A note from Shea: My friend Daniel Hayden is a scientist living in California who strongly opposed Proposition 37, a measure that would have required that food products made with genetically modified organisms to be labeled as such. I invited him to share his reasons here.
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By Daniel Hayden
You know me. I sat beside you at the concert, jamming out with the rest of the crowd. I cheered when Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana and am a strong proponent of same-sex marriage. I think big business and their lobbying tactics are the greatest threat to our democracy and don’t get me started on the big financial institutions.
But I have a confession to make. I love genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
I earned my Ph.D. degree in plant molecular physiology at the University of Hawaii and have been studying plant biotechnology for almost 20 years. My goal was to use plants and sustainable agriculture to replace products from unsustainable sources like fossil fuels. It's a very green approach. Being technologically minded, I was fascinated by genetic engineering, so it broke my heart to see friends and like-minded individuals of my generation turn so quickly against the science of engineering the genetics of plants.
In our world today we are continually innovating and pushing our technological and scientific understanding. We hold everything in the palm of our hand through our cellphones, and we can connect with friends who are continents away. As a society we are moving into the cities and stacking ourselves in denser and denser developments, absorbing agricultural land and constructing huge buildings in which to work, live and play. If the trucks and trains that bring the food from the farms to our cities stopped today, our larders would be bare by the weekend. The supply chain that puts food on our tables is a complex system of growers, transportation, storage and distribution that has to work together in harmony in order to function.
Here is where Prop 37 comes into play. Thankfully this poorly worded proposition failed by a narrow margin on Tuesday — the people who voted YES don't have any idea of how dangerous it could have become. We eat GMOs everyday. With every bowl of cornflakes and every trip to the Mexican restaurant around the corner, you are eating a GMO. In fact, even certified organic foods can be comprised of no more than 5 percent GMO ingredients. If Prop 37 passed, you would be able to buy cornflakes without GMOs, but you would never know if they were in your burrito at your favorite restaurant. Seems a little leaky, doesn’t it? Every product in our supermarket would need a GMO label, something manufactures would be nuts to include for the other 49 states, resulting in two differentiating product streams. The cost of this would be passed on to consumers.
Few people, including myself, are against giving more information to consumers. What I am against is using scare tactics and misinformation. Labeling something as a GMO does nothing but intimidate the purchaser. It's hard to think of a more inflammatory word, when it comes to food, than "GMO." Now imagine that phrase being plastered in a big prominent sticker on products throughout the grocery store. Those three little letters say a lot, but are consumers educated enough to know what they really mean?
GMOs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are products made using GMO organisms, but do not actually contain the organism is question. Others GMO products like olive oil are a very specific substance of high purity. The olive tree might have been engineered but there are no detectable levels of engineered protein in the oil. That would require a label as well.
The science behind GMOs was sloppy when it first introduced, and the technology was not helped when some scientist came along and dumped a pound of corn pollen containing the Bt protein on a few butterflies. Other GMOs had what we call “selection markers” which are proteins conferring resistance to general antibiotics, or herbicides. These were carried in pollen and found in nearby weeds of the same species. Not ideal, I admit.
I am not here to defend Monsanto. I understand the perils of monoculture, herbicide usage and selling seeds to farmers that can’t be harvested and reseeded the next year (so called Terminator seeds). However, framing the entire concept of GMOs as evil because of Monsanto’s influence is frankly on the same level as homophobia, stereotyping or racism. Misinformed and nervous consumers are being tricked into thinking they are at risk, all because of a chosen few who have dedicated their lives to ridding the world of the supposed scourge of GMOs.
I am here to tell you that the seed biotechnology companies are more altruistic than you would believe. They are responsible for feeding the world and for helping make it profitable to be a farmer. They employ tens of thousands of people and support the entire food infrastructure of our great country. GMOs reduce the need for fertilizer, which in turn reduces our dependence on fossil fuels (most our nitrogen fertilizer is made using natural gas). GMOs also cut down on the need for pesticides and herbicides by engineering native means of plant defense. GMOs use water more efficiently and respond to heat and drought in a less dramatic fashion, which helps farmers cope with the changing climate. Our society is driving these changes, and it’s only fair that we give farmers the tools they need to endure a warming environment.
GMOs improve our health and nutrition. Third world countries benefit from increased amino acids in GMO rice that they couldn’t find elsewhere in their diets. Newly engineered tomatoes could one day help fight cancer. Don’t take my word for it, Google it and educate yourself.
Unfortunately people associate the term GMO with dead butterflies and cancer. Who knows how this happened. Chalk it up to bad press and a healthy dose of mythology. That is why just stamping ‘Contains GMO’ on a bag of chips does more harm than good. Explaining how far plant biology has come in the past 20 years is probably beyond the scope of this article, but this will give you some idea.
In a perfect world the label would be as follows:
The corn (DroughtGard maize) used in this product was genetically modified to withstand drought conditions without affecting biomass. DroughtGard maize contains the gene for “cold shock protein B” (cspB) from Bacillis subtilis. Cold shock proteins were discovered (and named) due to their rapid accumulation in cold shocked bacterial cells. Some CSPs such as CSPB act as RNA chaperones, which help to maintain normal physiological performance during stress events by binding and unfolding tangled RNA molecules so that they can function normally. Drought conditions result in 30-50% yield loss of native maize, while DroughtGard posts 11-21% yield gain in similar conditions. These proteins are produced in the leaves, stem, and roots of the maize, but are non-detectable in the kernel or edible seeds upon harvest. The cspB protein has been thoroughly tested for allergenic potential and passed both USDA and FDA requirements. Your continued support of GMO produce ensures a sustainable future under the threat of climate change and increasing water demand.
As you can see, this statement is quite a bit more informative than a big old “Contains GMO” sticker.
Let's increase information, awareness, and promote true sustainability with our food policies. Don’t support efforts that propagate fear just because it’s more convenient.
Guest writer Daniel Hayden is a next generation panoramic scientist who melds modern technological gadgetry with ancient scientific principals. His goal is to continue to innovate at all costs and let natural selection take it's course. When he's not potentially saving or destroying humanity, he likes snowboarding and hanging out with his Oriental shorthair cats.