11/06/2012 03:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2013

Seeking Genetically Modified... Perspective

It's Election Day, 2012 -- and there is a clear and fundamental choice before us. Well, there is if you live in California -- because that's where you get to vote today for, or against, Proposition 37.

Proposition 37 calls for mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. There is, inevitably, some devilry in the details of what gets labeled when, and how -- but fundamentally, were this proposition to become law, companies would be obligated to declare any willful or known incorporation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in their products.

There seems little basis for opposition to an initiative that is, ostensibly, just about transparency. Proposition 37 wouldn't ban anything -- it would just tell people what's what. But there is opposition, just as there is opposition to mandatory calorie counts on menu boards, or the honest disclosure of overall nutritional quality. The food industry is evidently concerned that knowledge truly is power, and will influence consumer choice.

But the issue really runs deeper, I think. While Proposition 37 is just about labeling, the topic of genetically modified foods is buffeted by deep passions from the one side, and deep profits from the other.

Images of scientists inserting eye-of-newt genes into escarole, or wool-of-bat genes into walnuts, stalk the nightmares of pure food proponents, and up to a point, rightly so. Even if the intentions of those tinkering with foods are good -- such as putting antifreeze genes from amphibians into oranges so they are not destroyed by an early frost -- the law of unintended consequences pertains. There is ample reason, in principle, to be wary of Frankenfoods.

There may be reason in epidemiology as well. We are substantially uncertain about why rates of gluten intolerance and celiac disease are rising; genetic modification of food may be a factor. Some go so far as to declare modern wheat a "poison," lest sugar get all that negative attention! Genetic modification may be a factor, as well, in everything from food allergies, to irritable bowel syndrome, to behavioral and cognitive disorders occurring with increasing frequency in our children.

The food industry's richly funded assault on Proposition 37 is almost certainly about more than the inconvenience of mandatory disclosure, and probably about more than what such disclosure may do to consumer choice. Monsanto and other companies with skin in this game are no doubt concerned that Proposition 37 is the first salvo in an all-out barrage directed at GMOs. Certainly opponents of GMOs in our food supply would like more than labeling; they would like this putatively malevolent genie back in its bottle.

I understand that yearning, but I can't entirely share it. Despite the fact that I have no particular love for Monsanto, and despite the fact that the companies supporting Proposition 37 are some of my favorites on the planet -- among them, the very companies that feed me and my family every day -- I feel we need a more balanced perspective on this topic.

Genetic modification is not all bad. There, I've said it.

Without it, we would not have broccoli or navel oranges. We would not have pink grapefruits. We would not have amaranth or quinoa. And for that that matter, we would not have our dogs, our tea roses, or -- arguably -- our children.

Opposition to genetic modification comes easy in principle, but is a slippery, treacherous, obstacle-strewn slope in practice. If we consider sexual reproduction a form of genetic modification, and in literal terms it certainly is, then we have been in the practice since before our species was a species. Natural selection is a process of genetic modification.

If we limit the definition to willful manipulation of gene combinations to produce specific, intentional effects -- we have still been at it since the very dawn of agriculture and the domestication of the wolf.

Virtually none of the produce that now constitutes the most nutritious part of our diets existed before the dawn of agriculture only 12,000 or so years ago. Whole grains, which are a mainstay ingredient for some of the companies most adamantly opposed to GMOs, did not exist in their current form and were not part of the human diet prior to that same, recent revolution.

To some extent, arguments against all genetic modification represent a longing for an elusive kind of food purity. But arguments for such purity tend to devolve under scrutiny. To paraphrase, one proponent's purity is another's contamination.

Some purists argue that our grains should all be unrefined, and free of genetic modification. But another band of purists points out that our Stone Age ancestors did not eat grains at all. And, furthermore, the grains we consume today are all a product of genetic modification of the selective type. We didn't tinker with genomes in test tubes until recently -- but we did it in the dirt long before.

If we adopt the most restrictive definition of genetic modification and say it refers only to combining genes from different breeds that would not normally mingle in nature, we have still been at it for millennia, in the form of horticultural grafting -- which is said to have begun around 2000 B.C. in China. Monsanto had no shareholders at the time.

If the basic objection here is to bringing genes together in an "artificial" manner, then the same objection should apply to in vitro fertilization, and dog breeding.

Our dogs are products of willful genetic modification. It wasn't done in test tubes -- it was done in the wombs of bitches. But it is genetic modification just the same. Frankly, I'm glad for it. Two of my best friends on the planet -- Zouzou, our Yorkie, and Bramble, our Sheltie -- are products of it. They don't much resemble wolves, and genetic modification is the reason.

Perhaps the fundamental objection is to mingling genes from different species. But almost anything in a nursery that says "hybrid," such as hybrid tea roses, indicates that different plants were mated to create a "blended" offspring with the desirable traits of both parents. We have this to thank for many of the wines we drink, the diverse colors of roses and tulips that grace our gardens, and so on.

Our own bodies are a mix of genes from different species. Normal human physiology is a product of native DNA, and the DNA of innumerable foreign bacteria that populate our inner and outer surfaces. We can take the argument a step further than that, a step inside our own cells, where our mitochondria reside. Mitochondria are the energy generators of our bodies. They are a fixed, essential part of us -- but they have a distinct set of genes. They are, emphatically, the insertion of genes from one species into another. That is classically genetic modification.

Admittedly, it is naturally occurring. But tempting though that tack may be, it quickly degenerates into the contention that nature is good, and science is bad. That, of course, is just silly.

Science can go badly awry, of course, and certainly has. But it can do -- and has done -- enormous good. Nature can be bountiful and beneficent. But anyone paying attention must concede she can at times also be downright nasty.

Smallpox virus is a product of nature; smallpox vaccine, a product of science. Ditto for rabies, and polio.

Genetic modification is a product of both. Nature modified our genes to protect us from malaria, for instance. And, just as it can be with human-mediated genetic modification, the law of unintended consequences was invoked. We wound up with the misery of sickle cell anemia.

There are other forces to consider here. Anyone opposed to GMOs should be donating routinely to Planned Parenthood, because we can't feed 10 billion of us, or 12, without crop yields buoyed by genetic modification. Population growth, unfettered, will give Monsanto several billion more reasons to make fortunes.

So will climate change, as the planet becomes ever less hospitable to the crops we know and love. And, frankly, so will eating animal products -- since that is vastly less efficient use of the sun's energy than eating plants directly.

Genetic modifications can increase yields, reduce use of chemical pesticides, lower costs, and/or foster tolerance of drought, heat, or frost. If the matter is on trial, both prosecution and defense arguments are warranted before a rational verdict can be reached.

If I lived in California, I would vote for Proposition 37; it makes sense to be informed. But wholesale opposition to genetic modification makes far less sense.

Good and bad can result from the machinations of both nature and science, and from the genetic modifications endowed by each. The right effort is directed not at carte blanche endorsement, or stem-to-stern renunciation, but at distinguishing the bad from the good.

Our great big Homo sapien brains are themselves a product of genetic modification, albeit of a naturally occurring variety. We need them to get past passions and profiteering alike, to balance, and the innumerable practical advantages of genetically modified... perspective.


David Katz, M.D., is taking questions from readers this week to answer in his next blog post. You can submit advice questions to Dr. David Katz at any time, as often as you'd like, by emailing

Dr. David L. Katz;

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