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Umbra Fisk
UMBRA FISK
Researcher Extraordinaire
 
I'm moonlighting for POV's Borders, but in my main gig at Grist Magazine, I unearth answers to readers' most pressing environmental questions and publish my findings in a column twice monthly.
 

I Recommend...
Websites:
Audubon's Seafood Lovers Guide
Tailpipe Tally
Fueleconomy.gov
True Food Network
American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

Books:
Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings from American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower and Warren Leon

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Ask Umbra
astute advice on all things green

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«  Hydroponic Attacks Cui Bono? » 

GMO. So?
Monday, Mar 29, 2004 (10:52 AM)

Dear Umbra,

I'm sure that you must get asked this question often... but is most of the genetically modified food that makes its way into our grocery aisles really that harmful? It seems to me that the process of genetic modification is not that far from hybridizing and other tinkering processes that we've come to accept.

Judi

Dearest Judi,

We don’t know, and that’s the problem. The field is rife with dogma. Companies that genetically modify food crops claim safety, consumers claim alarm, scientists argue, and food safety agencies — well, I don't know what they're doing. Not enough. Hybridization of a plant or animal occurs within species, and it is a type of "genetic manipulation," in that hybrids are genetically distinct and would not occur in large numbers without our interference. Still, hybridization is a form of sexual reproduction, so it's not possible to hybridize (mate) a mango and a cow to get mango-flavored milk, to take one example. Genetic manipulation in the laboratory brings us over that pesky hurdle and makes it theoretically possible to grow a cow with tropical udders. The flavor-laden gene can be lifted from a mango and injected, inserted, or blown into the proper bovine milk gene, and then it's just a morning of milking, a day of yogurt making, and ta da — a mango lassi!

I'm surely playing a bit fast and loose with Science here, but I hope you get a general picture of the difference between hybrid and GMO crops. It's a creepy difference that doesn't seem "natural," but is that cause for alarm? Again, we don't know. Opponents of GMO food crops are asking that there be independent scientifically rigorous testing of each modified crop and that consumers at least be given the option to avoid modified crops. The potential errors are sobering — the GMO industry has modified crops to be pesticide-resistant, to have long shelf lives, to incubate pharmaceuticals ("pharm crops"), and to achieve industrial pollutant remediation. The potential health harms of such crops include inadvertent allergenicity and development of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Environmental harms could include the invasion of non-modified fields, the creation of super-pests and super-weeds, and the unintentional mixing of pharm crops with food crops.

Let's look at your visit to the grocery store. Many processed foods contain corn or soy beans. Someone had the brilliant idea to make it easier to spray the herbicide glyphosate on the world’s vast corn and soy fields by developing GMO seeds resistant to glyphosate. Then you can drench the fields with glyphosate even while the corn is standing and kill all the plants but corn. Glyphosate-resistant (a.k.a. Roundup Ready) corn and soy have been wildly popular in the U.S. It's highly likely that you'll buy some on your next trip to the store and eat it for lunch. You have no way of knowing whether the corn syrup you ate was Roundup Ready and/or whether eating Roundup Ready corn syrup will harm you.

Some of us believe this is unjust and in itself harmful, not to mention irresponsible. The last major advance in agriculture was the advent of synthetic chemicals, a 20th century miracle for farmers struggling to maintain productivity and fight pests. DDT was a godsend, one of legions of chemicals now outlawed in the U.S. Are we so shortsighted as to not learn from our birth deformities and myelomas? Should we be the guinea pigs for chemical companies who will not police themselves? Should our government agencies ineptly bumble their way through regulating this latest revolution in agriculture, at our expense? I obviously don't think so, and I highly recommend spending half an hour reading through whatever literature you can find on the matter.

Beanly,

Umbra

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Past Entries
02/11 Every Drop Counts...
02/17 The Eternal Conundrum: Paper or Plastic?
02/23 D.I.Y.
02/25 A Cleaner Clunker?
02/27 The Diesel in the Details
03/01 Downside of Organic Produce?
03/03 Not Always Greener
03/05 Trash Art: the Director's Cut
03/08 The Rising Stocks of Anti-Ox
03/10 Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
03/12 Something's Fishy
03/15 The Environmentalist's New Clothes
03/17 Bigfoot Prints
03/22 Drinking Your (Re)fill
03/24 Fresh Frozen
03/26 Hydroponic Attacks
03/29 GMO. So?
03/31 Cui Bono?


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