Idiot farm

The notion of genetic modification of foods and livestock is a contentious issue. The purposeful insertion or deletion of a gene into a plant or animal's genome to yield specific traits, such as herbicide resistance, nutritional composition, or size, prompted the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international effort to regulate the safety of foods, to issue guidelines concerning genetically-modified foods.

The committee is aware of the concept of unintended effects, i.e., effects that were not part of the original gene insertion or deletion design. In their report, last updated in 2009, they state that:

Unintended effects can result from the random insertion of DNA sequences into the plant genome, which may cause disruption or silencing of existing genes, activation of silent genes, or modifications in the expression of existing genes. Unintended effects may also result in the formation of new or changed patterns of metabolites. For example, the expression of enzymes at high levels may give rise to secondary biochemical effects or changes in the regulation of metabolic pathways and/or altered levels of metabolites.

They make the point that food crops generated using techniques without genetic modification are released into the food supply without safety testing:

New varieties of corn, soybean, potatoes and other common food plants are evaluated by breeders for agronomic and phenotypic characteristics, but generally, foods derived from such new plant varieties are not subjected to the rigorous and extensive food safety testing procedures, including studies in animals, that are typical of chemicals, such as food additives or pesticide residues, that may be present in food.

In other words, conventional plant breeding techniques, such as hybridization, backcrossing, and introgression, practices that include crossing parental plants with their progeny over and over again or crossing a plant with an unrelated plant, yield unique plants that are not subject to any regulation. This means that unintended effects that arise are often not identified or tested. Plant geneticists know that, when one plant is crossed with another, approximately 5% of the genes in the offspring are unique to that plant and not present in either parent. It means that offspring may express new characteristics, such as unique gliadin or gluten proteins in wheat, not expressed in either parent and with new immunological potential in consuming humans.

Dr. James Maryanski, the FDA's Biotechnology Coordinator, stated during Congressional testimony in 1999 that:

The new gene splicing techniques are being used to achieve many of the same goals and improvements that plant breeders have sought through conventional methods. Today's techniques are different from their predecessors in two significant ways. First, they can be used with greater precision and allow for more complete characterization and, therefore, greater predictability about the qualities of the new variety. These techniques give scientists the ability to isolate genes and to introduce new traits into foods without simultaneously introducing many other undesirable traits, as may occur with traditional breeding. [Emphasis mine.]

Efforts by the Codex Alimentarius and FDA are meant to control the introduction and specify safety testing procedures for genetically modified foods. But both organizations have publicly stated that there is another larger problem that has not been addressed that predates genetic modification. In other words, conventional methods like hybridization techniques, the crossing of different strains of a crop or crossing two dissimilar plants (e.g., wheat with a wild grass) have been practiced for decades before genetic modification became possible. And it is still going on.

In other words, the potential hazards of hybridization, often taken to extremes, have essentially been ignored. Hybridized plants are introduced into the food supply with no question of human safety. While hybridization can yield what appear to be benign foods, such as the tangelo, a hybrid of tangerines and grapefruit, it can also yield plants containing extensive unintended effects. It means that unique immunological sequences can be generated. It might be a unique gliadin sequence in wheat or a unique lectin sequence in beans. None are tested prior to selling to humans. So the world frets over the potential dangers of genetic modification while, all along, the much larger hazard of hybridization techniques have been--and still are--going on.

Imagine we applied the hybridization techniques applied by plant geneticists to humans, mating an uncle with his niece, then having the uncle mate again with the offspring, repeating it over and over until some trait was fully expressed. Such extensive inbreeding was practiced in the 19th century German village of Dilsberg, what Mark Twain described as "a thriving and diligent idiot factory."

Comments (10) -

  • Jayzee

    6/12/2011 2:26:37 AM |

    Google Hinze Hogendoorn
    17-year-old Dutch undergraduate student Hinze Hogendoorn  has created scientific history with his simple experiments.

    is there ever any good news from the food science arena?

  • Might-o'chondri-AL

    6/12/2011 5:20:15 AM |

    Metabolite screening should be done to compare with old standard and apparently is being done to some extent; there will always be someone who reacts adversely to what is innocuous to most people.  Since field agriculture is not free of  problems there will always be need for adaptations.

    Japanese daikon root pickle made today has a different degree of physiological benefit  than when made with a traditional old cultivar of smaller sized daikon.  Hinze's rats might have found old fashioned fare more appetizing but they don't have to struggle to produce it like hungry people worldwide must try to do.

    *  2006 article "Transgenes has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding"
    Plant Biotechnology Journal 4, 369 - 380

    * 2006 article "Effect of transgenes on global gene expression in soybean is within the natural range of variation of conventional cultivars"
    Journal Agricultural Food Chemistry 56, 3057 - 3067

    * 2008 article " Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion"
    Proceedings National Academy Science USA 105, 3640 - 3645

  • Jim Anderson

    6/13/2011 7:31:13 PM |

    It's astounding that tests are not done -- are not mandated by law and international treaty -- on hybridized plants prior to the plants being sold for human consumption! One doesn't need to be a bio-chemist to see the danger there.  Of course, I have to wonder what kind of tests should be required.  Some dangers may not be readily apparent.  It could take a human generation or two for the problems to be recognized.  We are lab rats!

  • MK Davis

    6/14/2011 2:59:29 AM |

    Our number one forage crop is in danger of infecting the nation's livestock with an organism that is causing infertility in a large percentage of food animals.

    Don Huber Interview - Roundup Ready GMOs - PATHOGEN NEW TO SCIENCE.flv

  • MK Davis

    6/14/2011 3:09:49 AM |

    The URL to the Don Huber video is:

  • Dr. William Davis

    6/14/2011 1:01:36 PM |

    Thanks, MK.

    Anyone with even a passing interest in food and food safety absolutely need to view the video link posted by MK Davis (no relationship).

    Dr. Huber brings an incredible depth of insight into the glyphosate GMO crop question.

  • jpatti

    6/14/2011 1:40:02 PM |

    I'm surprised to see stuff about hybrid and GMO plants here.  

    I was an avid gardener before I became disabled and very gung-ho about using open-pollinated seeds, mostly heirlooms.   Even though I didn't save seed, I only bought open-pollinated seeds and plants in order to encourage their preservation by seed companies.  No F1 seeds for me, and DEFINITELY no GMO.  

    When you look into the history even a little bit, you realize even the so-called heirlooms are all pretty new plants.  

    It's been a very short period of time that sweet corn has even existed - corn was always a grain, not a vegetable.  

    Similarly, tomatoes used to be much more acidic than modern varieties are.  It used to be safe to can tomatoes in a hot-water bath.  But new tomatoes need to be canned in a pressure canner... or you have to add acid to the recipe to safely do the water-bath thing and avoid botulism.

    Also, most people have no idea how much yummier heirlooms are.  Vegetables for factory farming have been bred for things like uniform harvest by machinery, ability to keep in storage, not bruising when shipped across country, etc.  Not for TASTE.  

    A Brandywine tomato (my favorite heirloom) tastes NOTHING like what you can buy in a grocery store - because when individuals were doing the breeding, taste was a factor as opposed to  ease of machine harvest and transport and long-term storage.

    You can get good seeds from companies that have taken the No-GMO pledge... such as Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Pinetree Garden Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange.

    The largest problem is with corn.  Monsanto corn has a gene that makes the plant resistant to Round-up, their primary pesticide.  Even farmers who intend to raise heirlooms have found their fields pollinated by neighbor's Monsanto corn - and been sued since the gene is patented.  

    Farmers that raise heirloom seeds have to raise corn in very isolated spots, and good seed companies test each batch of seed to make sure it's not been infected by the GMO gene.

    Almost ALL corn available today is not only not open-pollinated, but not even normal hybrid corn; rather most of it is GMO.  There's a very few sources of things like non-GMO cornmeal and almost no sweet corn.  

    Same with soybeans - it's all pretty much GMO.  

    IMO, very good reasons to avoid these products in the diet.  I keep a small batch of non-GMO  cornstarch and non-GMO tamari for cooking purposes, but we eat very little corn or soy - and absolutely none of their oils.  Even the non-GMO stuff, corn is very carby, soy causes thyroid issues, and their oils are full of PUFAs. But the small amounts we use in our diet are absolutely non-GMO.

    I forget if it's been released yet or not, but there's a GMO alfalfa coming down the pike.  If the gene is as invasive as the corn gene is, soon it'll be hard to find pasture-raised meat and dairy that hasn't been raised on GMO feed.  

    The largest problem worldwide is in poor countries, where farmers traditionally saved seed to plant again the next year.  These folks literally cannot afford to buy seeds every year.  When all that is available is patented seed or hybrid seed, they are screwed in terms of being able to raise their own food.  People literally starve due to the geopolitics of GMO seed.

    Read up on Monsanto.  They're pretty damned evil.  Probably responsible for more infant deaths than even Nestle.  I personally won't buy products from any company that sells Monsanto products; it's really THAT bad.

    Well, I shall stop my rant now.  I've been ranting about this since back when I was in grad school doing recombinant DNA work myself... I'm getting bored with myself.  ;)

    I actually stopped by to drop off this link for you, Dr. D:

  • Dr. William Davis

    6/15/2011 12:11:28 PM |

    Thanks for the detailed commentary, jpatti. Exceptionally well said.

    A return to the simplest forms of farming and plant selection are, I agree, are about the only ways to dodge all the genetic shenanigans provided by agribusiness. Scary stuff.

  • Lois

    7/11/2011 3:23:15 PM |

    Now we know who the snesible one is here. Great post!

  • Peter Defty

    7/21/2011 3:05:27 PM |

    Thank you! for stating a musing I have expressed for years! Plant breeding starting with Mendel has probably done a whole lot more than soem obscure snippet of gene insertion....not being a proponet here but I agree that a much larger point is missed......but this theme seems to run in a lot of directions in the health world like worrying about "SmartMeters" and their radiation when that cell phone, cordless phone and wireless signals are right there in their face......or how African-American kids in urban environments are asthmatic and all the potential causes make the news  EXCEPT that the notion that that high carb diet they most likely are eating is the main trigger......ditto for all the suffering this population group has later in life.....

    thanks for reviving this Mark Twain quote... to book end it  perhaps reviving Parkinson's Law would be appropriate.