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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Are We All Blindfolded Lab Rats In Their Big Gene Gamble?

The book Altered Genes, Twisted Truth by Steven M. Druker is an extremely thorough look at potential hazards involved genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The book has been endorsed by more than 10 PhD's, some of which are biologists. Here is a rather terrifying passage from page 192 of the book:

Accordingly, several experts believe that these engineered microbes posed a major risk. Elaine Ingham, who, as an Oregon State professor, participated in the research that discovered those lethal effects, points out that because K. planticola are in the root system of all terrestrial plants, it is justified to think that the commercial release of the engineered strain would have endangered plants on a broad scale – and, in the most extreme outcome, could have destroyed all plant life on an entire continent, or even on the entire earth...Another scientist who thinks that a colossal threat was created is the renowned Canadian geneticist and ecologist David Suzuki. As he puts it, “The genetically engineered Klebsiella could have ended all plant life on the continent.”

For years scientists have been creating genetically modified organisms that have been introduced into our food supply. We are told that such GMO food products are safe. But there are reasons for thinking great hazards may be involved.

One reason is that there is no way to determine that a GMO is safe merely by testing it in the lab. This because such organisms are released into the environment, which has far too many variables for any scientist to keep track of. An organism that may seem safe when tested under lab conditions may turn out to be a killer or cancer-causer when introduced into an ecological system that has way too many variables and unknowns to ever be properly simulated in the lab.

A second reason for doubting the safety of GMO's is that every genetically modified organism or GMO is its own particular case, and safety successes in the past never guarantee the safety of new GMO projects. Every single new GMO is a new piece of technology that may have risks. It's rather like this: I may mix together 40 different combinations of chemicals, without any problem; but it is still perfectly possible that the forty-first combination of chemicals that I try may cause an explosion (or lethal gas) that kills me. A similar situation holds for GMO's. Claims that a “40 year-success record prove that GMO's are safe” are not valid, because every new type of GMO is a new unproven piece of technology that might blow up in our faces.

A third reason for doubting the safety of GMO's is that we don't understand enough about life to be very confident about the safety of genetic engineering. Many scientists have a bad habit of exaggerating human knowledge about biology, often advancing an unwarranted triumphalist narrative making it sound as if they have godlike insight into the inner workings of biology. The truth is very different. We do not understand at all the origin of life, and do not understand even basic issues such as morphogenesis, how a fertilized ovum is able to progress into a newborn baby. We do not even understand where the body plans of humans come from, as I discuss in my post The Gigantic Missing Link of Biological Life. Contrary to common claims that DNA is some blueprint for the human body, the “language” used by DNA seems to be a “bare bones” semantically-minimal language entirely incapable of expressing anything like a three-dimensional arrangement of parts. It's a language suitable mainly just for creating lists of chemicals. The Human Genome Project, which was supposed to offer great insight into life, has revealed a baffling sea of complexity which scientists are pondering with little insight, rather like historians who scratched their heads about Egyptian hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

In Chapter 11 of his book Druker has an excellent chapter comparing the difficulties of changing computer code you don't understand with the difficulties of genetic engineering. Pointing out “the inescapable risks of altering complex information systems,” Druker says quite correctly that DNA is information of high complexity and low comprehensibility. By messing with that code, we are rather like newly-hired programmers who start making changes in some very old legacy system with 5 million lines of code the programmers don't understand, without understanding the ramifications of their changes. A golden rule of programming is: don't screw around with legacy code you don't understand. But genetic engineering requires that scientists do just that. Also, DNA is not written in anything like readable high-level programming code written in a language such as Java. It's intelligibility level is much closer to binary code – streams of 1's and 0's that you cannot understand by reading. Most programmers know that trying to edit binary code is a “Russian roulette” type of business.

Druker argues that given such a situation, we should not even be using the term “genetic engineering,” since engineering is what goes on when you have a mastery of what you are building or changing. A more accurate term, he argues, is bio-hacking.

Druker urges a banning of all GMO's, but there's a much less drastic step we can take: the step of labeling all foods with GMO's, so that consumers can choose not to consume them if they are concerned about their safety. Labeling of GMO foods is supported by 93% of all Americans, and is required practice in many countries. With labeling of GMO's, you can choose not to be a blindfolded lab rat in the big gene gamble. 

But many scientists stand in opposition to GMO labeling. Why? In many cases this is because they have a financial interest in the spread of the genetically modified organisms. Many are employed directly by biotechnology firms that sell GMO products. Many other biologists take consulting money (directly or indirectly) from biotechnology corporations. The vested interests of biologists or biochemists may be clouded in various ways. For example, the biologist may be paid for writing on some web site that gets half of its money from biotechnology corporations, which gives the money to spread the message that GMO's are safe. Or a biochemist may work for a research unit at a university that is partially funded by contributions or contracts from biotechnology corporations.

Given the many ways in which biologists and biochemists have financial interests in GMO's, we absolutely cannot trust any “expert consensus” that GMO's are safe. We should not expect objective opinions from people who have vested interests or financial interests in the matters on which they are stating opinions.

The reasoning used by opponents of GMO labeling are often ridiculous. One common charge is that it is “anti-science” to ask for GMO labeling. That's laughable. Genetically modified food products aren't science – they are technological products that we have the option to consume or not-consume. It is no more “anti-science” to avoid consuming GMO's than it is is anti-science not to buy some particular computer product (a type of computer is not “science” any more than a GMO, although both make use of scientific knowledge).

It is also ridiculous to argue that it is “anti-science” to avoid GMO's because some small committee of the American Society for the Advancement of Science said they are safe in 2012. An opinion doesn't become science because some committee of scientists voices it. Science is the total body of facts collected by scientists. That body of facts does indeed warrant concern about the safety of GMO's.

Another argument made is that we must support GMO's because they will help feed starving people abroad. But such an argument does nothing to argue against GMO labeling. A safer way of increasing food supplies is to reduce meat consumption (the grain needed for a meat-centered meal is typically enough to make six meals that don't use meat).

A study published in 2012 found that a genetically modified crop and a herbicide it was engineered to be grown with caused severe organ damage and hormonal disruption in rats fed over a long-term period of two years. Eventual consequences for some of the rats included tumors. Published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the study was carried out by a team led by Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini. A kind of intellectual lynch mob quickly formed, led by pro-GMO interests, which caused the paper to be retracted on the flimsy basis that it was inconclusive (using the same criteria we would have to throw out a third or a quarter of all scientific papers). The incident was a great black mark on contemporary bio-science, and seems like a very troubling attempt at a cover-up. Various ridiculous justifications were given, including untrue claims that Seralini's team had used the wrong type of rat. After a long delay another scientific journal published the study. See here for other information about the study

Such a study does not show that some GMO food you are eating is unsafe. But it does show GMO advocates are not telling us the truth when they claim there is no reason for thinking that genetically modified organisms may be risky.