Edible Media: Gene Blues
Gristmill, 3 Jul 2007
I spent the weekend in Atlanta at the first-ever U.S. Social Forum -- an extremely interesting event, but not the place to go for someone needing to catch up on rest. Now I'm laid up with a sore throat, which gave me a chance to do today something I never get to do anymore -- curl up with the print version of the Sunday New York Times.
I especially like to dig into the business section, where the "paper of record" often deposits its most interesting stuff.
I liked Gretchen Morgenson's piece on how investors are suddenly fleeing risk -- meaning that the stock market boom of the past several years, built on leveraged buyouts, subprime lending, and various forms of dodgy financial engineering, may be be about to unravel.
But what really got my fevered brain ticking was Denise Curuso's article on changes in gene theory -- specifically, evidence challenging the idea that genes operate in isolation, with each sequence of the DNA tied to a single function.
In other words, the whole intellectual basis for the genetically modified seed business may be flawed.
Industrial food thrives on isolation technologies.
Think of sweetness. To produce sweet foods profitably, food manufacturers long ago learned to isolate the sweet element in sugarcane -- sucrose -- and produce it in mass quantities. (More recently, manufacturers perfected the tortured process, mostly political it turns out, of profitably reducing corn to fructose.)
In the process of reducing sugarcane to sucrose, everything that makes sugarcane a nutrient-rich whole food -- B vitamins, iron, trace minerals -- get stripped out.
In the industrial mentality, that's fine -- the point is sweetness, not health. And if health is a concern, there's an industrial solution for that, too -- vitamins and minerals can be isolated and synthesized from other substances, and used to "enrich" the sweetened product.
This sort of food production -- food as an amalgamation of isolated elements -- has thrived with the blessing of the FDA for decades, and continues unabated today.
Yet as Michael Pollan reported recently, the theory is unraveling in scientific circles. It turns out that human bodies require more than a bunch of isolates mixed together, dyed, and packaged. Nutrients work not alone, but within the context of whole foods. The vitamin C bound up in an orange gives us more than the equivalent amount of ascorbic-acid isolate; the latter can't replace the former in a healthy diet.
From another piece from Sunday's Times, I learned that 80 percent isolated ascorbic acid acid used by U.S. food companies comes from China.) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/business/01imports.html?ex=1340942400&en=36df7d66d2f6f38f&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss
Of course, the folly of what Pollan calls our "nutritionism" wasn't immediately obvious. You can eat "enriched" white bread or drink a Coke or citric-acid-laced Tang and not keel over dead. But as incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related maladies surges, nutritionism is looking more and more suspect.
Monsanto and other GM-seed companies like Syngenta and Dupont have applied a similar theory to seeds. They take what they see as a desirable trait -- say, the ability to withstand one of their own herbicides -- isolate it, and splice it into seeds for a crop like corn or soy.
In test plots and now in vast monocultural plantings, nothing much happens immediately that's obviously different from conventional corn and soy. For 10 years now, the FDA and USDA have reliably nodded their approval when the biotech industry comes out with a new gene-altered wonder seed.
The proliferation of GM crops has been stunning -- unprecedented in the history of agriculture.
Global GM plantings surged from nothing in 1995 to 250 million acres today. By 2004 in the United States, 80 percent of all soy and 45 percent of all corn -- the two crops that prop up industrial food production -- were GM. (Since then, the biofuel craze has almost certainly pushed those numbers up.)
Shockingly, according to a recent report, one company -- Monsanto -- owns the proprietary GM traits for more than 90 percent of the gene-altered corn, soy, cotton, and canola planted worldwide.
To get back to to the Times piece, Denise Caruso informs us of a recent study by the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by researchers around the globe.
"To their surprise," Caruso writes, "researchers found that the human genome might not be a 'tidy collection of independent genes' after all, with each sequence linked to a specific function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease."
Instead, she goes on, "genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and other components in ways not fully understood."
According to Caruso, the study directly challenges the basis for the whole biotech industry, including its Monsanto-dominated ag arm. These companies operate under the assumption that they can identify a gene, patent it, and splice it into a plant organism, and control precisely how the modified organism will behave in the field.
But if the new research is correct, Monsanto really has no idea what its Roundup Ready soy or Bt-corn (corn spliced with the Bacillus thuringiensis gene toxic to beetles) will *really* do when planted by the millions of acres in fields.
Of course, the industry has an easy answer to this concern: we've already increased plantings to a quarter-billion acres in ten years, and everything's fine! Or as reliable industry hack (and former FDA official) Henry I. Miller told Caruso, "both theory and experience confirm the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-splicing technology and its products."
But for 40 years, food-industry execs have been saying the same thing about the processed, "enriched" junk they churn out, even as incidence of diet-related health maladies surges.
In reality, we have no idea what sort of long-term effect all of those gene-altered corn, soy, and cotton plants are having on ecosystems.
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