By Tito Sasaki
Rumors have been circulating that a new initiative is about to surface that will ban Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) in Sonoma County.
A narrative similar in style opens the 1963 epic film, “Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The film was a hilarious satire of the nuclear super-powers run amok. Comparable concern was expressed over genetic engineering, albeit with less humor, in 1975 when the world’s leading biologists gathered in Asilomar, near Monterey. In this case, however, they set voluntary guidelines for laboratory operations involving recombinant DNA technology, and helped put the subsequent genetic engineering work on a safe track. One thing common between the old arms race and the new GMO race is that despite the initial fear, no Doomsday Machine or harmful Frankenfood ever came about, and the world turned out to be safer than before.
Agriculture started with hybrid wheat and domesticated animals. Everything we cultivate or raise is a modified form of the original wild version, or a combination (hybrid) of originals. Besides wheat, hybrids include grapefruit, tangelo, peppermint, mules, and edible frogs.
There are many ways plants and animals can be changed genetically, ranging from cross breeding, natural mutation, mutagenesis, to genetic engineering with its product, GMO. They all involve changes in an organism’s genome, and in this sense they are on a continuum. The only marked difference is that GMO alone is strictly regulated and its release has to be approved by USDA-APHIS, FDA, and/or EPA. The safety of each GMO is first evaluated for its substantial equivalence to the non-GMO counterpart, as many “natural” foods have inherent toxins. Further testing is done case-by-case to check potential toxicity and allergenicity before it is released to the market. Throughout its history, no report of ill effects of GMO food to humans has been documented.
In Europe, restrictions against GMO are so onerous that major European companies are moving their labs to the States and/or investing more in less-regulated technologies such as mutagenesis and improved crossbreeding using molecular markers and sequenced genomes.
Mutagenesis is a technique of generating random mutation by exposing cells to radiation or chemicals, and selecting desired mutants if they show up. It mimics the natural mutation, only at a greatly accelerated rate. It is cheaper and faster than GMO because of the absence of regulatory hurdles. However, it is less precise than GMO engineering, which handles specific DNA to modify the host genome, or target specific genes for change or knock-out.
Biotechnology holds the key to our future for reducing the use of water and chemicals. Drought-resistant, frost-resistant, and pest-resistant plants or disease-resistant animals could come from mutagenesis or GMO. At this time, GMO is the safer and surer approach.
The Farm Bureau protects farmers’ free choice of GMO or non-GMO, and “organic” or “conventional,” as we embrace both small and large farms. We are “pro-choice” in this sense. It is puzzling that many who try to ban GMO are so-called “pro-choice” people. Also, as I alluded in my last month’s column on habitat restoration, many who look down upon Creationism are themselves anti-evolutionists. If these vocal advocates of their causes come up with philosophically congruent arguments, debates will be more productive.