Big A recently purchased a Playstation 3. At the time, I was largely indifferent – I didn’t have any particular yearning for a game system, but I wasn’t opposed to it. Then one day big A came home after a run one night with Fallout 3, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game about a kid who grows up in an underground vault. It’s essentially a mini-world in which you can explore, talk to people, and mold your character into either an idolized hero or a hated villain, or anything in between.
I quickly grew to love this game, and played it extensively. Now I’m on to the sequel, Fallout: New Vegas. Similar game, but the setting is the Mojave Desert instead of D.C. This post is inspired by one particular quest which involved exploring a vault that has been overrun with mutant plants. Vault scientists had been engineering plants that could survive in the wasteland with little water when their experiments went awry, producing giant killer venus fly traps and fungii whose spores turned humans into crazy green spore creatures. Naturally. Then a government scientists asks you to download the researchers’ data and return it to him, but along the way you meet another scientist who wants to destroy all the data so such monstrosities will never be created again.
The kind of person your character is – whether good or evil – is governed by your “karma”. When you perform evil actions, like stealing or killing a good person, your karma goes down. Karma-raising actions include saving people, giving them things, and generally helping other people out. Oh, and killing bad people. No one likes bad people, but everyone looooves vigilante justice.
Ok, that’s a lot of context to get to the main point, which is that this quest culminates with a choice: turn over the data and let it be erased, or lie to the scientist and tell her you don’t have it so that it can be saved. I like to play these games by making the decisions that seem most right to me, and in this case that meant saving the researcher’s data and giving it to the other scientist. And after clicking on that dialogue choice, the little “You’ve lost Karma ” icon appears in the upper left corner.
Really? THAT was the evil action in this scenario? Preserving the life’s work of some scientists, and the information they’ve uncovered, rather than destroying it and letting it go to waste? Huh.
This subtle anti-genetic engineering sentiment got me to thinking about less subtle expressions that seem to pop up again and again in my explorations of the interwebs. As I frequent food websites catered to vegan/organic/sustainable/whole foods, I naturally come across many articles (mostly with a negative spin) about genetically engineered foods. And I’m continually perplexed as to why sustainable agriculture and GE are portrayed as mutually exclusive, rather than the one being a valuable tool for the other.
I’m neither biologist nor geneticist, so I’m cautious to speak authoritatively on the subject, but I have acquired some scientific training in my many, many years of post-secondary education. In my understanding, agriculture is just bad. It uses land, and fossil fuels, and produces waste. When it comes to sustainable agriculture, less is more. As in energy production and consumption, conservation in a win-win policy – you find ways to use less, which reduces the demand for energy production, and saves the consumer money.
In agriculture, there seems to me two prominent ways to do more with less. The first is to reduce food waste, which is appallingly extensive (for a well-documented and entertaining account of food waste at all levels of production and consumption, read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal ). The second is with genetic engineering. If we can engineer plants to produce more edible product with less land and fertilizer, or engineer them to withstand harsh weather conditions, or contain more nutrients, or be naturally resistant to insects or disease … isn’t that awesome, and something we should encourage?
So why do environmentally-minded people oppose it so strongly? The majority of comments I’ve seen bring up Monsanto, or how they are “new” foods and we don’t know their effect on the environment or human health, or that it is “creepy” to insert genes from one species into the genome of another. Never any mention of GE’s potentialy to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, or address food security and health problems in developing countries. And a lot of people who speak out about genetic engineering seem to lack some basic scientific understanding about what it actually entails, and how it differs from “traditional” hybridization and selection practices.
For species to evolve, they need new genes (or combinations of genes). This happens naturally, at a slow rate, through mutations – errors in the copying of DNA during cell division. When a favourable mutation helps an organism survive, it will ideally get passed on to its offspring, and the enhanced survival potential of all the organisms with the new gene allows it to proliferate within a population. But this is a slow process, requiring many, many generations. To speed things up, plants can be exposed to radiation to accelerate the rate of genetic mutations. This is a widespread method, and in the last 30 years, upwards of 1700 crops have been improved by selecting beneficial radiation-induced mutations.
And I’ve not heard very many people speak out against this practice, which affects the entire genome of the plant. My point is nicely expressed by this quotation:
“Radiation can affect a plant’s entire genome. Compared to these plants, genetically modified food is about as dangerous as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”
Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists
Inducing mutations by irradiating plants and then selecting favourable outcomes seems like a haphazard approach compared with intentionally inserting selected genes. It seems like both approaches introduce new genes into the plant – the difference with GE is that the new gene is not derived from a mutation of the plant’s own genome. But what’s wrong with that? Species share lots of genes, and even our genome consists of significant genetic material derived from virus.
In OAC biology, my sister and I were in the same class, and we worked together on a project about GE foods. Of the countless high school projects I completed, this one I remember vividly. I didn’t come across the ubiquitous anti-GMO nattering that’s around today; instead, I found lots of resources describing all the cool things scientists were doing with food. The two big examples at the time were Bt corn and Golden Rice. Bt corn borrows a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, allowing it to produce a substance that is toxic to European corn borers, a larvae that feeds on and destroys corn crops. It’s the perfect solution to a pest problem – the toxin targets the bugs, but it’s harmless to humans and other creatures that happen to eat it. And it ELIMINATES THE NEED FOR PESTICIDES (at least insomuch as it applies to that particular pest). Pesticides are so deleterious – both to the environment and human health. This was such an ingenious way to reduce pesticide use. I loved it!
Then golden rice, scientists’ effort to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency in countries where rice is a staple food. Rice is pretty devoid of essential nutrients, and vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness. Addressing these facts at the same time, researchers used a gene from a soil bacterium and one from a daffodil to allow the rice plant to create proteins that complete the beta-carotene ( a precursor to Vit A) synthesis pathway. The “golden rice” accumulated beta-carotene in its kernels, giving them a nice yellowy colour. Again, what an ingenious way to combat a serious nutritional problem! Once the seeds are given to farmers, there’s no extra cost to the community of producing the new rice. So perfect!
As you can see, I think GE foods are really cool. So anti-GMO talk from people who don’t seem to understand the science really riles me up. I recently interacted with a few anti-GMO people on one of the blogs I frequent. It was supremely frustrating – their view of GE foods seemed to derive entirely from information found in Food Inc., and a few seemed to equate “GMO” with “Monsanto”. Just because one company sells GE seeds, and also does some pretty terrible things, doesn’t make the technology “evil” and “creepy”. I’m pretty sure lots of pharmaceutical companies do terribly greedy things all the time, but that doesn’t mean the drugs they sell don’t help people.
It’s frustrating because these people with such strong sentiments about GE foods don’t take the time to learn the relevant science; and without knowing the science, how can you really be opposed to GE foods? How can you be so vehemently against something that you don’t even understand? I’m no microbiologist or a geneticist or anything remotely close, but there are loads of freely available resources where any intelligent person can learn about it.
Over dinner the other night, BigA and I were having an animated discussion about the failings of the educational system. The point I was making was that the steadily increasing undergraduate enrollment rates most likely indicate a lot more people getting degrees that will be only marginally relevant to their future career. There are a lot of people with history, English literature, politics and other assorted social science degrees that never really use the knowledge they learned during school.
BigA interjected that wait… it’s important to learn about history and politics! Naturally I’m biased by my preference for scientific pursuits and my disdain for much of politics, but a lot of the really controversial issues these days are environmental, and hence science-based. Climate change, nuclear power, stem-cell research, genetic engineering to name a few. And how can you speak with confidence about these topics if you fail to understand the science? I’d wager that there are far more prominent political issues where having scientific training would make you a better informed voter or discussant. So if we have a lot of people going to university because they now have to in order to be competitive in the labour market, and they’re not learning anything they can apply to their future professions anyway… I say make undergraduate science mandatory. It would certainly help clean some irrational clutter from the blogosphere at the very least.