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GMO Foodstuffs: Questions for Geneticists

25 April 2014, 07:15

At the moment in the world, there are many countries that are banning and restricting GMO foodstuffs and crops. Quite notably, China has refused a number of American shipments of GM corn due to the fact that they were genetically modified. The companies that promote GM products are facing a rear-guard battle the world over. Many nations are rejecting GM technology (as practiced by these large multi-nationals) due to the problems that arise through the use of these technologies. Increased herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer usage, pest resistance and lower yields after a few years make the promises made by Monsanto, Du Pont, et al particularly hollow for most farmers who are locked into GM contracts.

That GM seeds, crops and technology are proving failures is hard for some people to acknowledge but the empirical evidence is quite clear: GM technology causes more problems than it solves: GM crops start to show worse agricultural symptoms after around 3 years, GM foods are not good for animals that consume them. Animals die young and show more tumours and physical ailments when they eat GMO feed. The scientists are not even sure as to why this is the case.

And I am not sure either, but I plan to explain why GM technology is severely flawed: firstly, modern observations in epigenetics show that methods for GM modification of seeds and crops are very suspect. Secondly, many of the under-pinning “theorems” of modern genetics are not necessarily true.

In Watson’s book “DNA: The Secret of Life” he talks about genes and says that, on our total genetic code (that is passed on from parents to children), the useful sequences are very sparse and are surrounded by “junk DNA” or, as he tells it, “introns”. In fact, we are later to discover, the non-useful makeup of our genetic code is around 98% of the total number of base pairs!

Watson points this out himself: organisms (animals) do not use more energy to achieve an end than they absolutely have to. It is kind of like the Occam’s Razor of Biology or Newton’s Laws of Conservation of Energy at a molecular, organic level. Why, therefore, I ask you, would ALL animals studied, pass on this “useless” DNA? I think that the answer is simpler (and therefore, more complex) than we would want to believe: the DNA being passed on is not useless or junk.

But then, what is its purpose?

That question, I think, will be answered in the future as they dig deeper into the Human Genome and discover a lot more mechanisms whereby Nature achieves her ends with complexity that will startle anyone with its simplicity and elegance… But I digress.

We can say a few things about that “junk” DNA… If it is useful, maybe it contains information that is “compressed” or “zipped” and won’t look “useful” to us until we understand what and how the information is “encoded”. We have found sequences that cause blocking or enhancing of molecular processes. It is not inconceivable to think that the “junk” DNA surrounding known genes has a higher or transcendent function.

To this end, epigenetics (a very recent science) shows us that a particular expression of our molecular DNA does not necessarily stay the same over time… We have genes that are “switched on” and “switched off” depending on environmental as well as cellular concerns. One of the immediate consequences of this is that if an observed genetic expression is present, it need not be at a later point in time. Practically, I would say, an organism always changes genetically and organically in response to environmental stimuli.

This is not such a leap of faith when one considers it: why should any organism stay the same if something in its environment changes? Typically, they don’t. They try to adjust to the new conditions to be more “comfortable” or “survivable” (to bastardise a Darwinian term)… How do they do this? I think that a lot of the answer has to lie in the so-called “junk” or “useless” DNA that we pass on, generation to generation via slow-ending cellular diligence. Watson and his colleagues would have us believe that these “introns” are a vestige of the past and that our cells blindly copy what they have been given.

Given the fact that a sequence of genes codes for a particular expressed characteristic, and, given that these expressed genetic codes require the “folding” and “unfolding” of DNA to work correctly, it seems to me that the genetic scientists are copying too selectively. They will find a set of base pairs that makes a jellyfish phosphoresce but when they copy it into another organism, say, a carrot, it will also phosphoresce but cannot do anything else. They are missing the “code” DNA that lies on either side of the “useful” DNA and allows the carrot to function normally in the face of environment changes! They are only partially transferring the necessary genetic information, the gene for phosphoresce but nothing else. They are “hard-wiring” that organism to only function with that particular gene switched on! It cannot do anything else because it doesn’t “know” how to fold or unfold as its environment changes!

Watson tells us that we have been “genetically modifying” plants and animals all our known civilisation because we selectively bred animals and plants to suit our needs. This is true. But, and this is the huge BUT that is missing from his work. We did not MODIFY any of the spermal fluids of the organisms that we selected for. We did not actively splice and dice the actual genetic code of the animals or plants we were propagating, We allowed natural reproductive processes to occur. And I think that that is the crux of the matter. We want cows that produce more milk, disease-resistant beef, chickens that produce more eggs, crops that don’t get trashed by pests… But to do it, we should rely on the slower-but-surer techniques of our forebears instead of playing God with our petri-dishes and modern sequencing techniques to modify organisms we have a scarce idea of.

The way to do it is not by using “cut and paste” techniques! To modernise genetics we have to pay much more attention to the information around the actual protein-encoding sequences. Borrowing from modern scientific systems analysis, it seems that there is probably a lot more information surrounding the actual “valuable” gene base-pair sequence than our current geneticists understand. To make use of the Preventative Principle, we should not even be researching some areas of this scientific avenue, let alone forcing these methodologies down people’s throats!  Most of our efforts at modifying Nature have ended up in failure: this adventure is likely to prove the same.

Why continue defying Mother Nature at all?
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