There are incredible dangers in some of the genetic modification
of food products being done today! It is an example of our
technology knowing only a tiny amount of a subject, but yet we
proceed to roar along, principally because there are enormous
Until early in the year 2001, no one even knew how many genes we have! Most estimates were at least 100,000, with some being far more! The Human Genome Project (HGP) discovered that we really only have around 30,000 individual genes.
Other important discoveries have been that some of our genes appear to be precisely identical to those of cats or various other animals and living things.
In a field that began to develop even before the HGP identified that we have those genes (even though we still only know what a very few of those 30,000 genes actually are for!), re-combinant DNA gene-splicing has developed to an amazing level. There are now High School science classes that do experiments in gene-splicing!
Companies that look to make profits, HUGE profits, have jumped in to combine these two fields. The experiments are nearly countless, and there is very little scholarly oversight on what is going on. One ongoing experiment took DNA from some primates (chimpanzees, I believe) and spliced in a gene that is believed to be associated with luminescence (from some plant, I think). They are expecting that the resultant chimpanzees (which have already been born) will possibly glow! I mention this just to give an idea of the spectrum of experiments that are already under way.
More commonly, companies that are involved in creating or marketing food products are very aggressively trying many such experiments. These experiments began in the late 1980s, and around 1990, Vice President Quayle announced that such modified food products would not only be permitted to be sold, but that they would not even have to be specially identified as being genetically modified. It was made clear when reporters asked about that odd choice of denying the American public its own free choice, that the manufacturers were too worried that no one would buy their genetically-modified tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables! DARN RIGHT, they wouldn't! And so, in order to ensure profits for the giant corporations, our Government decided to intentionally never let us know, whether any particular tomato is actually natural or genetically-modified. Actually, it has turned out to be very easy to tell! Essentially ALL tomatoes we can buy today are extremely bright red, with rarely any imperfection, and NONE of them have much taste at all! I regularly ask friends to close their eyes, and then put a piece of a tomato in their mouth, for them to identify it. Few can! Twenty years ago, 100% of people would have instantly recognized the taste of a tomato. It just means there is more genetic modification that they still will do yet.
Now, this sounds like it could be really good! What about it could be bad?
In itself, the concept is attractive. Marketing tomatoes that looked better and (in theory) tasted better and had more shelf life sounds like a great advance over previous "natural" tomatoes. And, many examples of seemingly successful genetically modified food products seem to bear this conclusion out.
The real problem is that we still have so very little knowledge of the details of DNA and those 30,000 genes of ours. Combining this with the incredibly tiny size of the complex DNA molecules makes for VERY dangerous things! There are two major areas of concern:
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What if such a second (unrecognized) modification has a consequence of a third-generation sterility in people who eat such modified foods? Fifty years in the future, society would suddenly find the population dropping, and would have great trouble in discovering why! The scientists then would certainly quickly discover that enormous amounts of sterility was occurring. Whether they would ever connect such an effect with the foods that would have become universal by then, seems doubtful. Recall that independent researchers spent decades trying to prove that cigarettes cause cancer and kill hundreds of thousands of people each year! Imagine how hard it would be to associate a drastic drop in future birth rates with one specific intentional genetic modification, among hundreds of thousands of them that will have occurred by then!
However, there may be consequences of such second differences that may be even harder to identify. What if something like the chemical synapse speed in the nervous system is greatly slowed down? People generally would have greater trouble learning and understanding things. This would certainly include whatever researchers were trying to figure out the problem and the solution. There are a myriad of possible scenarios for such unexpected second effects, due to unrecognized second differences in specific genes that are spliced into food products.
There is an alternate version of this that might represent an even more difficult problem to analyze. What if, instead of there being a clear change of a second DNA bond (which would be identifiable by DNA analysis), it turned out that the bad effect was a secondary effect? Many of our genes do not directly cause the end effect, but they initiate the formation of amino acids and other template chemicals that then are used as the patterns for fetus and baby development of body structures. So, a single alteration of a DNA link might have large effects on dozens of different parts of the body.
So, what if thousands of American women start having very deformed babies as a result of this?. As if it hasn't happened before??? Remember Thalidomide, where there was nearly a 100% correlation to major birth defects? Are the drug companies still paying for the life support of all those deformed people today? Or have they just been forgotten? Women drinking alcohol while pregnant: How do you think it became known that they better not do that? Because of a LOT of birth defects. Cigarettes and pregnancy? MANY other things, including many drugs that are still extremely popular today. Did you notice on TV ads when they say "Women who are pregnant, or who may become pregnant, should not even touch XXXXX?" How do you think they found THAT out except from previous deformed babies.
This can result in a change or modification of adjacent genes in a chromosome. This is clearly an unintended result, and following research to ensure product safety may not even look for such effects. If such an unintended, unexpected change occurs, there may not even be any evidence of any change.
This could therefore be the equivalent of a "latent" mutation. The food product might display the desired improvement, due to the change of the intended gene, so it could go into very high scale production. This therefore represents one of the most terrifying possibilities of recombinant-gene technology. Countless millions of people could consume such genetically modified food products without anyone knowing that anything bad might be involved. Please note that in late 2004, severe health dangers are now seen in medicine products that have been on the market for many years, and which countless millions of people have taken. We have certainly all already eaten genetically modified tomatoes and many other vegetables, fruits and meat. The frightening part is that there is no one who could give us even the slightest assurance that we have not ALREADY been adversely affected by those genetically modified foods. And we consumers had NO say in the matter. It all occurred because giant corporations were greedy for even greater profits. But find anyone in political authority that would agree with that! They won't, because those giant corporations are too politically important to their political careers, from political donations and many other such ways. So there is not only no oversight now, but there will NOT be any until some (distant?) day in the future when true catastrophe is in progress.
If that unintended alteration of an adjacent gene happens to infect the people with some effect that only shows up after some delay, many millions of people could be seriously affected, or even killed, and it may not even be clear to anyone just why those millions of people were dying!
In a wonderfully intended effort, medical science is already finding ways of altering our existing human genes to combat some diseases. In some cases, a small amount of some genetically modified DNA is included in some blood transfusion or some intravenous injection. In those cases, the plan is that the body will use the standard body cell duplication process to make more and more of the modified blood cells. IF the modification actually only has the one (beneficial) effect that is desired, excellent, the patient now is no longer susceptible to that particular disease. A hundred years FROM NOW, that will probably be the correct and proper procedure. But we have so little knowledge yet. Say that the modification that created the desired immunity to that disease also had an unrecognized effect of causing sterility in the patient. How could researchers learn that, except over a twenty-year study? But twenty years AFTER this procedure had become the standard treatment for that disease, it would be discovered that the patients were all sterile? Or had lowered intelligence or common sense? Or became deaf? What could be done then, for the millions of people who had already been treated in that way? Nothing. Worse, the companies then manufacturing those drugs would challenge any such allegations, because it would endanger billions of dollars of profits for them. Like for cigarettes, it could be fifty years before such a process was ended. And all this would occur because our technology and our corporations are in such a great rush to accomplish more and more.
An important point to note is that enormous numbers of genetic modification experiments are started. Working essentially blindly, genes are broken at essentially random places, and unknown length pieces of some other gene (from some other plant or animal) is spliced in. This has now become a High School level experiment. So, what happens? Well, nearly always, nothing happens! The new gene is something that is not viable, and no growth or development occurs. The experiment is over! But if that same primitive experiment is done a thousand times, a few of those times, growth can still occur. After the organism develops, the researcher attempts to figure out whether the change was a good or bad one. A reputable scientist would immediately discard the ones that had clearly bad effects, and focus all attention on the ones where seemingly positive changes had occurred.
Once something like that began, involving a common food product such as wheat, corn, rice, tomatoes, soybeans, it is hard to see how any person on the earth would survive. Even if some people managed to avoid the initial disasters, by being on Easter Island or Antarctica, the enormous quantity of virus would survive essentially forever. It might be ten years later that the wind or current carried an infected leaf to the survivors' location. So, conceivably, ten or twenty years after the release of such a deadly genetically-modified food product, all six billion people now living would be dead. Humanity could come to a very abrupt end.
The potential benefits are clearly beyond our imagination! However, traditional scientific caution and prudence would normally spend decades of study regarding every single genetically modified food product, before they were ever even considered for the open market. In reality, everyone is aware that "improved" food products can represent many billions of dollars in profits! Unfortunately, our modern society is so very profit-driven that new medicines come onto the market after amazingly short periods of safety testing, again due to profit motives. The same is driving the frenzy regarding genetic modification of every imaginable food product.
Irrespective of this essay or any more comprehensive challenges, there is no doubt whatever that the profit motive will cause ALL of us to already / soon be eating hundreds and thousands of genetically modified food products. In America, it just cannot be avoided! Given the extreme complexity and tiny size of DNA, it seems impossible to believe that ALL such modifications have been "precise" enough to absolutely eliminate all possible collateral effects. But, since that locomotive is roaring along, it seems inconceivable that all those companies would voluntarily choose to forego billions of dollars of profits, and unilaterally decide to spend 40 years testing each product before market! Therefore, we, the public, are left in the uncomfortable position of being entirely helpless guinea pigs in multiple ongoing experiments. We are forced to be in a position to need to hope and pray that no unexpected side effects will occur. Not particularly reassuring!
The fact that there are many malicious people in the world might be a more urgent problem. Even today, it figures that there are people doing those High School level experiments, with the opposite intentions of the scientists. If they find effects that cause deformations or other negative results, they will certainly then try to find ways to introduce such things into the American food supply. I think it was Tom Ridge who commented late in 2004 that he was surprised that terrorists had not tried to affect the American food supply. I have a feeling he is right in that concern, and that they are already working on it, with potential consequences that will be "Biblical".
C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago