Saturday, June 20, 2015

1876: Pueraria Montana

Today's entry is a guest blog by Dr. Chris de Francisco.  This will be the first in a series of GMO discussions.

The year was 1876.  At the Philadelphia Continental Exhibition, a small ornamental plant from Japan is introduced to this continent.  In its homeland it was used as a material for basketry, as a source of medicine for vertigo and tinnitus, and even as part of the cuisine.  In the New World it was noted that it grew quite rapidly.  A half century later, in the wake of the Dust Bowl amid concerns about the rapid erosion of topsoil, American farmers were paid almost $20 a hectare to plant it on their soil, and during that time three million acres were covered with the plant on purpose using taxpayer money.  Scientists, using nature to solve a problem brought on by insufficient knowledge and foresight… with insufficient knowledge and foresight.  The plant was kudzu.  It kills the plants it covers, and it buries power lines and structures in its path; it is still spreading at a rate of 120,000 acres a year.  It costs power companies about a million and a half dollars a year to keep it clear of their lines, and it costs up to half a billion dollars a year to keep from swallowing up forest and farm.  And it’s all natural.

I’m with my family on a field trip to Brazil (where kudzu is used to cover the destroyed patches of the Amazon) when my old friend Crorey Lawton and I get into a little internet debate about GMOs.  I’m delightfully not worrying about them right now, eating corn that tastes like corn tasted when I was a kid, tomatoes that have real flavor, and beef that’s raised for taste and not maximum industrial capacity.  I’m eating the natural species that have been modified over centuries by farmers to become larger and more fun to eat. The difference in taste is as distinct as the difference between soda made with sugar and soda made with high fructose corn syrup.  Before the mid-1990s, everyone in my homeland of America was doing the same as my Brazilian friends, before our main cereal crops were shifted to the new version...  If you want to call GMO wheat and corn the same plant as corn and wheat – really they are now different species entirely thanks to the genetic modifications introduced to make them more tolerant of the toxic glyphosate chemical weed controller which is made by the same corporation that brought all of the genetically modified seeds used in American industrial scale agriculture.  Farmers use their seeds so they can use their herbicide without killing the plant.  All of this was done with minimal testing and introduced on a grand scale – far more focused in intent than the introduction of kudzu, and using American human beings without their informed consent as a large scale test population.  Insufficient knowledge and foresight brought to bear to ‘solve a problem’ caused by insufficient knowledge and foresight, but this time with huge profits in store for the promulgators.

I’m not actually a person who enjoys argument and debate anymore, but I find myself drawn into them often enough over things that bother me… like gun control.  And like gun control, GMO stirs


up two camps with remarkably similar structures – one side are concerned families with children looking to do what is right for posterity and keep themselves safe, the other side has the financial backing of a large corporate complex who use political lobbies and a corporate friendly media to keep as many facts from the population as they can while their paid scientific and statistical ‘experts’ assure us we’re just being alarmists.  And in both cases we have the rest of the developed world as a comparison – Europe doesn’t have our sort of ‘anything goes’ gun culture, nor does Europe permit GMOs on their soil or in their citizen’s bellies, because the people were asked first what they actually wanted rather than having a lobby convince the ruling class that this was all going to make them wealthier.  Maybe that’s where similarity ends though, because on the sort of small detail level most empirical scientists have an easy time ‘digesting’, GMO has not yet raised enough red flags.  There are proofs available that eating an organic (non GMO) diet produces children with lower levels of carcinogenic glyphosate in their system, but there’s not yet proofs that the all this GMO is, say, making Americans more obese or prone to allergies or cancer.  All there is a the large scale replacement on the land of the crops that clever farmers tinkered with to make into the best possible food they could with the crops that clever scientists modified to make into the most resistant to the poison their bosses were selling.  It’s an experiment I am doing my best to shield my daughter from, but in an country like our homeland where just about  EVERYTHING contains unlabeled GMO wheat, soy, or corn in some form (even as that sugar substitute high fructose corn syrup which slipped down our gullets a few decades before an alarm was raised), it’s near impossible.

I could keep debating, but like other debates, we’re simply looking at different views of reality.  I would like GMOs labelled on products in America (the industry has fought against it as they’ve watched Organic foods known to avoid GMO rise thousands fold in commercial success the past twenty years), I would have liked the experiment conducted on a large-enough but remote island where the modified pollen might stay out of the fields of people doing things the ‘old fashioned way’, I would have liked a smaller test population than the entire population of the United States.   I’m a scientist, maybe, but I’m not interested in details – I’m interested in holistic large scale impacts.  Human beings were not always capable (if ever capable) of thinking through their experiments’ impacts over decades or centuries.  I would have us err on the side of caution, particularly when the only difference in not doing so is how much wealth a few producers can concentrate in the short run.

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