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“Genetic Engineering (GE)” is the new curse word, and Monsanto is the latest incarnation of Dr. Frankenstein, using GE to create unnatural “frankenfoods” that will, like the movie monster, wreak havoc among innocent people and the environment.
Now before you start lighting the torches for the howling mob to hunt me down, let me say I agree that Monsanto is the usual “corporate person” suspect. And hang on a bit while I explain that it is OK to dislike Monsanto for doing to the environment what banks did to the economy: searching for profits relentlessly, heedless of its impact on people or the environment.
However, disliking Monsanto specifically and only because it does GE is not the best way to approach activism against rapacious corporations, because manipulating genes is already firmly established and has been for a long time, and in quite a few cases has proven to be a good thing, such as for that weed you’re smoking while reading this article.
Wikipedia defines GE as:
“The direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. (Indirect genetic modification through artificial selection has been practiced for centuries.)”
That parenthetic statement is what gets lost in the agitation against GE. GE is simply another process which has been made more efficient through the application of technology (and yes, that includes a lot of stuff that has displaced people and created junk we don’t need, but that has nothing to do with the proposition here).
The “natural fiber” cotton clothing you like? Well, cotton is here because of genetic manipulation. That high THC weed you love? Same thing. Those “heirloom seeds” you cherish because they produce fruits and veggies so much better than the supermarket varieties? Same thing. The purring cat who rules your home and the slobbering dog giving you some love? Same thing. If you are not a vegan, the milk you drink and the eggs you eat? Same thing. And even if you are a vegan, all the plants you eat faithfully? Same thing. “Organically grown” fruits and veggies? Same thing.
Whether you like it or not, genetic manipulation has helped create the world we live in, as well as make it possible to continue living at all with the number of people there are in the world. Whether you are a locovore and buy from small farms, or simply go to the supermarket, you are buying and eating genetically modified fruits and veggies. (The same is true of food animals, by the way.)
Of course, monoculture as practiced by massive ag companies and humongous farms is bad for the environment. But it is no different whether the stuff planted comes from strains that have been genetically modified through selective breeding (the “old fashioned” method) or through GE. And small farms, organic farms, whatever the alternative, also depend on growing genetically modified organisms.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the potato. Originally cultivated in the Andes Mountains in Central America, the International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 varieties, and there are about 400 varieties common today throughout the world. All these varieties are not “natural;” they have been created through genetic manipulation. The “original” wild potato, still found today in Chile and Peru, was small (shaped like a twisted finger) and full of compounds toxic to both animals and humans; the toxins were bred out of most of the varieties used by the Central American Indians before Columbus arrived and screwed things up for them.
And consider corn, including the stuff used to make all that processed food containing high-fructose corn syrup. Ten thousand years ago it was just another grass, called teosinte, but genetic manipulation created the varieties we see today, including sweet corn, so-called “Indian” corn which is “more natural,” and, yes, popcorn for when you have THC-induced munchies. Changes to teosinte, through genetic manipulation, affected 5 genes (or sets of genes; no one is sure), creating “real” corn.
What else can you call all this creating of new varieties of corn and potatoes if not genetic engineering?
For those of you who want to get picky and say that “real” GE involves inserting genes from other species, consider the tangelo, a hybrid containing genes of both tangerines and grapefruit, and grafting, where the roots of one species of plant are used to grow the stems, leaves, flowers, or fruits of another. Or, the fact that interspecies hybridization (mating between species) is very common in plants in the wild (recent research shows that it is also not uncommon in animals), and has, until recently, been one method often used to produce ornamental and food plants.
And on what might be a creepy note for some, all humans are interspecies hybrids; they contain genes from bacteria in small intracellular inclusions called mitochondria (which scientists believe were originally parasitic bacteria), where energy is produced to run the cells, and also contain a wide variety of viral genes inserted into their DNA, some of which have been co-opted to perform functions useful to people.
So forget agitating about GE, and agitate instead about monocultures, giant agribusiness, and rapacious corporations, which is where the real damage occurs.
If you don’t believe me, try this article from Grist, hardly a hotbed of corporate PR: Genetic engineering vs. natural breeding: What’s the difference?
And looks like the only way you and your kids may have any orange juice is through genetic engineering: A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA