In last week's column, I bemoaned the "religious" zeal in opposition to GMO, which seeks to end any discussion by withdrawing funds for research. I said that such efforts reminded me of the Bush administration's refusal to fund stem-cell research.
In that context, here are two inventions nearing production:
1) Introduction into the rice plant of three genes that produce beta carotene, which breaks down into vitamin A; and
2) Vaccines for hepatitis B and diarrhea that are incorporated into the cells of a banana.
Let's look at the ramifications of these two developments.
For more than a third of the world's population, rice is the dietary staple. Not "brown rice" - polished rice. Cultures throughout Asia regard polished rice as an icon. Sorry, brown rice is simply not an option. Like we feel about drinking sewage water that has been fully purified - not a scientific concern, an aesthetic, cultural one.
But polished rice is a poor source of vitamins. UNICEF puts the number of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency at over 100 million. As a result, millions of people lose their eyesight and millions more die from related infections. The new rice is called Golden Rice, partly because the betacarotene colors it, but also because, according to a Cornell food scientist, it is "the one accomplishment of genetic engineering that could alleviate more suffering and illness than any single medicine has done in the history of the world."
One might imagine that - even though the multinational corporations will make large profits - anti-GMO-ists would see some virtue in this possibility.
One would be wrong. Here is The Institute of Science In Society:
Many have commented on the absurdity of offering "Golden Rice" as the cure for vitamin A deficiency when there are plenty of alternative, infinitely cheaper sources of vitamin A or provitamin A, such as green vegetables and unpolished rice [my emphasis], which would be rich in other essential vitamins and minerals besides.
The unstated premise here is that one niche of well-to-do educated America thinks nothing of mandating a wholesale change in the cultures of Third World countries. "Let them eat brown rice." What sublime arrogance!
Bananas can be grown in countries where hygiene is nonexistent, where refrigerators, sterile needles and trained medical workers are virtually unknown. Bananas are cheap, simple to distribute and can be eaten by babies as well as adults. A single four-acre plot would be big enough to protect a country the size of Uganda.
Again, one might hope that at least this might pass the steely gaze of the Frankenfood activists. Sadly, no. This from an article in LA Weekly:
"Sooner or later, innocent folk chowing down on corn chips or sesame buns are going to find their bloodstreams coursing with aprotinin or swine vaccine or God knows what else," according to Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The food industry is apoplectic about the possibility of this stuff getting into the food supply."
In the developed world, where drugs can be delivered in so many other ways, it seems hard to justify the risk of "pharming" - as with nuclear power, we really do have alternatives. But in the developing world, millions of people die each year from preventable diseases for lack of very basic drugs. That, at least, is the argument pushed by the biotech industry. What is the response?
The idea of helping the Third World with transgenic vaccines is "little more than a ruse," Rissler believes.
"It's selling biotechnology on the back of the poor, by attempting to make it palatable to well-off folks like us." Rissler points out that to be medically effective drugs have to be delivered in the right dose. "How would people know how much they were supposed to eat? A whole banana, half a banana? Who's to say? More critical, how could you be sure that people wouldn't overdose? How would you even know you were eating the right variety? After all, a genetically modified banana looks the same as a regular one."
Something of a reach, overdosing on bananas. But if so, doesn't this concern need to be addressed in the form of testing, the very thing Rissler wants to avoid funding? Evidently, once committed to a Frankenfood philosophy, there is no way out. All genetic modification is bad. Case closed.
Actually, neither of the above applications has yet survived the rigors of field-testing, and there is legitimate concern that they are over-hyped by their sponsors. (I can think of better use of the $50 million one company spent on promotion.) Still, anything is a start, because with regard to Third World health, we're losing ground.
Feeding an expanding world population is a problem given only lip service by Green advocates, despite the fact that there has been a decline in crops-per-acre in most of Africa and Asia, that there is a tremendous worldwide loss of arable land due to erosion and over-farming, that water resources are diminishing, and that the demand for grain will increase 40 percent over the next 20 years due to population increase. And that doesn't include the impact of global warming, which seems to be accelerating more rapidly than predicted.
While there is no viable alternative proposed by the anti-GMO camp, neither can they effectively stop genetic modification on a global scale. One can easily imagine the scenario of a Greenpeace fleet attempting to sabotage delivery of a shipment of modified rice to New Zealand, but one suspects they might not try such a stunt with North Korea. (As Marco Katz once noted, it is wiser to attack people who will not kill you.)
I'd like to change directions here and move on to another bugaboo: cloning. Food activists are enraged by the FDA's recent announcement that meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. But before I proceed with this thread, let's all agree that meat production in the developed world is a luxury, unsustainable in the long view. Meat is an inefficient way of providing nutrients. Cattle contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and take up vast resources of territory and even more water. For argument's sake, let's go with stats from Food For Life, a vegan site, saying, "It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only takes 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat." (Frankly, I don't care if that's an overstatement.)
There is no way the planet can indefinitely provide Westerners such a level of luxury, even if it were only a tenth that much water. Water is our life's blood, the most basic of human requirements, and it's increasingly in shortage. So something has to change. And while we're on the subject, how do we feel about slaughterhouses, and the desensitization we require to constantly kill animals? Not the happiest option, is it? Still, we are omnivores, and meat is part of human culture, too.
The most recent advances in cloning are not creating fully functional cows that give birth to healthy calves, the discovery is that we can grow almost anything from a piece of DNA. Yes, it's still in the early stages, but combined with genetic manipulation, we seem a short time away from being able to create - well, what?
A science-fiction story I read several years ago takes place on Ganymede, largest of Jupiter's moons, and the site of a colony attempting to "terra-form" the satellite. It is a shoestring operation, and the only meat-generating program is one for "Turkey." Larger colonies have "Lamb," "Quail," "Salmon," "Lobster" and so on. A common complaint of the Ganymede colonists is the monotony of their diet. How likely is this scenario?
Actually it is not only likely, but with some reflection, inevitable. Given our increasing ability to modify genes and clone animals, it requires not a lot of imagination to project that it will be possible to eliminate all functional parts, such as cognitive and sensory organs, bone and tendon, and grow only the edible portion of food animals, (which are then of course no longer "animals," but products of food technology).
Or to grow cowhide for leather. Or, indeed, to grow human skin for burn transplants, or grow kidneys, or lungs.
Anyone who has had to kill an animal - I don't mean hunting, I mean hands-on slaughtering - knows how unpleasant it is. And distancing it to a chore done by others invites cynicism. Eliminating killing from our society cannot be other than a mitzvah.
If technology - genetic modification combined with cloning -- can accomplish this, shouldn't we embrace, rather than battle it? Shouldn't we be telling our representatives to fund research into how these technologies can be made safe and productive?
So we have two issues, GMO and cloning, both opposed by sincere but misguided activists, who claim to be acting in the public interest. At this point, we must separate philosophical/religious dogma from serious solutions. As I see it, true public interest lies in seeing what is possible and safe before objecting to it, and that means encouraging research of any and all means for sustaining both the planet and humanity
Joseph Byrd teaches music at College of the Redwoods. His most recent food-related project was reverse engineering the flame raisin liqueur he described in a previous column on Mexican food.