Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest Post: Attack of the Killer Produce!

The stage is set (Read in your best movie trailer voice!): A normal Saturday afternoon. The sun shining without a cloud in the sky. What a day for a barbeque! Dad is cooking (burning) hamburgers. The kids are playing. Mom is setting up the picnic table to eat. Picturesque. Little did they know the horror that awaits…

Sounds like the premise of a B-movie? It is, but more on that later. In case you haven’t heard, a recent study by Gilles-Eric Seralini has been released vilifying genetically modified corn.2  Several articles discussing the results have been posted over the last two weeks. I will refer you to just a few of my favorites (1 2 3 4 5).

So what is it that causes so much fear when we hear the phrase “Genetically Modified” (GM) or “Genetically Modified Organisms” (GMOs)?

Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, defines a GMO as “an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.” This methodology differs from breeding for desired traits in an organism by removing the “black box”3 mentality we often have in life. As a chemist, I find it fascinating the seemingly random repetitions of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s in DNA can shape the variety of life. Society’s collective knowledge about DNA has grown a lot in the last 150 years (a DNA history refresher can be found here) and, being the tinkerer’s we are, we like to take apart the machine to see how it works (just ask my mom or Dilbert’s mom). My favorite example is glow in the dark animals. Probably not necessary but entirely awesome!

So here is where we come to the source of our fear...

The Unknown!
Yes, of course, there are other concerns that are brought up too.
The first is safety as demonstrated by Seralini et al. and by one of the best B-movies you may have never watched! Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! Although we should include Jurassic Park with this as well.

The second concern is that GM and GMO are unnatural.

Truth be told, these are both valid concerns rooted in our fear of the unknown. It is important to divide our initial response, a knee-jerk reaction of fear, and knowledge. What do we fear? And what do we know? Most people fear pain, death, and embarrassment. It is natural to want to preserve ourselves and our children from these things. It is important to note, however, that “Natural is Safe” is a false assumption. There are plenty of natural things that can kill you. A variety of plants, such as hemlock, were used as a method of execution (remember Socrates demise?). They are natural but they kill much more rapidly than cancer. Water, the pillar of life, can kill either through drowning (displacing air in the lungs) or intoxication (drinking too much can dilute your blood which can cause hyponatremia). The list goes on, but the idea is that Natural ≠ Safe. So let’s avoid hiding behind “Natural is Safe”.

Some are scared of ambiguous chemicals that might harm them. Chemophobia is interesting in that we live our lives awash in trillions of different chemicals. They are in everything we eat and touch. Whether a molecule is created naturally or synthetically, they are the same. So why do we treat them differently? The answer again is fear. So how do we overcome fear? Knowledge! While we do not know everything, we are learning! And we should always be trying to learn more.

GMOs have a great potential to help or harm. I lean towards the hope that GMOs can provide better crops which are resistant to bugs and disease (which is currently being done). Safety is a concern that I better identify with, but how do we learn about safety? The old fashioned way, we test it and find out. Unlike Seralini et al., we should take care how we test our hypotheses. Science should be objective, not political. We should not stack the deck for an answer we want instead of looking for the actual answer to our question. Science is a method of looking at and exploring the world, so why are we resistant to employ it accurately? Again, the answer is simple—Fear. Sometimes we don’t really want the real answer, we want our answer. So confront your fear and learn about what you don’t know! I hope that before you grab your pitchforks and copy of Puberty Love remember that tomatoes are your friend. Corn is too.

[1] Thanks to Forbes for creating this awesome image!  
[3] “Black Box” refers to a closed instrument or box where input is given and output is received with no knowledge of the inner workings other than the fact that it works.
A big thanks to Chad Rogers for the guest post. If you want to comment on the whole GMO debate, head over to the Facebook fan page for discussion.