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Nutrition Section

Genetically Modified (GM) Foods

There's a big debate about GM foods. The science fraternity says it's the only way we will feed the population in the future. The environmentalists claim it is a Pandora's Box that we must not open because once we do, we can never undo the damage. So who is right?

Genetics - the basic issues

Its easy to go with the flow when it comes to GM products but few people fully understand what Gene Modification really means and why environmentalists are objecting so strongly. The rest of us have come to blindly trust the experts and assume they know what they are doing.

Genetics is a comparatively new science and we run the danger of thinking we have enough knowledge to safely play with genes. We began by discovering that some genes determine traits like eye colour and science thought we had found a holy grail - alter the gene and alter the trait; nice and simple. Since there are millions of genes it seemed reasonable that each one controlled a single trait.

Later we discovered that it wasn't quite so simple at all. Not only do single genes control a trait but also groups of genes can have a combined influence. A gene might affect hair colour but also influence another group of genes too. We are still trying to understand what these groups are and what other traits they influence.

Then there is the ecological consequence of gene modification. It's easy to look at a crop, where a farmer is losing 10% or more from pests and justify modifying the crop to become pest resistant, as Monsanto did with Canola here in Australia. From the farmer's perspective it was a huge success and we see these fields of brilliant yellow canola, like the one below, in many parts of our country.

A canola field in Victoria

A GM Canola field in Victoria

Unfortunately what we don't notice is the canola, that no longer has any natural predator, growing on every roadside and invading lawns and gardens. It is becoming an invasive weed, displacing natural grasses in the wild. It's very difficult to predict the overall ecological effect that GM crops will have when released into the environment.

Today many geneticists claim that organisms have a large cluster of genes that are "obsolete". These are the result of traits that have evolved and become redundant. They are also the result of resistances to climate, diseases, toxins, pests etc. they have encountered in their past. Who can really say they are "redundant"? Why do some people get cancers and others don't. The answer may lay in those "redundant" genes, not just exposure to carcinogens. Those "redundant" genes might just kick in and prevent diseases we haven't foreseen yet. We really don't know enough to start tinkering with genetics, especially when it comes to foods.

Colour enhanced electron microscope of prostrate cancer cells

Colour enhanced electron microscope image of prostrate cancer cells

A change in one gene may have little effect but because DNA reproduces and the organism acquires genes from it's parents, that tiny change could have a massive effect on future generations.

The recessive gene problem

Take the example of Thalassemia, a gene carried by people from the Mediteranean region. It is a recessive gene, usually inactive in the person and thought to have evolved, to help defend against malaria.

Plants and animals are made of cells. Each cell carries within its DNA, its own blueprint so that when it reproduces, it makes a copy of itself. However cells exchange genetic material with each other. The recessive gene in one cell might be quite harmless, perhaps even beneficial in warding off some disease. However when two recessive genes come together in one cell, they can have a dominant gene effect and alter the cell dramatically. Since those cells multiply to form the offspring, the result can be a mutation - an offspring that is very different from either of the parents. In the case of Thelassemia, both parents may be totally unaware they even carry the recessive thelassemia gene but let's see what happens when they have children.

Thalassima recessive gene outcomes

Thelassemia recessive genes can combine to provide a 1 in 4 chance of Thalassemia Major - a serious illness.

Although both parents were perfectly healthy, they carry the recessive thelassemia gene (known as Thelassemis minor). There is a 1 in 4 chance that their child will be born with Thelassemia major - a serious illness, where the child will be low in iron and red blood cells, require blood transfusions, have bones more prone to breaking and a weakened immune system. Thelassemia Major can often be misdiagnosed as an iron deficiency however if iron supplements are administered, they can result in an iron overload. Too much iron can result in damage to the heart, liver and endocrine system, which includes glands that produce hormones that regulate processes throughout the body.

So if one of the recessive gene carrier's children was to marry another person free from the gene, their offspring would have a 1 in 4 chance of carrying the recessive gene - not a problem. But if the offspring from that union was the 1 in 4 carrier and had children with another recessive gene carrier, they could be unlucky enough to have a Thalassemia Major child. Four generations (or approximately 80 years) later, when everyone has forgotten about it, that recessive gene becomes dominant.

That's the legacy of genetics. If we modify the genes in today's organisms, how long will it take to really see the consequences?

Species, Natural Variation and the Gene Pool

The process of reproduction is not always exact. Variations can and do form. The new DNA molecule in a gene can have one or two different rungs from the parent. This is what we call “natural variation”. The new individual may look and behave exactly the same as the parent but under a specific condition, that variation could give the new individual an advantage over the parent. This means that within any group of organisms (a population) there are variations in the gene code. This is referred to as the gene pool for that species. Of course if a variation is harmful to the organism, the organism dies. This natural variation is how species develop a natural immunity to diseases that would otherwise wipe out an entire population.

When the population drops to a critically low level, there are not enough organisms and therefore not enough variation within the gene pool and a disease can wipe out all the members in the population - extinction. Currently this is happening in Australia with the Tasmanian Devil population. They are afflicted with a cancerous facial tumor disease and their gene pool is so lacking in variation, that it is likely that this disease could wipe them out and they become extinct. We are frantically trying to find a vaccine to save the species from extinction.

The Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil species has so little natural variation in their gene pool, they are at risk of extinction from disease.

If there is enough variation in a species' gene pool, a disease will not be as lethal to the entire population because the differences between the individual members of the species, means some will be resistant to the disease. The population might be decimated but those that survive will all have the new "disease resistant" variation and will breed. The subsequent generations will have a natural immunity to the disease. This process is called Natural Selection. The rabbit plague in Australia is a classic example of this.

Australian rabbit plague

In Australia the rabbits have developed an natural resistance to the introduced diesease myxomatosis and are approaching plague proportions again.

Here in Australia we were plagued by rabbits, introduced by the settlers. We introduced a lethal rabbit virus, called myxomatosis and hundreds of thousands of rabbits died. Today we are again plagued by rabbits. Those rabbits that survived have bred and their offspring have inherited a resistance to myxomatosis. Now almost all our rabbits are resistant to myxomatosis.

If any species gains a biological advantage over the other species, it will flourish and unless checked, will become a pest. In nature, as one species rises to dominance, so do it's predators and the overall balance is maintained. Now man is able to tinker with that dominance, can nature react in time to maintain the balance and if so what new pests will nature devise?

In this last 100 years we have seen the incidence of diseases that we never knew existed, increase and wipe out millions. Diseases like Influenza, Ebola and Aids have been discovered, that can reproduce and mutate faster than we can create vaccines for them.

Horizontal pollination

Although companies like Monsanto, who promote GM foods, claim that their seed is sterile and cannot reproduce more mutant crops, in what looks remarkably similar to a Jurassic Park movie, their scientists failed to consider the effects of pollination. The mutated genes are present in the pollen of the plants too. Insects collect this pollen and go to non-GM plants where they pollinate the flowers. Now the non-GM crop has modified gene pollen and can pass those mutant genes on to the next generation. This is called horizontal pollination.

Why do you think countries like the USA and China are creating "seed banks" - collecting and preserving all types of seeds? If we accept GM crops, within a few years there will be no plants free from mutant genes. Insects and even the wind that carried pollen grains from GM crops also visit your home garden. Many plants rely on the wind to pollinate their flowers. Is it even possible to control horizontal pollination?

So how does Monsanto and the GM following plan to overcome this cross pollination contamination?

The GM lobby wants to make it illegal for people to collect their own seed and grow crops from it. If they get their way, all seed will have to be bought from them!

Sign - Welcome to Kojonup established 1837 contaminated 2010

Kojonup - Australia's first GM Horizontal Contamination disaster

Many farmers can get more for their crops by becoming organic certified. Thanks to GM farming that might become history. In Perth Australia, in December 2010 the Department of Agriculture confirmed Kojonup organic oat farmer Steve Marsh's worst fears, that his harvest is contaminated with genetically modified canola. The farm's organic certification has already been suspended by the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia and he stands to lose thousands in his 2010 year's harvest alone. The contamination is believed to have spread from a neighbouring property over 293 hectares - or more than half - of the farm, where GM crops are grown. Currently (2014) in the USA all corn, sugar beet, long grain rice, potatoes, peanuts, soy beans and cotton is gene modified or GM contaminated. It's strange that such a catastrophe never made the headlines.

Coconut Palms

Vitamin D - your body's antidepressant
Vitamin D is responsible for a healthy immune system and gives us a sense of wellbeing. Deficiency in vitamin D leads to depression and makes us more prone to infections. It is synthesised when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet B rays in sunlight. The oil in the outer layer of the skin forms vitamin D which is absorbed through the skin. Washing with soap shortly after exposure to sunlight removes this vitamin rich oil before it cam be absorbed. With today's indoor lifestyle and computer games rather than outdoor leisure activities, 90% of all people in affluent nations are vitamin D deficient. It is also very difficult to absorb vitamin D through the digestive system.


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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

But on the positive side

Every population rises and falls with the available resources, like food, water, the environment, disease and the rise and fall of their competitor's and predator's populations. As food, shelter, water and climate favour them, their numbers increase. As the factors that limit them, like famine, adverse climate change, competing organisms and predators increase, their numbers reduce. There is no such thing as a stable population; it is always rising or falling as these conditions effect them either favourably or adversely. That's nature and we humans are no exception.

However unlike all the other organisms on our planet, we have the ability to alter our environment. By draining swamps we create farmland and cities. By building bridges and tunnels, we overcome natural boundaries like rivers and mountains. We eat such a variety of foods that famine is unlikely. We even have ways of preserving foods for many years to provide for shortages. In the last two centuries, we have even controlled diseases like the Black Death that used to reduce our populations by up to a third in the previous centuries. This has meant that we have increased our population to the point where our resources are approaching unsustainable levels.

Drinkable water has become a critical factor in many countries. We have invented ways of filtering our water to turn polluted waste water into drinkable water and that has concealed the problem. If you walked into a bank 50 years ago and asked for a business loan to produce bottles of water, they would have laughed at you. But take a look around you today - bottled water sales exceed soft drinks and alcohol sales by volume, all around the world. Through technology we have forestalled "peak water" - the point where we use as much water as we produce.

Food is the next frontier. Soon we will reach "peak food", where the amount of food we can grow is completely consumed by the population. Already waste food is reprocessed into animal feed. Scientists say, if we are to survive, we need to increase our yeilds from our existing crops and use science to make new ones. Genetic modification can do this. We have already done it without realising it. The corn that stone age man harvested was nothing like the corn we grow today. A typical cob was smaller and the amount of edible corn kernels on it was a tenth of what we see on a typical corn cob today. Through selective breeding, we have transformed all our foods, to increase the yields. With gene modification, we can make crops produce their own insecticides, use less water, produce fruits that are higher in certain vitamins, animals that grow much more meat and a host of other attributes.

But do we have to?

No there are other options.

We need to protect and utilise our farmland better. Stop wasteful practises like Coal Seam Gas extraction and other processes that pollute the water table and spoil the land.

Educate the public that we don't have to have perfectly formed fruit and vegetables, to reduce waste of edible produce.

Introduce birth control world wide. It's not much use only one country like China having a one child policy when others like India don't. In a few generations the world will be full of Indians. We need to tackle birth control on an international scale.

Every home can produce enough energy for it's own use through wind and solar power. We need to develop a practical way to store it for night time use too. That will reduce the need for coal mines and free up vast tracts of land currently used for transmission wires, for farming. Hydro electricity dams. with water once used for power generation can now supply these new farms. Up to 45% of food grown, is wasted and never consumed. Simply reducing wastage will have a huge impact.

Modifying the genes of any organism and releasing it into the environment is leaving ourselves open to disaster. Usually the new sequence is planted into the host gene using a virus. What if that gene or the virus itself escaped into the wild?
Imagine if a gene sequence to produce ricin (a deadly toxin found in the fruit of the castor oil plant) was engineered into wheat and a sample escaped into the environment to multiply there. How long before we discovered the disaster and how many wheat plants and seed would be in the wild by then?
Add the spread of that gene into other plants, from horizontal pollination - not just wheat but other species. That mutant gene could reside in grasses and from there be transferred to other cereal crops.
The scientists say they have checks and balances to prevent this but they said that in Chenobyl and Fukushima too.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Basket of Fresh herbs

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