Genetically modified plants in your garden?
This morning I read an interesting article on genetically modified (GM) eggplants in India. Many people are afraid of any genetically modified plant, but bear in mind that classical plant breeding and selection results in unnatural, but tasty or large or colourful, plants. The strawberry is not dangerous and it is delicious, yet it is a weird hybrid of species that would not meet in nature. The uneducated debate has gone so far that some people fear a food sample is ‘contaminated with DNA’. It sounds like ‘DDT’, and people who do not know natural sciences simply believe DNA is something poisonous.
Most cells contain DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). It occurs in all life-forms: strawberries, frogs, humans, bacteria… The DNA is a natural molecule used for making proteins, basically the blueprint for making any given organism. If the DNA changes (mutates) in a cell in your hand it may have no significance, unless it is a mutation resulting in cancer. If the mutation occurs in a sperm or egg, the newborn individual will carry the mutation and it may be transferred to future generations. If a mutation occurs in a branch of a rose, you get a new variety, a so called sport. You can cut it off and keep taking cuttings. This is cloning of a natural mutation. In this example the natural selective forces have been replaced by human selection. We select what we want. Nature selects what survives. Garden plant varieties and animals bred in zoos are not survivors, they depend on people.
Instead of just waiting for mutations, and instead of planting zillions of seeds and trying to pick out a natural mutation which may suit a plant treat you are looking for, scientists can go inside the DNA molecule and change exactly what they want, or insert a gene (a blueprint for making one certain protein). The result is not much different from classical plant selection. Transfer of DNA between species seem unnatural and ‘against God’, but virus do that all the time. Pieces of duck and pig DNA may enter your cells during a simple flu. In most cases they do not affect you at all. Natural transfer of DNA between bacteria via virus is very common.
It is also important to state that eating a GM plant is not dangerous. But there are other concerns with GMO (genetically modified organisms), based on logical thinking rather than uneducated fear of the unknown:
1. In the article cited above there was a concern that since the eggplant is native to India, manipulated strains may transfer their genes to the natural population. I agree with this fear. Making a GM potato and grow it in Germany as a future source of plastic is clever. Potato is not native to Germany and it will die if it escapes. Making a GM pine tree and grow it in Scandinavia would be disastrous, in my opinion. The reason is that cloning a genetically modified pine will result in enormous amounts of inbred pollen mixing with native pine trees, and this will result in a lower genetic diversity which in turn results in lower ability to withstand change in the environment, such as temperature, flooding, insects and fire. Since the alien DNA has no survival trait it will probably be lost in a few generations, but we would exterminate pure wild forms or pure survivors. I also think growing GMO corn in Mexico would be very bad, but not growing it here in Thailand where corn can not escape. Growing GMO soy bean in China would be bad, since it may mix with natural populations, but not growing it in Mexico, because it can not do any harm there. Some scientists try to release GM malaria and dengue mosquitos to weaken the natural populations on purpose. In Sweden and Thailand the governments exterminated malaria without such techniques, simply by giving health care to every person. The diseases reside in humans, mosquitos are just vehicles (vectors). I can not see why health care can not be applied in Africa. Inserting a weak gene on purpose within a natural population may have domino effects we can not foresee, although I agree it is much better than using larvicides which may affect any organism with a nerve, including humans.
2. There is a concern GMO may result in increased use of herbicides and pesticides. I agree with this fear too. Many GMO plants are created to stand nasty chemicals that will wipe out weeds and insects, also affecting nearby wild plants and animals. There will be residues in the products you eat, and those might be dangerous, although the plant in itself is harmless.
With a population of 7 billion people on Earth, or ten times more people in Thailand today than 110 years ago, the need for more arable land is obviously increasing. Another option is to improve the crops on already existing land, thereby saving some of the native wild forests which to me are sacred. However, I do not feel we should exclusively blame Monsanto for developing GM crops with such higher yields, but also ourselves for not fighting poverty and promoting education. Improved living conditions and educated minds walk hand in hand with reduced birth rates. With a human population of ‘only’ 500 million on Earth we do not have to fear there is not enough arable land, fresh water, timber and seafood. Anyone would afford a house and a garden, lobster and teak would be accessible to everyone and such renewable resources would last for eons, no need for logging bans like today. With 90% less people you also get a 90% reduction in pollution, which today jeopardize our health.
With less poverty and thereby less people on Earth there would not be such a strong demand for GMO, although the average consumer will always put low price (GMO) before anything else when selecting food, and that is not Monsanto’s fault.