Is Frankenfood Dangerous? The Debate Rages on

The phrase “genetically modified” sounds ominous, doesn’t it? It conjures up visions of two-headed lambs and six-legged calves. After all, if there’s one thing mankind should’ve learned by now, it’s the danger of messing with Mother Nature. And yet mankind has messed with Mother Nature for generations, and it’s because of this practice that we enjoy many of the foods we now take for granted.

Mother Nature obviously didn’t come up with seedless fruit, for example. The whole purpose of fruit – as far as she is concerned – is to get seeds spread about. Birds and animals eat the fruit and the seeds pass through them to take root far and wide.

Yet, as far back as the 1940s, I recall my father budding and grafting seedless citrus varieties onto more “natural” trees in the backwoods of Jamaica. It was part of his job as an Agricultural Instructor. The British colonial government hired instructors  like my dad to demonstrate the latest farming and soil preservation  techniques. And  I don’t recall any panic over the “unnatural” products he promoted – from “improved” livestock breeds and feed to “modified” varieties of tomatoes and lettuce.

Now with the wisdom of hindsight, I know some of the most widely touted pest control techniques of that time were misguided. My dad swore by products containing DDT, for example. And we now know how dangerous DDT turned out to be.

That’s one of the dangers mankind faces when we tamper with nature; the consequences of our actions can take years to show up. And by then, it’s too late to do anything about the resulting horrors. The Thalidomide tragedy comes to mind, for example.

But the benefits of agricultural experimentation far outweigh the dangers.

Fly over Haiti, for example, and you will see a brown terrain, stripped of protective vegetation and topsoil, scarred by centuries of neglect. Fly over Jamaica and the land below you will be green, the vegetation protected from primitive slash-and-burn practices, the mountainsides terraced to preserve the topsoil from the ravages of torrential rain.

This is one result of the land contouring and relentless lecturing provided by public servants like my father, dedicated to passing on the lessons of science. The Jamaica Hope cattle breed, which has proved remarkably well suited to the island’s terrain and climate is another. Surely, I don’t need to try and list all of the benefits of agricultural experimentation?

You enjoy them every day. Without them, it would be impossible to feed the world’s exploding population.

It might sound appealing to rely entirely on “organic” cultivation, for example. Who could possibly want “chemicals” in their food? But without fertilizers, there would be little chance of producing the volume of food the world consumes. And, by the way, I encountered some kinds of “organic” plant nutrition back in Jamaica that – believe me – would make you sick to your stomach.

I hesitate to dismiss opponents of genetically modified plant varieties as  latter-day Luddites. After all, what do I know of DNA mixing and gene splicing? This kind of science is relatively new, and its implications are shrouded in uncertainty. Of course it’s better to be safe than sorry, as the old saying goes.

And I am wary of the scientists of today, who often seem to modify their research findings to comply with the demands of deep-pocketed sponsors. But I have to rely on acknowledged “experts” for guidance. Experts like Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize winning scientist from Texas. He helped develop a variety of high-yield dwarf wheat and followed up with rice. Experiments such as Borlaug’s have created a Green Revolution that is helping to avert a threatened global famine.  In India, for example wheat production soared from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 73.5 million tons in 1999.

Berlaug scoffs at the notion that genetically modified grain is some kind of monster food with unknowable and terrifying side effects. He points out that everyday products like pasta and bread are made with wheat created by crossbreeding varieties of wild grass. Indeed, he observes that Mother Nature herself is not averse to genetic modification, often producing hybrid varieties to adapt to changing conditions.

With scientists like Borlaug and even the World Health Organization assuring us that genetically modified foods are safe, I hesitate to join the trendy hue and cry against these products. But I have to wonder why US politicians are reluctant to make labeling of such products mandatory.

I might not necessarily fear “Frankenfoods” but I would like a choice to eat them or avoid them.

Click here for more on the debate.

Click here for the politics involved.