Genetically engineering our foods is controversial for good reason. There are many pluses and minuses at work. Let’s look at a few together.
One of my favorite movies when I was a boy was Frankenstein. I guess I just love being scared half to death. You know the story. A mad scientist figured out how to take pieces of different human bodies, knit them together, and then bring the new creature to life. All seemed good and exciting at first, but then things went haywire, the creation misbehaved and became a monster, even turning on and killing his creator. Part of the lesson of the story is that there are often unforeseen and unintended consequences. Another message: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
It can end up humorous too. For instance, what do you get when you cross a parrot with a lion? Well, I don’t know either, but when it speaks, you’d better listen. What do you get when you cross a potato with a sponge? I’m not sure what to call it, but it sure holds a lot of gravy.
You know that old statement that goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck”? Sounds right, makes sense, but is it always true? Through the marvel of modern science, we can now genetically alter or modify almost any living thing. This is usually called genetic engineering and involves the manipulation—either adding or subtracting—of genetic material, especially DNA, creating a mutation. When this is done, is it still a tomato or ear of corn, or is it now a franken-tomato and franken-corn?
Why would we want to do this anyway? What’s the point? Well, the goals of genetically engineering food sound sensible, even praiseworthy. The stated aims of genetic modification include improving the natural order of things: encouraging faster growth; increasing the nutrition profile by altering the amount of protein, carbs, vitamins, minerals, and fats; improving the taste; increasing resistance to disease, pests, herbicides, and pesticides; and reducing the amount of water required.
That all sounds like perfect world stuff to me. What could possibly go wrong with that? The big answer is: we don’t know. It’s a young science. Is it safe, will there be unforeseen, unwanted, and unintended consequences? Right now the biggest answer is we really don’t know.
Truth is, some unforeseen consequences are already occurring. The contamination of crop genetics has caused allergies in some individuals, upset the normal ecosystem in some areas, been instrumental in developing new strains of superbugs, created herbicide resistant weeds, and decreased nutritional quality in spite of maintaining appearance. The point is it’s early in the process and the outcome is at least unpredictable. Remember, originally asbestos was hailed as a cheap, effective insulation, and lead made paint cover and protect better; now we know that they have killed and sickened huge numbers of innocent people worldwide.
Would it shock you to know that approximately 90% of the soy beans and corn and 80% of the papaya in the U.S. are already genetically modified? Time will tell if we are doing ourselves a health favor or creating franken-fruits and vegetables that may turn on us. I do know this; it’s pretty hard to improve on what nature has provided for us. And I keep coming back to the nagging thought, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.