Food Politics has been the “next” big thing for a long time now. From the documentaries “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” to the books “Eating Animals” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” it has been a hot topic of the past couple years. In fact Food Politics is the name of an actual blog that covers exclusively, well, you can guess. The point is that food politics is a big issue – and it is not going away.
It encompasses a lot of big industries from the Monsanto seed makers to Tony the Tiger – there is a lot invested into our food process, and a lot of opinions on just how it is supposed to work. In order to prevent this from becoming a 600 page tome on the evils of big agriculture (just go read Omnivore’s Dilemma if you want that) I want to narrow it down to focus on one relatively smaller issue – and that is of genetically modified food.
Everybody is familiar with genetically modified food. Nearly all of the produce that we consume has been modified in some way to create a heartier variety – practically all of the corn grown in Iowa is “Round-Up ready” which means that the chemists at Monsanto (who own the patent to Round-Up) have created a variety of corn that is immune to the effects of that specific herbicide. That way, farmers can saturate their fields with Round-Up, kill off any weeds that might seed and leave the corn unscathed.
The introduction of Round-Up ready corn and soybean dramatically changed the farming landscape, with a majority of farmers switching over the the genetically modified corn. In fact, between 1994 and 2005, the use of round-up in industrial agriculture increased 15 fold. That is a lot of poison.
Now, genetically modified food hasn’t just made farmer’s lives easier, they have literally fed the world. Norman Bourlaug’s research with wheat created the high yield varieties of wheat in the 1960s that completely changed the world. In the mid-century there were demographers who believed that the population of the world would outstrip it’s food production by the end of the century, leading to widespread famine and deaths. Bourlaug’s wheat was able to increase the wheat yield per acre by more than double. Countries like Pakistan, who had experienced famine throughout the early 1960s was completely self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968.
Clearly, there has been a lot of positive effects from genetically modified food. One would assume that if we have become so dependent upon these foods, that there should have been some sort of vetting process to determine the safety of them. However, this has not been the case. In fact, a look at Monsanto’s website lays out their position quite clearly: “there is no need for, or value in testing the safety of [genetically modified] foods in humans.”
First of all, that position seems socially irresponsible. If there was even a possibility that genetically modified food could affect its consumers differently, there should be some research to back the conclusion that there is “no value” in trying.
New research now shows that the RNA that you eat can have a direct impact on your own cells. In fact, the research, which was eloquently explained in this article over at the Atlantic proves that the RNA that we eat can have a direct impact on the expression of our own genes.
Now, the science can get a bit thick in that article, so I will attempt to explain it using the simplified metaphor that Ari LeVaux used in his article in the Atlantic. Our bodies are built by the instructions from our DNA. Our DNA “orders” a specific trait – our RNA carries that message to the appropriate mechanism, and that mechanism produces the protein that the DNA ordered. It resembles ordering a pizza – our DNA orders the pizza, the RNA is “order slip” that gives instructions to the cooks to send out the appropriate pizza (or protein in our metaphor).
It has usually been assumed that our RNA simply transmits the DNA’s message without interference, but now that doesn’t seem to be the case. Scientists have been able to use RNA to interfere with expression of certain genes resulting in foods like the Flavr Savr tomato. What does that mean? Well, to continue the pizza analogy, this RNA is taking the order from the DNA and changing the order – resulting in a pizza (or protein) that the DNA did not want. So the pizza analogy becomes a bit more complex – the RNA isn’t simply the order slip, it’s the unreliable sixteen year old taking your order that may or may not remember the specifics of your order, or may forget to send the order to the kitchen altogether.
Now, that in itself is not entirely new, scientists have known that RNA is more than just an order taker for a while. What is new is the research that shows for the first time that RNA from the food that we eat is showing up in our own cells. Not just the proteins that our body absorbs, but the actual RNA. Chinese researchers have found the RNA of rice in the blood and organs of the humans who eat rice. This is the first time we have seen anything quite like this. So, combine the two threads here – RNA can have a direct impact on the expression of genes, and our RNA can be influenced by the food that we eat. So much of what we are can be influenced by what we eat. Your Mother’s cliché that “you are what you eat” is all to real.
So if the expressions of our genes can be influenced by what we eat – and the RNA of the food that we eat is altered (to make it resistant to pesticides, or otherwise) what does that mean for us? Well, we have no idea, because Monsanto already told us that there is “no value” in trying to understand that. Scientists have altered plant RNA in corn to produce a variety that is toxic to the corn rootworm, making it lethal for the worm to ingest, but there has been no discussion on whether that could have an impact on human consumers of that variety.
Bear in mind that animals share a remarkable amount of DNA. Humans and chimpanzees share 98% of the same DNA. Humans and a common fruit fly? Share 60% of the same DNA. Now, If this corn is poisonous to a creature that shares 60% of its DNA with humanity – doesn’t that at least warrant an investigation into it’s health effects on humans?
This isn’t to say that genetically modified food is bad – it has done so much good, it is impossible to wipe that away. But when debates are raging over the so-called Frankenfish (a salmon that incorporates the genes from an eel to grow faster) shouldn’t we at least use caution? The type of RNA that scientists use to alter the traits of our food (microRNA) is the same type of RNA that has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
If our RNA can impact us in such a substantial way, and our RNA can be impacted by food – shouldn’t we be a bit more careful about disrupting that natural genetics of our food supply?
Thanks to Ari Leveux of The Atlantic for his article that inspired this one.