Monday, June 3, 2013

The Fear Over "Frankenfood"

Every time there's a big health trend in the human world, eventually that same trend trickles into the horse world. First yoga was popular, now there's horse yoga. Acupuncture back in vogue? Get out the extra-large needles for the equines.

This time around, it's the fear of "frankenfood," and with the recent HUGE protests over genetically modified food, some folks are rushing to buy people and horse feed advertised as GMO-free.

In a January poll done by The Horse, 59% of respondents stated that having non-GMO ingredients in equine supplements and feed was "very important." That's an interesting statistic, because I am positive that if the question was asked ten years ago, people would probably have said "not at all" or just, "huh?"

Though many people don't realize it, genetically modified foods have been on the market and in our diets (and our horses' diets) since at least 1995. In the U.S., approximately 54% of all soybeans cultivated in 2000 were genetically-modified, as well as 61% of cotton and 25% of corn. We've had other genetically modified organisms, like insulin-producing bacteria, since the 70s or 80s. Over time, the presence of GMOs in food increased  until 70% of food in grocery stores contained GMO ingredients. Only very very recently have we become concerned about all this. Why? Well, largely because the media is diets telling us to be scared. Fear = ratings.

Let me give you the straight scoop. You should be a little concerned about GMOs-- but not for the reasons you think. Let's start at the beginning.

The phrase "genetically modified organisms" sounds like science fiction. In reality, farmers have been "genetically modifying" cows, horses, corn and everything else for thousands of years by breeding for certain traits. We wanted cows to give more milk, horses to be bigger and stronger, corn that resisted disease- and we got all those. We've even created "mutants" by crossbreeding different species-- like horses and donkeys are bred together to create mules. Biotechnology has allowed us to make this process much faster and more efficient recently, but the concept is basically the same.

So are GMOs okay to eat? Yes.There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that eating "altered" DNA does anything to you. Your body doesn't absorb DNA. If it did, my body would consist of 60% chicken, because YUMMM. The GMOs out there have been approved by the FDA, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.

Like Concerned Hippy Man here, many people assume that if something is bad for bugs, it must be bad for humans and horses too. Fortunately, this is not true- because humans and horses aren't bugs, and plants aren't being made poisonous.

Far from making plants "toxic," one way scientists have made plants insect resistant is to make them more buggy. They've done this by giving the plants an extra gene that allows them to produce Bt bacteria. Bt bacteria (bacillus thringiensis) is a tiny germ naturally found on plants, in the water, in the guts of some critters, and wherever grain is stored. Bt doesn't harm people or animals. It only affects some types of bugs.

If we lived in an alternate universe where the bugs were trying to protect their corn from pesky humans, they'd probably do exactly the same thing-- using, say, a strain of E. Coli bacteria instead, which would make humans sick but not themselves.

Let's move on to "herbicide resistant" crops. It does sound gross that a plant could be drenched in poison and be fine, right? It would be like eating a baked potato sprayed with Scotchgard, right? No. Not at all. "herbicide resistant" crops have genes that let them to break down the active ingredient in an herbicide, rendering it harmless. These kinds of plants were originally produced by traditional breeding methods, not genetic modification. We've only used that technology to make things faster.

Crops that are bug-and-weed-killer-resistant have many obvious advantages. Fewer chemicals have to be used. Farmers can harvest more undamaged food. Food prices have dropped, and could drop further. Poor countries can have more food to feed their people. And less space has to be used to farm food. Between 1961 and 2010, GMO crops improved yields so much that, despite the Earth's booming population, we were spared the need to plow an area twice the size of South America. That's great news-- it means fewer rainforests needing to be cleared for farmland, and an answer to the looming threat of overpopulation.

GMOs can have other benefits as well. "Golden rice" is being created with an extra gene that produces more vitamin A in the rice. This could save millions of people in impoverished countries from blindness or death caused by vitamin A deficiency. Many types of rice and corn are being developed that are drought resistant, which could help chronically starving African countries support themselves. And what about horse feed? Wouldn't it be nice to have a grain specifically modified to give the most benefit to horses? No more complex mixes involving a precise balance of rice bran, beet pulp, veggie oils and soy.

Despite the media hype against GMOs, not everyone has hopped on the bandwagon. Mary Lynas, global warming scientist, environmentalist and one of the original founders of the anti-GMO movement, has in fact completely changed his mind about GMOs. Now, he says, he understands their benefits. Why? "I discovered science," he said. He checked his facts and realized that the fear-mongering just wasn't truthful.

“I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

If you look at the situation without prejudice, much of the debate, both in terms of anti-biotech and organic, is simply based on the naturalistic fallacy – the belief that natural is good, and artificial is bad. This is a fallacy because there are plenty of entirely natural poisons and ways to die. … For organic, the naturalistic fallacy is elevated into the central guiding principle for an entire movement. This is irrational and we owe it to the Earth and to our children to do better.”

So if the facts support the safety of genetic science, why have people turned against GMOs? What makes people, even intelligent scientists like Lyman, react so badly? Well folks, it's a recipe of 20% natural suspicion and 80% media vultures. By now, most of us blue-collar types are pretty suspicious of big business. And rightfully so! Between the dishonest and greedy bankers, the toxic Chinese baby formula, the takeover of big-box stores and the slow death of the middle class (while the rich get richer), we are justified in scrutinizing the motives of multimillion dollar companies. So when the media told us Monsanto and other huge Agribusinesses were messing with the DNA of our food, we immediately pictured mutated lab rats, disfigured babies, cancer, and every other kind of boogeyman.

Like fear of the bogeyman, these fears are natural, but they don't hold up. Sure, Monsanto has no particular reason to be ethical. However, creating poisonous foods would wind up reducing their profits, not increasing them, and the almighty dollar is motivation enough to stay moral. If farmers thought there was any chance food distributors wouldn't buy their GMO crops because of concerns about illness, they wouldn't buy GMO seed. And there is no evidence that GMO crops have made people or animals ill. Remember, we've been eating them for at least the last 10-15 years. It's just the media's recent fear-mongering that's made us concerned, fear-mongering that earns them ratings, which means MONEY.

This isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened. Remember SARS? Bird flu? Y2K?  If you're old enough, you might even remember when there was a huge scare about the dangers of microwave ovens when they first became really popular. Yes, that box in your kitchen was once highlighted in the media as being a potential source of radiation poisoning, cancer, brain cell loss, you name it!

I do believe in healthy skepticism and research. I am not saying that GMOs are without flaw. I'm just saying they're not something to be so scared of- or at least, we should be scared for different reasons. There are some things about GMOs we should be concerned about:

Resistance: Just as "superbugs" have grown resistant to over-used antibiotics in hospitals, weeds and pests may become resistant to GMO crops. This has already happened with GMO cotton in India; the problem was temporarily solved by creating a new strain of cotton.

Lack of Biodiversity: If we all start growing the same GMO crops because they're profitable, what happens if a disease hits one of these crops? Like the Irish potato famine, all the crops would be wiped out, because they're all equally vulnerable. The Irish potato famine was only solved when new strains of potatoes were brought into Ireland, strains that weren't affected by the black blight.

Allergies: Messing with the genes of plants could potentially alter their allergenic properties. So people who weren't allergic to corn before, might suddenly become allergic. As yet, there hasn't been much testing of GMO crops for allergenic properties. That's bad news for the 1-5% of people who have food allergies.

Monopolies: You've probably heard about the farmer in Indiana that was successfully sued for planting GMO seeds he didn't buy from Monsanto. That farmer had bought mixed-grade soybeans from a silo and planted it, then saved the seeds from plants he identified as GMO, for use the next year. When Monsanto's watchdogs found out, they eventually netted the company $84,456 in damages from the thrifty farmer. This is scary on several levels, not least of which is that big business may be watching what you plant.

So there you have it, folks. GMOs are a little scary, but they OK for horse feed and OK for human feed. We just need to be aware of the potential for over-use and misuse. The Horse agrees with me. Here are some other articles you can read to get the straight facts about GMOs:

9 Things You Should Know About GMOs - The Daily Beast

PBS Interviews Critics and Supporters of GMOs, including farmers and scientists.

Here's a fair and balanced, detailed but easy-to-read article by ProQuest.

The L.A. Times talks about Mark Lynas's conversion.

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