I like to eat genes

This made the rounds a while ago, but I was reminded of it in a recent conversation about molecular biology and genetic modification of foods: 

49% of Americans thinks ordinary tomatoes do not have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do




Many of my friends or people that read this blog occasionally assume that because I a bit of a food fan, I must naturally insist on organic/whole/slow-roast/soy-free/what-have-you. It couldn't be further from the truth. I appreciate a McDonald's sausage biscuit or an occasional bag of Cheeto's or chicharonnes as much as I do home-aged salami & pancetta or hand-crafted cheese. I tell people that I appreciate food in all it's forms.

(Except for kidneys. Kidneys are your body's garbage dump, and should never be eaten.)

Mostly, I grow my own whatever because 1) it's relaxing to get my hands a bit dirty after spending most of my working day with a computer in tow, and 2) it tastes good. Sure, there's a little bit of "teaching the kids where food really comes from" in there for good measure (let's face it, I get a kick out of seeing my daughter apprentice at the butchershop), but mostly, it's just a taste thing. I cook to relax, and I cook to eat. I like the flavor of really good food, so I look for (or make) the best ingredients I have time for and can afford. 

I tell people gladly that I'm all for GMO, if it's better tasting. Or more economical. Or better for the environment. Fortunately, the work going on in GMO research offer all of the above. 

The problem with this discussion (and what's going on with California's prop 37 or Europe's similar efforts) is that very few people are actually talking about the science. Most see the words "Genetically modified" but actually hear "Dr. Moreau," and have a knee jerk reaction. The recent example of the protests in the UK over an experimental wheat was a perfect example: 

Take your average wheat. You have to add a lot of chemical deterrents to keep the aphids and other pests away. What if we could insert a fragment of DNA from mint that exuded an odor that kept away the aphids without the need for chemicals? Using the same techniques to insert a simple string of amino acids that has been tested in literally tens of thousands of experiments (at least one a year is awarded a Nobel Prize), and boom: Decreased crop loss, without the need or cost of chemical pesticides or additional manual effort. That's a two-fer. Except the protestors wanted to burn the field.  

Why? Because they had been frightened with terms like "frankenfood" and reactionaries who hadn't bothered to actually research what was being done. Not because there had been a good conversation about the science, the testing, the approach, and the expected way the crops would be used.  One friend - whom, it should be noted, I admire and really, really like - said in a conversation on the subject "Never mind the science. Let's talk about logic." It left me scratching my head as to how she made that statement in all apparent earnestness. 

DNA & gene identification & manipulation is the same science that we use to map the human genome, create new diagnostics tests and therapies. These techniques have been known and used for more than 40 years, and are at the core of what's advanced human health over the past decades. It's the same basic techniques we use for criminal analysis (look at your favorite CSI:Boise episode or whatever and you're bound to see them use "DNA fingerprints" - in that assay, they only look for variations of specific DNA sequence repeats, vs. the whole genome).  Seriously. We've been cloning bacteria, viruses and specific gene fragments for decades now, on a daily basis, unlocking the mechanics of what makes us tick and helping to create cures and treatments for some of the gnarliest issues we face in medical science. Vaccines are created with these same molecular biology techniques, and we have reasonable hope that we'll be able to prevent HIV and other endemic conditions in our lifetimes.  And on. And on. And on. 

In fact, these techniques are far more precise and measured than traditional plant manipulation. Remember Mendel's expirements on peas, where he willfully and gleefully manipulated the colors, shapes and sizes of flowers and crops by hand, all in the name of science?  Mankind has been artificially manipulating the world around us for our betterment for thousands of years. Unless you'd like to argue, maybe, that the chihuahua is a naturally occuring phenomenon?  

"But wait!" you say. "He crossed pea with pea! Crossing wheat and mint is an unholy union and an abomination!" 

Uh-huh. Right. Come over here and let me show you the apriplum.

Good, peer-reviewed science is precise, measured and targeted. It is well reasoned, and with a purpose. And yes, it is open to discussion and debate. The problem with California's proposition 37 (which "only requires labeling") is that it's a trojan horse. The agenda of the supporters is not to endorse debate and progress, but to scare, frighten and, I believe, ultimately ban. At least, based on the near complete lack of scientific merit (or even attempt at one) to their position. 

There are some real problems that have been created through a combination of farming practices, the growth of our population and extended lifespans, and the evolution of our expectation that we can get pretty much any food we'd like, at any time of year. While I'm all for showing people how much more enjoyable a tomato is when you just pulled it out of your garden in the height of summer, I recognize that is a first world luxury, and we have long term issues that can most effectively be addressed through better understanding and breeding of crops that are more sustainable and affordable to raise in the long term. Science is good at solving problems like that. 

What I will support & concede is that there is still much conversation to be had with regards to the intellectual property "lock-down" of the institutions conducting the research. If a bee brings the pollen from your super-corn over to my ordinary corn, and I end up with some kind of super-corn bastard in my field, do I owe you money?  That's hard to swallow, given the infamous promiscuity of bees. And birds. And corn. I'm all for making up a reasonable profit for the significant up front research investment. But there's definitely going to be some lawyering going on to figure that stuff out. 

If you'd like to argue the science with me, let's sit down and have that conversation. Over a sandwich, maybe. With some cloned lamb & GMO mint sauce. 

Personally, I think tomatoes taste better with genes.