GMO - Genetically Modifying Foods - The Physics, the Safety

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 profits involved!

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.

That means that, by now, essentially EVERY American has eaten food products, probably many of them, which have been genetically modified.

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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The point here is that such incredibly dire possibilities are probably impossible without human "tinkering" being involved. Now this does NOT mean to say that genetic engineering or genetic modification is bad in itself. The two dangers discussed above are directly due to an extremely limited knowledge and understanding of the subject! And an incredible rush to market and profits by the owning corporations. This is only due to how early and primitive the research is! If this essay would be written a hundred years from now, it would likely be totally supportive of genetic modification!

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".

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in March 2003.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago