To Modify or Not to Modify

 

October 18, 2014

I believe the future of our civilization rests on one word: genes, though not always at the front of our minds, genes determine our health, make us who we are, and how we look. They’re in our food, even the very clothing we wear isn’t possible without the proteins made from cotton’s DNA.

Today, modern science has accomplished what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. Genetic modification. Far from being a new science, using or modifying living things began with the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians who used yeast to brew beer, and bake bread. Selective breeding and farming, though not so obvious, are also methods of genetic modification. We now have the power to directly insert DNA from another plant, virus, or animal into a cell to achieve a desired effect like resisting pestilence, or thriving in bad soil. This practice has been commonplace in big agriculture since its legalization in 1995, and a mere four years later almost half of all corn, cotton and soy grown here have been modified (Britannica). The benefits don’t stop with making our crops more resistant to bugs—the miracle of genetics applies to us as well.

Imagine a future with minimal medical costs, a life in which the biggest concern is the common cold. Imagine never having to worry about a baby born with a condition that puts the family at a lifelong financial disadvantage. The future of medicine will be highly personal, tailored to a person’s genetic vulnerabilities, and the best part is it begins before birth. Many people look forward to becoming parents, and with that journey comes many unforeseen challenges. My wife was diagnosed with Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, when she was in the third grade. Three years later she went under the knife to have her spine fused and straightened with metal rods in a procedure that’s still in the ballpark of $120,000. With every passing day we glean more and more insight into the genes that cause Scoliosis and other diseases with the goal of removing or disabling them before the child is born. It sounds like the stuff of fiction, but human genetic engineering is a reality, gaining headway the world over, but not without its equal share of controversy. People aside, we’re still debating whether or not our modified food is safe.

Despite GMO’s outstanding safety record, special interest groups are still persistent in trying to ban them, or discourage their use through laws and labeling. On the ballot for this upcoming mid-term election is a measure which would require labeling of all genetically engineered food in Oregon. It’s an attempt to move people to eat so-called safe food, but According to Scientific American’s David Freedman:

The human race has been selectively breeding crops, thus altering plants’ genomes, for millennia. Ordinary wheat has long been strictly a human-engineered plant; it could not exist outside of farms, because its seeds do not scatter. For some 60 years scientists have been using “mutagenic” techniques to scramble the DNA of plants with radiation and chemicals, creating strains of wheat, rice, peanuts and pears that have become agricultural mainstays. The practice has inspired little objection from scientists or the public and has caused no known health problems.

Granted, that notion isn’t universal among scientists. Professor of Biological Studies David Schubert is among many who argue that there is not only no consensus of safety, but that GMOs are not as safe, practical, or cost-effective as others claim.

Schubert is an advocate of GMO labeling, and claims it’s vital that the public is aware of the entire truth behind the science, not just what the corporations behind their production what you to know. Such as the super-weed epidemic and many insects as well which are now much harder to kill, and are no longer affected by the crops GM resistance causing a “massive increase” in the amounts of herbicide used. Schubert’s chief concern is the potential of cancer from the combination of GM crops and herbicide use. He points to an AP article on the drastic rise in cancer rates in Argentina after they began cultivating new crops, and another study done on pigs whose consumption of GM corn caused inflammation in their stomachs. He believes the public is taking a step in the right direction with labeling.

It’s hard to imagine a world free of disease when the science which has the potential to cure cancer could very well be giving us all cancer. There’s a myriad of prospects for gene therapy, but they’re a long way off if the science fails our most basic needs—a human is a thousand-fold more complicated than a stalk of corn. Freedman is quick to point out: “But as medical researchers know, nothing can really be ‘proved safe.’ One can only fail to turn up significant risk after trying hard to find it—as is the case with GM crops.” But sometimes it takes a very long time to find the risk, not twenty years after it was legalized and here we are in the midst of a raging conflict.

Unfortunately, we have the tendency to dive into things headfirst, only to pay for the consequences later. Our food chain however, might not be so lenient about our willingness to experiment, and while some may see the current debate as debilitating, arguing is what will push us forward—weighing the data, ideas, ethics. In the years ahead, there will be more at stake than our food. With the power to manipulate the genes of person come the question: how far is too far? How tall should we make a person, how white, black, intelligent? There is much to discuss as a society, but people are already deciding what gender to make their children. And while scientists are trying to measure the actual effect of these technologies on nature the ideology of others is distorting the truth.

Perhaps the most gripping story about GMOs isn’t one on herbicides or cancers, but mass suicides. Many people are familiar with the almost 300,000 deaths in India regarding their Bt cotton crop failure, not so many know that those suicides had more to do with greedy money lenders than the cotton. The original story can be traced back to the well-known environmentalist Vandana Shiva who told the public that farmers were killing themselves because of Monsanto. Her story caught on and gleaned a lot of media coverage, but political economist Anoop Sadanandan’s research shows that many of deaths took place in states which didn’t grow cotton at all, and found that many states where cotton was grown didn’t have the same suicide rates. Instead, Sadanandan blames India’s banking reform. With growing competition many banks stopped loaning to farmers, viewing it as an unreliable investment, which forced many to turn to high interest lenders. Once the crops failed the farmers found themselves in massive amounts of debt, and seeing no way out, took their lives (Strauss).

With so much at stake, it behooves us to have a fair conversation about GMOs, without calling to emotion, which always leads to poor decisions. Bio-engineering offers the world so much potential, but distorting the facts coupled with our propensity to rush in will turn it into Pandora’s Box. I’m not against genetic modification, and I look forward to see it save countless lives whether it’s growing better food or stopping a future illness, but everyone can agree safety is essential. GMO labeling is good step in that direction. People are going to be surprised at the amount of GM food they’ve eaten, but ultimately we have a right to know what we’re eating, safe or not.

Works Cited

“Genetically modified organism (GMO)”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/897705/genetically-modified-organism-GMO>.

Freedman, David. “The Truth About Genetically Modified Food.” scientificamerican.com. Scientific American. 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2014

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=2

Schubert, David. “Why we need GMO labels.” cnn.com. CNN. 3 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2014

http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/03/opinion/schubert-gmo-labeling/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7

Strauss, Mark. “The GMO Mass Suicides Are a Myth.” io9.com. Io9. 21 April 2014. Web. 18 Oct. 2014

http://io9.com/the-gmo-mass-suicides-are-a-myth-1565342067

GMO

There’s a measure on the Oregon ballot that if made into law requires labeling of all GMO products. I’m pretty sure it’s going to pass considering these are the same voters that stuck down Fluoride. And I can’t wait to watch Portland’s jaw drop when everyone finds out 95% of what they’ve eaten for the past decade is genetically modified.

Yes on 91

I received a flyer in a mail today entitled No on 91. Measure 91 is Oregon’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. The flyer was plastered in candies with a tagline: “Why experiment on Oregon’s kids with these MARIJUANA junk foods?” Odds are if you live in Oregon you received one in the mail too, most of you I’m sure can see right through the long list of unsubstantiated claims on the back, but for those who aren’t familiar with the facts around the drug I present a counter argument–and unlike the fear-mongering flyer I’ll include where I pulled my data from:

The No on 91 Committee claims that big marijuana business targets kids with gummy bears, sugary kids cereal, ice cream, etc. There’s no such thing as “big marijuana business” because it’s still against federal law. The reason candies are commonly used is because it’s easy to infuse them with THC. It’s not about kids at all, its purpose is for recreation without smoke for those of us who are more health conscious or simply don’t enjoy smoking. Everyone’s required to present ID, and be at least 21 to get any of these substances.

They claim that youth use of marijuana increases when availability increases, but when you look at the stats of Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, youth use has increased at least 2% between 2006-2011–legal or not. (http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/40-marijuana-use-by-age-group#detailed/2/7,39,49/false/909,857,105,118,104/30/14409,317)

Measure 91 allows “too much marijuana”. Not sure what that means, but just because I would be allowed to own up to 400 joints or 1 LB of edibles doesn’t mean that’s what I can afford, or realistically want. There’s no point in keeping that much around when I can go down the street and buy some more.

“This is not Woodstock weed: Today’s marijuana is 300-800% stronger.” No it isn’t. Not according to Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, the director of the Marijuana Potency Project, “Since 1972…the average THC content of marijuana has soared from less than 1% to 3 to 4% in the 1990s, to nearly 13% today” (http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/09/health/weed-potency-levels/).

They claim that there is no standard for driving. According the Voters’ Pamphlet for the Oregon General Election, “(2) The offense described in the section, use of marijuana while driving, is a Class B traffic violation.” It’s almost impossible to set standards or limits on the substance like we do with alcohol because there’s active and inactive THC and every body processes it differently.

They also claim that “Like Colorado, the black market will always be cheaper than ‘legal’ taxed marijuana.” I’ll level on this one. If the substances is drastically overtaxed like it is in Colorado then yes impoverished communities will continue to use the black market. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/nine-months-colorado-legalized-recreational-marijuana/)

The final reason for opposing Measure 91 is that “For every $1 the government receives taxing substances like alcohol & tobacco, it spends $10 in social costs.” I don’t know how they came up with those numbers, but there are a few logical flaws here. First, that’s for alcohol and tobacco, two legal substances which cause a lot of deaths (2.5 million for alcohol, and more than 5 million for tobacco worldwide), we still need more data on the social costs of marijuana. (https://ncadd.org/in-the-news/155-25-million-alcohol-related-deaths-worldwide-annually, http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/)

In the center of the flyer there’s an outlined section: Oregon Can Learn From Colorado’s Mistake

  • Colorado’s 12-17 year old marijuana use rate is 39% higher than the national average.
  • INCREASE of 57% in marijuana-related emergency room visits.
  • INCREASE of 100% in traffic fatalities where drivers tested positive for marijuana.
  • INCREASE OF 268% in poison control center calls for children (ages 0 to 5) for marijuana.

First, Colorado, like many states have shown that more and more youth are using the substance as previously mentioned. There are more people testing positive for marijuana in traffic fatalities, but here’s what you’re not being told: “The problem with these criticisms is that we can test only for the presence of marijuana metabolites, not for inebriation. Metabolites can linger in the body for days after the drug’s effects wear off — sometimes even for weeks. Because we all metabolize drugs differently (and at different times and under different conditions), all that a positive test tells us is that the driver has smoked pot at some point in the past few days or weeks.” As reported by Radley Balko of The Washington Post. As for the 268% increase in poison control calls, according to USA Today the number of calls reported last year was 70, and most of those could have been prevented if parents took the time to hide their drugs with all the other things adults leave around the house like guns and rat poison.  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/08/05/since-marijuana-legalization-highway-fatalities-in-colorado-are-at-near-historic-lows/, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/02/marijuana-pot-edibles-colorado/7154651/).

Finally, look at the top four groups who oppose the measure: Oregon Pediatric Society, Oregon Sheriffs, Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, and Oregon District Attorneys Association. The Pediatric Society aside, what do the other groups stand to lose if Measure 91 passes? Money. So before you vote NO on 91 remember it’s not really about the kids, that’s just a ploy to tug at your heart string. Legal venders check ID, black market dealers don’t. We should protect our children, but that happens though education and personal responsibility, not by keeping something illegal. Oregon has some of the highest, if not the highest marijuana use in the nation, the best thing we can do for kids, and our society is to legalize and control it. Lastly, whether or not you vote yes or no, our state’s never going to benefit from misinformation and fear, you can be against drugs, but please don’t be against facts.

Bonus Check

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’ve had better months.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You dictate the schedule, so I think you know what’s wrong.”

“Your hours?”

“Yeah, it’s getting pretty difficult making $250 stretch through the week. It’s really nice to get the special treatment after five years of dedication to the company.”

“…”

“I know you make between $80,000 and $120,000 to manage this store. Guess how much I, a married, 30 year old man with half a decade of experience in grocery and 11 years in customer service, made this year.”

“What?”

“$20.000.”

“We’ll fix it, we can get you more hours.”

“Oh I get it, throw the dog a bone.”

“No.”

“It’s not just me, you’re squeezing money out of your most loyal, hardest working associates because our pay is capped, and giving all those hours to new hires who you only have to pay minimum wage saves the company money which will probably wind up in your annual bonus.”

“Well…”

“I know it’s easy to think of us as brainless worker drones, but we’re people with families, kids who are going to want a Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas presents. We have rent, medical bills, and hobbies. Personally, I’d like to pay off my credit card.”

“I understand. Believe it not I was right where you are when I was your age. I know what it’s like to work hard for very little.”

“Then why are you trying to fuck us over?”

“Well…”

“No I get it, your bonus check is priority over our well-being.”

The More Things Change…

I quit having expectations and this is why: I don’t think a single thing has really changed for almost five thousand years. After our first and possibly greatest invention–writing–humanity has remained largely stagnate in its thinking, but luckily not in its understanding of the physical world. Yet, even with all the accumulated knowledge of the known universe these problems persist throughout history:

An uninformed ruling class.

The struggle for reason over ignorance.

The plight of the poor, and immigrant.

The brotherhood of religion and government.

Short-term gains trump long-term costs.

Reinforcing the status quo through violence.

I don’t expect anything to change. We’ve had the technology to cure what ails us for years. The real reason we don’t have everything hooked up to solar, or wind, or geothermal is because you can’t charge anything for free energy. There’s no fucking money in using the sun as a perpetual energy maker. There’s no money in batteries that can run for three years on a single charge. If writing is humankind’s first great invention then the battery is second, and solar panels third, but to fully implement it would call our nation’s most esteemed philosophy into question, and that isn’t going to happen because of the list above.