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The GMO Controversy

I have an old friend who couple of years ago made a decision to radically change his way of life. What he did is almost unreal for the rest of us. He simply stopped eating food we are all familiar with and instead he eats only fruits, vegetables and various grains and nuts. All that in its raw and natural form without any cooking, baking or frying. Of course as a practical man (he is a math teacher in my wife's school) he didn't do this over night and instead used methodical approach so his switch from "ordinary" food to this final stage of the most strict vegetarian diet possible lasted couple of years in order to adapt his organism better and to avoid potential dangers on the way. Contrary to other vegetarians I know he didn't do this because of some illness or because his organism is not capable of digesting meat and thermally processed food. Instead this was an act of free will and strong belief that he is doing a good thing. I strongly admire him for this and from my point of view as simple observer from the side, after couple of years he also changed comparing to his old life before. He is now hyper-active person, works at school on his regular job, after school he maintains his own chess school with lots of students of all ages. He is also politically active and he runs marathons and semi-marathons on regular basis! He doesn't have a car, always on the run, maintains his own website* and actively propagate healthy family life within his own family with three sons!

Lab plants research

Sometimes I wonder is this the future for the mankind? Or is his story just another individual tale we stumble from time to time? I am sure that humans started their evolution many years ago as simple food pickers and pure vegetarians but after so many years of evolutionary process the question is should we decide and go back to our origins and devolve our ways when it comes to eating? Or should we use our brains and try to invent something brand new and innovate our nutrition further? Is genetically modified food the way to do it? Let's try to find out in this post.

When Beth asked me for my opinion on GMO and worldwide controversies I had mixed feelings about it. On my curiosity side of character I always wanted to write something about this topic and yet as a gourmand type of person I didn't think I am right person to do it. When it comes to food it is simple with me - there are only two types of food, one that is good for my body, which is healthy and everything (and usually not very delicious) and the other is for my soul, the food that brings smile on my face and trigger various emotions after. Within food markets in Serbia genetically modified food is still hiding on small special shelves and I had chance to try only some sort of GM soy products. However with exception of tofu and soy sauce that matches perfectly with chicken wings I like to prepare from time to time, I am not big fan of soybean at all but I am sure there will be more chances for me to try other vegetables in the future.

Consumer Protection***

However, in a world full of controversies, especially about new things in production, lets first see what GMO really is. In short these genetically modified organisms are exactly what the name suggest. They are products of altering the genes of the species either by insertion or deletion of genes or by triggering mutation during early development of the organism. There are various species used in the process, micro organisms, plants, insects and even mammals. GMO in its pure scientific meaning if we disregards food industry represents various research in ever lasting battle with diseases and finding new ways of fighting them. Once I saw genetically altered mouse who had no genes responsible for growing eyelids. Poor thing was completely disabled to close his eyes but his life helped a lot to better understand the DNA sequencing with humans. Many diseases are hereditary with only genetics in their background. The only way to ultimately fight them is this very research of how to deal with them on a molecular level or simply how to alter our own DNA and eliminates all potential hazards before they happen. Safely of course.

However every medal has two faces. GMO is no differ. Contrary to the pure scientific genetic research which is still young science with many more years ahead especially with more complex organisms we today have many genetically modified food already in production and in stores worldwide. The question is whether or not it is too early for that. Do we know enough of potential hazards for biodiversity of the environment where it is massively grown. I mean we are dealing with new artificial species occupying square miles and miles of planted fields and what we know for sure is where new species move from one area to another natural equilibrium and its biodiversity is shaken and always trigger some consequences. To put it simple, take for example a large agricultural area where normal organic seeds are planted for years. After all those years the fields developed its own biodiversity with not only crops but also with reach microbiological life depending on cultivation routine on yearly basis. If we now seed GMOs instead of organic crops do we really have full understanding what actually happens with all those microbiological life? Does it simply die? Does it move someplace else? Does it mutate to better accept newcomers? What is happening with all the insects living on the same area who are perhaps dependable on those microbiological life? What happens with air composition above the crops? I mean even in a classic agriculture it is not wise to plant, for example, wheat on the field where previously corn grown for decades before. Not to mention that GM plants have implanted defense from various insects and pests who lived there for decades. What exactly happens with all of them now without any food in their habitat anymore? More questions raised about extensive use of various chemicals in the process and what is their exact influence to the environment?

GMO vs soil ecosystems

I tried to find all the answers online and I couldn't find anything useful. Perhaps the answers are too scientific and not available for wider audience in any understandable form but I have to say that I doubt it. On the other hand and to be completely fair, the only way to find out what happens with biodiversity of the area used by agricultural biotechnology is to test it. It simply can't be done in laboratory. You have to go out and do some experimental gardening. For years and step by step. Only then we can surely say we know enough and we can safely eat new genetically modified food and more importantly we can say they are safe for our environment. Currently there are active movement dedicated to ban further production of genetically modified food in both online mass propaganda and also scientific main streams. While first one is typical - every now and again I am encountering articles online and also receiving some email chain letters describing the evilness of GMOs without any visible proof or valid concern. In those articles the most mentionable company is Monsanto, multinational biotechnology corporation and one of pioneering players in GMO industry. I am not going to explore further this one or any other companies who are dealing with biotechnology today simply because that would go far beyond my blog scope, but those propaganda often go too far and when I read some appeals like "be aware that these evil companies are capable of producing chickens with three legs just because people like chicken legs and wings the most" I always can't stop myself and wonder who are these people behind this propaganda and what are their motives? Statements like this one are nothing else but plain nonsense. Ridiculous even.

Scientific approach is completely different story. I will give you one example happened two years ago. The already mentioned company Monsanto produced a GM maize called MON810. This artificial corn is a hybrid between a plant and bacteria, so to speak. Original plant's DNA is embedded with a gene from bacteria named "Bacillus thuringiensis" and each time "European Corn Borer", an insect that adores corn, crawls up or lands on a plant for a lunch a specific protein is released by the plant itself, thanks to the additional gene and kill the insect or drive it away with its "Bt" toxin. For years in European Union, this GM food was the only one with approval notice. However after a while cultivation of MON810 halted in Germany first where it was discovered that the toxin shows effects to other organisms other than it was initially designed and documented. This raised immediate suspicion and further study of this particular maize is ordered. Since this case six more countries banned MON810 by their laws. Discussion on this matter is still in progress and this is just one case.

Labeling GMO products****

To conclude with some wisdom, it seems to me that food industry rushed a little with genetically modified food and actively using this period as a test ground for further development of GM plants and especially for testing the cultivation on a large fields in different parts of the world. I guess for them it is both, development of the quality product and race for the future domination in this new industry. If you ask me for an opinion I would be extra caution and do careful reading and online research before I buy any particular GM food. Labeling GM food in markets or labeling "GM region free" where the product is made on the food package would also be useful for end users. It would provide more information about the content and also enough keywords for better education of consumers.

Surely as long as consuming food is a matter of choice I would always go for domesticated food from trusted sources first. If this is unavailable and buying industry food is the only option I would go for organic products even if finding them requires additional efforts like going to distant markets or using deep freezer to keep large quantities of various food at home. Finally if this is not the option what is left is industry food made by extensive use of pesticides and other chemicals used in production and preservation. Hopefully in the future we will have GM food side by side to this "chemically based" food industry and if proven safe this should be next level in industrialization of our very nutrition.

*Aca Krstić, strict vegetarian diet (Serbian)

** Genetically modified food around the world (image follow up)

*** Consumer Protection

**** Labeling GM Products

James D. Watson at Monsanto

MON810 story

GM Food and Controversies

EU regulations
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