RENEGADE GARDENER

The lone voice of horticultural reason

“Genetically modified grains are potentially hazardous to human health.”

I bought a copy of Time almost a year ago, hadn’t picked up a copy in probably a decade. I was at an airport I don’t remember, during a layover I don’t remember, and though I don’t remember I can only assume that Maxim was sold out. So I bought Time.

In it was what is apparently a new (?) feature, 10 Questions for (well-known person). In this issue it was 10 questions for writer Michael Pollan.

I like Michael Pollan. One of my favorite gardening books, reviewed some 12 years ago on this site, is his wonderful Second Nature –  A Gardener’s Education. He also wrote the highly entertaining The Botany of Desire, and has since focused on the topic of food in his more recent books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. All worthwhile reads.

So I was more than a bit startled at his answer to one of the 10 questions, submitted by readers from around the country. The question, from a reader in Chicago, was: “Are genetically modified crops harming our health?”

Pollan’s verbatim answer: “The honest answer is, We don’t know. There is a tremendous experiment being performed right now on humans and the environment with these crops, which are much less regulated than people realize. You should be able to decide if you want to eat genetically modified food. And we’re not allowed to right now.”

Before Michael Pollan is elevated to too high a pedestal as America’s food guru, I believe he owes it to himself and the public to acknowledge at least a few facts about the subject. His answer is woefully bereft of any insight into the proven benefits and highly laudable history surrounding genetically engineered crops.

Pioneers in genetically modified (GM) crops, such as the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, are credited by many as saving one billion (that’s not a typo) lives in third-world countries through their miraculous work creating wheat, rice and other staple crops that foiled diseases that had been decimating farms and contributing to mass starvation around the globe. Genetic modification also has allowed farmers in dozens of countries (including the US) to grow crops that previously could not be grown. Genetic modification of crops has probably saved more lives and helped lift more people out of poverty than any human development in our planet’s history.

I imagine some of Pollan’s view is related to very real and prudent concerns about cross-pollination of GM crops and non-GM crops—could we lose the original plant? Could cross-pollination create unknown consequences? There have been none so far, but still these are wise concerns that demand careful monitoring.

There is also the laboratory study published in Nature showing that pollen from GM corn caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars. These caterpillars eat milkweed plants, not corn, but the fear is pollen from GM corn plants could blow onto milkweed plants in nearby areas, killing butterflies. It is important to note that this was not a field study, but conducted in a laboratory. Pollen from GM plants did not blow onto milkweed and kill any butterflies, a fact that was lost in the ensuing hoopla following the study.

Well, let’s see — safety of GM crops has been evaluated since the earliest days of Borlaug’s work, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been examining genetic modification in U.S. food for over 20 years, spending millions of dollars each year. The butterfly study is currently being reexamined by the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and university research groups. Preliminary data from their studies suggests that the original laboratory study may have been seriously flawed. Flawed, or not, scientists are on the case, and if you don’t believe that the truth will dictate the course (as it has time after time after time throughout human history), just what do you believe?

At any rate, does this sound like inadequate research and regulation? Ensuring that GM crops are safe and don’t adversely affect human or environmental health is the American and European scientific food communities’ hottest topic. It’s also where all the new research money is. Governments, universities and private research facilities around the globe are studying every concern surrounding GM crops and foods, as you read this.

I swear, I bet you could have found a group of people opposed to water purification in its early days, and later, the addition of fluoride to municipal water systems. What do you mean, scientists are altering the water we drink, removing and adding stuff? Is it safe to drink? Will it make my cows glow?

It’s also important to note that the question asked by the reader of Time is specifically about genetically modified crops such as wheat, corn, and rice. Yet his answer seems to act as a catchall for genetically modified foods outside the realm of plants—things like eggs, cattle, and pigs.

Interestingly, Pollan writes very little about GM foods in any of his food books. The only reference to the topic in In Defense of Food is a paragraph on pages 37-38, where he writes: “…egg producers figured out a clever way to redeem even the disreputable egg: By feeding flaxseed to hens, they could elevate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the yolks. Aiming to do the same thing for pork and beef fat, the animal scientists are now at work genetically engineering omega-3 fatty acids into pigs and persuading cattle to lunch on flaxseed in the hope of introducing the blessed fish fat where it had never gone before: into hot dogs and hamburgers.”

One senses a smirky prejudice there. Silly, open-minded me, what these scientists are attempting sounds like kind of a good thing, like perhaps something that could have health benefits—something the scientists should maybe stick with for a bit, you know? I bet it might even improve the nutrition in ham slices and sirloin steaks.

As the newly crowned food guru of America, I wonder if, in his food books and interviews, Pollan isn’t facing the classic conundrum faced by all heroic crusaders—proclaiming as much of the truth as possible without losing one’s base. Animal rights activists and environmental extremists are all vehemently opposed to GM food research, of course, as are a majority of the more sedate, organic-only, locavore types. Pollan mentions spending two years researching In Defense of Food. Here’s a guy who can tell you more about human food consumption since caveman times than perhaps any man on the planet. Certainly he knows of Norman Borlaug and the genetic crop research that began as early as the 1940s? Could it be that the undeniable benefits to generations of humanity from genetically modified grains don’t appease certain current intellectual appetites?

By coincidence, I had lunch last Saturday with a guy from the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. Want to know something scary? Scientists at the U of MN (and scientists around the world) are working feverishly to combat Ug99, a virulent wheat disease now on the move from Africa to the Arabian Peninsula that could devastate world wheat crops and cause famine around the globe.

You see, plants get diseases. Always have, always will. They also run into pests that wipe them out. It has happened before, in Biblical times, during the dark ages, in Ireland in 1845, a little problem known as the Irish Potato Famine. Whenever it happened, each century, people died. Populations got wiped out. Humans were at the mercy of mysterious plant diseases about which nothing could be done. That is, until the 20th century, when scientists became brilliant enough to devise chemicals and genetic modifications that kept food crops from being devastated by disease and locusts.

One thing for certain: Few to none in the anti-GM movement have a single shred of knowledge concerning the work of Borlaug, or the history of crop genetics, or that the “experiment” Pollan casts in such dubious light has been going on for 50 years without a single recorded case of death or disease from eating food made from genetically modified crops.

And I’m guessing that the billion people saved, and their offspring, are more thankful than concerned.

More Reading:

Current Wheat Famine Threat
Current Locust Famine Threat

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener