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Monday, September 3, 2012

Unintended consequences

Before I start the "real" post, first let me remind you all of the primary lesson - THERE IS NO GOVERNMENT MONEY! If you have a question on that statement, I have many posts where I expound upon it. Now for today's post:

I have never considered myself an alarmist. I do not think we need to immediately do or not do something as a people. (one exception I can think of however is cut government spending - NOW!)
I do have a subject that I have been doing a bit of study on which is alarming me a bit; genetically modified crops and animals. Now there are people that are up in arms about this subject for many reasons. My reasons are not religious, ethical, or moral in nature. I will admit that one can make a good argument from an ethical standpoint; and religion and morality can be used (or misused) to argue almost any point. My argument is stated in the title of this post - unintended consequences. Let me give you some background and expound a bit.

Genetic manipulation has been practiced by mankind for millennia. WHAAAT? you exclaim. We only discovered the gene and how to identify them in very recent history. That is true, but that is what animal husbandry (selective breeding) and cross-pollination and such has been about. A lot, if not most of our modern versions of plants and animals are genetically modified versions of their ancestors. We would find an animal or plant with a trait that made it attractive to us and use it to produce more of offspring with that trait. Animals were bred to have more meat, be more docile, grow larger, be faster, etc.(think racehorse breeding); the same with plants. So, genetic manipulation is an old practice. However, in the definition department, a selectively bred animal or cross-pollinated plant is not considered the same as a genetically modified organism - of which this post is about.

Genetically engineered virus DNA molecules were produced in 1972, genetically modified bacteria in 1973, and mice in 1974. So, even what I am referring to is not a brand new practice. In 1982 insulin produced from genetically altered bacteria was approved for human use. The first plants approved for cultivation were in the mid-to-late 80s - a herbicide resistant tobacco (note and remember this one). In the mid-90s potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes that had been genetically altered were approved for sale and human consumption in Europe, China, and/or the USA. A large percentage of the tomatoes sold today in the USA. are genetically altered. The primary genetic trait added is one that allows the fruit to be picked pre-ripened and allows the tomato to ripen off the vine. This is one reason we have tomatoes available year-round. Bottom-line - as of 2009, 11 genetically modified plants were approved and being grown commercially in 25 different countries. As an interesting side-note - in 2010 a genomic research institute in Maryland developed a totally synthetic DNA and injected it into a cell without DNA to produce the first synthetic / man made bacteria.

Now for the "meat" of the post - as I started this with, I do not consider myself an alarmist. In general I do not have a problem with genetic manipulation for the benefit of mankind. The problem is the law of unintended consequences. One of the primary genetic manipulations of soybeans, cotton, and corn (yes - a LOT - as much as 70+% of the corn now is genetically altered) grown here in the U.S.A. is resistance to Roundup herbicide (glyphosate - weed/vegetation killer). Most of the soybeans (90+%), a large percentage of cotton, and a growing percentage of corn grown has this resistance "built-in". Why?, you might ask. This allows farmers to spray entire fields with Roundup to kill the weeds without harming the crop. No more worrying about where the Roundup is being sprayed. No more going down rows of crops weeding or spraying selectively. Spray the field - weeds die - crops grow - harvest a LOT more crops - make more money. Monsanto (makers of Roundup AND the genetically altered seed stock) is happy and richer as well. Now for the kicker - unintended consequences - weeds are now adapting (genetic engineering by Mother Nature) to become Roundup-resistant "superweeds". The answer - make the crops resistant to more types of herbicides and higher concentrations. Guess where that is leading? Even more "superweeds"! Entire fields are being plowed under because the "superweeds" cannot be killed.

One other popular type of genetic manipulation that is being done, and one that I am more concerned with from a consumption standpoint, is built-in pesticide. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a soil dwelling bacterium that is used as a biological pesticide. The toxin it produces can be used as a pesticide as well. Corn (as well as cotton and potatoes (not commercially viable yet)) have the Bt producing gene added to allow the plant "natural" pesticide production to kill certain insects. So, we are consuming a pesticide in our corn. Now, in the "not an alarmist" vein let me say that there is no proof that any harm is being done by this naturally occurring toxin. However, I wonder about a child raised on these products and what may be done over time. To cover a problem that IS occurring now - how about Bt resistant bugs? That's right, insects are becoming resistant to the Bt toxin and becoming "superbugs" that consume even more crops or require more pesticides or procedures to control them.

This has already gotten long, I know from experience that I have lost a lot of you. I will sum this up. Genetics and genetically altering food sources may be a good thing. We are producing rice with "built-in" vitamins for the third world where nutrition is critical. We are producing insulin and other hormones to save lives and/or improve the quality of life. However, the unintended consequences of releasing a man-made bacterium into the wild is unknown. The result to our genetic makeup after three or four generations of consuming Bt toxin producing plants or other genetic mutations is unknown. The effects of having "superbugs" and "superweeds" that we cannot control is possibly a danger to our food production and can take us back to the 1800s in terms of food production and yields. I do not think we need to stop these efforts. I do think we need to control them more and make more people aware of the consequences. More study is needed. More discussion is needed. Common sense is required.

If you are interested the internet is a great place to do further research. If you are looking at totally negative or totally positive pages, posts, and/or articles - take it with a grain of salt. There is a LOT of hyperbole from both sides of this subject.

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