change by itself is quite sufficient to end our profligate fossil-fuel use. ….. Actually, I’m not anti-GMO. I’m an anti go-go GMOer, some of whom would rape their mother, the Earth, if there was profit in it.

      • JoeFarmer

        The Bt used in mosquito dunks is Bti. It is not the same Bt that is used in biotech crops, but it is similar.

      • BioSciNerd

        Do you know that Bt is used in organic farming?

    • Dennis Goos

      “Resistance is futile”

      • Speaking loudly for ecological considerations is not futile. When people finally tune into ecology, they will realize that all of human life is embedded in ecosystems, and that destroying those ecosystems (at least, many of them) is destroying ourselves–and degrading those ecosystems is degrading ourselves.

        • Dennis Goos

          I quoted the literary phrase tongue in cheek but it does apply in evolution. Whether resistance occurs because of human intervention or natural selection , it will be overcome in time. Ecologies are not fixed, even with human adaptations.Degradation is simply an unpleasant word for ecological change toward a goal undesired by one and preferred by another.Evolution is absolute but the products thereof are in constant change.

          • No organism we know of, other than some crazy or confused or deluded people (many modern people, in practise), prefers a biologically less rich environment.

          • Dennis Goos

            True. Ten years ago people were telling me that insect attacked only weakened plants arising from “less rich environment”. I wished this was true as I could then intentionally have some weakened plants in the greenhouse to draw the insects and spare the healthy plants in the other areas. My experience was that all the plants I grew, preferred environments less biologically rich in insects. I am pleased today’s growers have an easier path.

          • It is animals that prefer things, and preferring an environment radically simplified by chemical toxins is only done by crazy, short-sighted people. Who are operating from understandable motives–like the desire to reduce labor and increase food production. But who are acting in ecologically and spiritually ignorant ways–reducing life on Earth, rather than increasing life on Earth.

    • Stuart M.

      This has been the history of agriculture, and medicine, too. The target pests, weeds, or in the case of medicines, bacteria, viruses, etc., eventually develop resistance, and new herbicides, pesticides or drugs must be invented to combat these new strains. Does this mean we should never have used any of these tools in the first place? We should have just starved as our crops began to fail, we should have just died when diseases like polio and tuberculosis spread uncontrolled? No, our ingenuity has so far allowed us to stay one step ahead of the next scourge. The alternative would have been mass die-off. Think things through to their end and you will embrace science instead of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

      • And when will society’s ingenuity advance to the point that we realize that the sensible way to go is to work to create complex agro-ecosystems with many species of plants living together–not huge monocultures–which seem more economical, in the short term and to capital, but when people finally realize that we are creating artificial ecosystems that require huge inputs of toxic chemicals and fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and fossil-fuel powered machinery, they will turn and work more diligently with nature, and create complex plant/animal communities. That is, if short-sighted people have not already ruined the climate and the intricate chemical balance of life. I dare say, mark these words. They are complex, but hold much.

        • Jackson

          I would bet when the price of fertilizer and chemical pest control become greater than the value of the increased production of mono-culture.

          • May well be, but I suggest not waiting till then. If people paid the real costs of chemical agriculture, people would look for a better system now.

  • Brian Sandle

    I’m afraid of GMO foods making babies grow too big. In a recent application to release a new GMO food in Australia and New Zealand there were details of a short test on rats. Though they ate no more they grew bigger on GMO food. I suggest the inserted promoter for the gene is causing phytoestrogens to express more. They would act like steroids on the infants. Some decades back in Africa parents would take malnourished children who were not growing to the doctor. DOctor would prescribe steroids which wold give a growth spurt but but cause early maturation and cessation.

    • Jackson

      Do you have a link to the study or the journal name or the authors’ names?

      • Brian Sandle
        • Jackson

          Sorry, I was unclear. I meant the short rat study you were talking about. Or the study showing GMOs making babies grow too big, or GMOs producing increased levels of phytoestrogens.

          • Brian Sandle

            It’s on the “Indian-Eco-Goddess” thread.

    • BioSciNerd

      Can you provide a link to this GMO study, the title of the study or at the very least the names of the researchers who did the study?

  • Yes, well you should recognise that, in spite of the many similarities, Genetic Engineering is deeply different from anything that has gone on before. By denying this, the G.E. industry has gotten into deep trouble with the public. Lying and distortion will do that.

    • Eco-Sustainable

      You are making it sound dramatic when in fact genetic engineering doesn’t pose new risks than the good old fashioned mutation breeding. Ever heard of mutagenesis before, a method that deliberately exposes seeds to chemicals and radiation to generate mutants that may probably have desirable traits?

      • G.E. is deeply different–go ahead–pretend it is not. That is disengenuous, to say the least. ………………. It is premature to say that G.E. does not pose new risks. A GMO probably killed dozens of people, and injured thousands. (See Showa Denko tryptophan disaster.) To me, mutagenic breeding is irresponsible.

        • Eco-Sustainable

          It’s your opinion. But facts are facts. The incident you are talking about is a “quality control and product purification” issue, not a “GMOs are evulz” issue. While you are bashing genetic engineering per se, GMO-derived products continue (and WILL continue) to improve the quality of life of thousands of people.

          Ever heard of recombinant insulin? Anti-cancer monoclonal antibodies? How about the tools used in molecular biology to study diseases and to discover new therapies? Ever heard of recombinant enzyme therapy before?

          Genetic engineering can produce good AND bad results. You’re just making it sound like it is the most evil tool Humankind has ever made, when it is really not the case. Everything has its risks and disadvantages, even organic farming and organic foods.

          And you need a Mutant Variety Database, for crying out loud! Mutagenesis can be considered as a non-rational genetic modification of cells/species but it bears little resemblance to the more precise method of Genetic Engineering. Please review your science.

          • I have not bashed Genetic Engineering, said that it is evil, or portrayed it as an evil tool.

            I agree, Genetic Engineering can produce good and bad results.

            I believe it’s introduction to society, by profit-driven corporations, has been truly ugly. Many lies about it have been broadcasted superabundantly–It is no different!–It doesn’t even need much testing! Industry science is spotless, and perfect, and only interested in the public good! G.E. has never hurt anybody! The scientific picture is totally clear–GMO’s never have and never will hurt anybody! GMO’s are safer than that evil organic agriculture! We need it to feed the world! Fossil fuel derived fertilizer is sustainable! Herbicides are no problem! Our science understands everything! Our peers understand everything! Etc.

            It has been forced down people’s throats, by over 100 million dollars spent resisting popular labeling efforts.

            It’s irresponsible use has hugely increased the irresponsible spread of some toxic chemicals.

            The tryptophan disaster was certainly not clearly a “quality control and product purification” issue. It may have been that. It was clearly an unethical obfuscation of the issue, via destruction of evidence, by Showa Denko–and it has been held mostly unknown by a media TOTALLY in the pockets of big money–the same interests who own GMO’s.

            Pleas don’t pretend to be a scientific know-it-all–because, in fact, you do not know it all. Nor does anyone.

          • I have not bashed Genetic Engineering, said that it is evil, or portrayed it as an evil tool.

            I agree, Genetic Engineering can produce good and bad results.

            I believe it’s introduction to society, by profit-driven corporations, has been truly ugly. Many lies about it have been broadcasted superabundantly–It is no different!–It doesn’t even need much testing! Industry science is spotless, and perfect, and only interested in the public good! G.E. has never hurt anybody! The scientific picture is totally clear–GMO’s never have and never will hurt anybody! GMO’s are safer than that evil organic agriculture! We need it to feed the world! Fossil fuel derived fertilizer is sustainable! Herbicides are no problem! Our science understands everything! Our peers understand everything! Etc.

            It has been forced down people’s throats, by over 100 million dollars spent resisting popular labeling efforts.

            It’s irresponsible use has hugely increased the use of some toxic chemicals.

            The tryptophan disaster was certainly not clearly a “quality control and product purification” issue. It may have been that. It was clearly an unethical obfuscation of the issue, via destruction of evidence, by Showa Denko–and it has been held mostly unknown by a media TOTALLY in the pockets of big money–the same interests who own GMO’s.

            Pleas don’t pretend to be a scientific know-it-all–because, in fact, you do not know it all. Nor does anyone.

          • Eco-Sustainable

            Can’t anyone see that the problem lies in the faulty reasoning that ALL GMOs are intrinsically equal (aka “BAD” because “MONSANTO”)? Not all GMOs are Monsanto’s, not every GMO is developed by industrial scientists, not every GMO is doused with Monsanto’s glyphosate, not EVERY glyphosate comes from “Monsanto”, not every patented seed is GMO. Genetically engineered organisms aren’t created with the same purpose, nor with the same method. The reasoning behind the opposition to a certain GM species may not be applicable to another one. Lumping all GMOs in a same category is logically wrong. The problem with the anti-GMO crowd is that they’re conveying the wrong message that GMO=Monsanto=Bad or that genetic engineering=BAD=Zombie apocalypse. It’s the anti-GMO activists that are muddying the waters here, trying to confuse the public with half-truths, philosophical babble and even outright lies that fit their propaganda.

            They’re not even trying to explain the science, just illusions that the public wants to hear: that Mother Nature is some benevolent mystical force that loves humanity, that before the Industrial Revolution the world was a paradise, that greedy corporations like Monsanto are starting the zombie apocalypse, that Monsanto is the Devil incarnate, that organic foods are always healthy, that Big Organic is only interested in the public good, that horizontal gene transfer doesn’t occur naturally, that syringes make GMOs, etc.

            The history of science is a history of self-correction and revisions, defying even the most perpetuated beliefs that the public wants to cling on, challenging all the dogmas of every century and every civilization. That’s why I’ll always stick to what the scientific method shows.

            Now I let the random passers-by judge who are the real ones that are broadcasting lies super abundantly.

          • Ever heard of a strawman? I don’t think I ever said one of those things you just so floridly attacked. I have real, reasonable concerns, several detailed in the comment you were replying to, none addressed in the slightest in your reply. You claim to be interested in the scientific method? Well, good. Because your comment seems utterly unconnected to the reality of me.

            It seems to me that you have developed a huge amount of feeling against people differing with the go-go-gmo mindset. Let me explain some more why some people do that–people don’t like to be lied to. People don’t like to be subjected to mountains of propaganda. People like to be respected. People don’t want to be treated like flunkies. People don’t want to be ruled by tyranny–the tyranny of big money. People don’t like you to make fundamental changes in their lives, without even telling them. People don’t want to become, compared to the wealthy, poorer and poorer. People don’t want citizen concerns to be swept aside. People don’t want their environment to be polluted by selfish industries. People don’t want to be poisoned. People don’t want a small group to claim that only they know what is best. People don’t want a small group to proclaim, only we know the truth. People don’t like know-it-alls. People want to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. People want to be respected. People want their leaders to be deeply public spirited. People want their leaders to be good. People don’t believe that it is a dog eat dog world, therefore, the biggest and meanest dogs do best. People want society to advance–everyone, not just a few. People want a finer spirit to develop between us.

            If the go-go-gmo crowd would respect people, they would do much better.

          • Eco-Sustainable

            If you really don’t want lies then you should stop limiting yourself to the propaganda pieces of the anti-GMO lobby. Stick to the evidence, which the scientific method can only provide. Industry may not be a saint but the scientific method always filters the “bad” science from the “good” science.

            That’s why many people aren’t listening any more to the corporate lies of the Big Organic and GMO-Free industries (and NGOs claiming to be “non-profit”). What they are trying to do is to scare citizens into something that is really not dangerous, and exploit these fears to market their OWN version of products.

            Talk about “propaganda” and “marketing strategy”.

          • True, valid, important evidence absolutely does not come only from the scientific method! You have to use your sense, man. And your reason, and your non-scientific research. To think that only science provides real evidence is astonishingly out-of-touch. With reality.

            Science can be used to determine what is good and what is bad science, but it is people who determine what are good outcomes and what are bad outcomes, and it is people who can and should determine what is good behavior, for themselves, and what is bad behavior.

  • “There is nothing random about the careful choice of a single gene and the splicing into a different genome.” “Its very precision and intentionality makes this a different ballgame.” A gene gun–often used in genetic engineering–sounds very random, very imprecise to me. ….. Aren’t many/most of the products of the very imprecise genetic engineering techniques used today culled–because they are not good plants?

    • Jackson

      The gene that is changed is not random in GMOs, like it is in mutagenesis, but where that gene is inserted in the genome is more or less random. Sometimes the gene is inserted right in the middle of another gene, disrupting that function. Sometimes the gene is inserted in a location that is physically inaccessible to transcription factors and therefor not expressed. These lines are discarded, yes.

      Edit to add:

      There is new technology being developed that allows for “gene editing” where you can have site directed insertion. This means you can select a specific sequence and make sure that your gene is inserted right where you want it.

      • BioSciNerd

        I don’t think genome editing has reached the level of sophistication where target insertion can be done routinely in plants. Homologous recombination, the basis for targeted insertion using genome editing, is not very effective in plants. Targeted deletion is pretty well established in plants, but targeted insertion is more common in microorganisms. Hopefully with more research, targeted insertion in plants will become more efficient.

        • Jackson

          I’m almost positive crispr is up and running, and am 100% positive talen is in use developing at least soy bean lines.

          • BioSciNerd

            Yes, CRISPR is available. We’re looking at using it for some targeted deletion work. However, from what I understand (and I could be mistaken), targeted insertion is not yet routinely done in plants using CRISPR. I am not as familiar with talen. If you’re aware of examples where targeted insertion has been successfully used in model plants, please let me know. Targeted insertion could be useful in my work.

          • Jackson

            I’m not sure about publications, but I talked with a few people at this years PAG conference about this, and some people at the USDA where using talen to target the beta carotene pathway in soybeans.

          • BioSciNerd

            Were they using it for gene knockout?

          • Jackson

            No, they where using it for trait stacking, adding new genes sequentially to the same region so the final result would look the same as if all the genes where on the same cassette, but looking at the effect of adding them one at a time. This is all with the IIRC disclaimer.

    • BioSciNerd

      Aren’t many/most of the products of the very imprecise genetic engineering techniques used today culled–because they are not good plants?
      There is a degree of randomness to transgene insertion. Depending on the context (e.g. heterochromatin or euchromatin) of the surrounding DNA, the expression of the inserted transgene can vary between high and low. There is also the chance that the transgene will insert into another gene, resulting in a knockout of the native gene.

      This is why many different transgenic lines are produced and screened. The location of the transgene can be determined, relatively easily, using standard molecular biology methods. The expression level of the transgene and the resulting phenotype is also compared across many lines and the best line(s) chosen.

      This is not unlike the screening required in traditional breeding. In fact, screening of transgenics can be considered more accurate because 1) fewer lines need to be screened compared to conventional breeding and 2) specific genetic changes can be determined at the nucleotide level.

    • Agricultural Science

      Actually there are older techniques which relied on gamma irradiation to increase the number of mutations. The resulting plants were then grown and ones with desirable traits were identified and propagated to develop new varieties. These varieties are even used by organic farmers.

  • In spite of my comments, this is a very interesting article. Thank you.