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Genetically Modified Fears

Ignorance breeds fear. For a classic example we have to look no further than genetically modified foods. What a tempest in a teapot! And the teapot is just where that noted scientific icon, who in all modesty has anointed herself as the “Food Babe,” is looking. What’s the problem? Some flavoured teas contain “soy lecithin” which the Babe is concerned about because it may come from genetically modified soybeans. Yes it may. And that is a huge, yawning, so what. Soy lecithin is an emulsifier which basically means that it allows oily substances to blend with water. Peach flavouring, for example, would not mix well with water in the absence of an emulsifier. While the soy lecithin may be produced from genetically modified soybeans, it is totally indistinguishable from lecithin that would be derived from non-genetically modified soybeans.

Farmers have greatly benefitted from the increased yield afforded by soybeans that are tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate. Basically they can spray the fields to kill weeds without harming the crop. The modification that allows for this alters the genetics of the plant but does not affect the oil it produces. The Babe is also concerned that tea bags may be made of polylactic acid which in turn may be made from lactic acid derived from genetically modified corn. Again, the genetic modification has no effect on the lactic acid which is produced by the bacterial fermentation of glucose derived from corn starch. Corn can also be genetically modified to protect itself against insects with the insertion of a gene from a soil bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis that codes for a protein that is toxic only to insects and not to humans. That too is scary for the Food Babe who promotes the avoidance of any food that has anything to do with genetic modification. She is totally oblivious of the fact that Bt bacteria can be sprayed on organic crops, so if the concern is about Bt, these should also be boycotted.

There are a number of other issues that are raised by anti-GMO activists. We are messing with nature, the technology is too new to be considered safe, and in any case, all the so-called safety studies are funded by vested interests. Well, we have been messing with nature ever since we learned to cross-breed plants. The thousands of different kinds of apples we enjoy did not evolve by themselves. Triticale grain used to make bread and cereals is a cross between wheat and rye. Recombinant DNA technology just allows such crosses to be made with greater precision. And even this technology is not new. We have been eating genetically modified crops in some form for twenty years with no problem.

As far as all the studies being funded by industry, that is simply not true. There are hundreds of safety studies carried out by independent researchers. Other claims have a certain degree of truth but are not consequential enough to negate the use of the technology. For example, the claim that GMOs will lead to an increase in insects resistant to the Bt toxin and weeds resistant to glyphosate. Such resistance is a consequence of biological evolution and is not specific to genetic modification. Then there is the claim of harming beneficial insects. Monarch butterflies are indeed susceptible to the Bt toxin however studies have shown that there is insufficient exposure in the wild to cause harm. There may, however, be an issue with milkweed, the monarch larvae’s main food, being destroyed near fields where glyphosate is sprayed. The bottom line is that the potential benefits are great, the risks small. But that is not something the Food Babe, totally ignorant of the science of GMOs, can understand.

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