Friday, March 20, 2009

Mendel in the Kitchen - 47/81

Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff, cooking/food category.

Many people view genetically modified food with suspicion. 'I would never eat that stuff,' you might say. But if you live in the United States and have eaten apples, wheat, corn, potatoes, soy products, sweet potatoes, or papaya, you might just have eaten genetically modified food (GM food) without knowing it.

My mom and I had a discussion about GM food after I forwarded her this mailing I got from an organic food site. Did I realize, she asked, that strictly speaking, any hybrid food is genetically modified? That would include almost every apple grown in this country. Enjoy a Golden Delicious or a Macintosh? Try planting the seeds. What results will be nothing like the apple it came from. That's because most apple trees are created by grafting several varieties together. This has been going on for 200 years, and in that time, people have eaten a lot of apples.

But most people, when they think of GM food, think of the so-called Frankenfoods - the tomato with a fish gene in it, designed to help it withstand the cold. And yet, few of us outside the genetic research community really know or understand the process by which such a tomato is created. This book by Nina Fedoroff takes the reader step by step through the process of creating such a seed. She also answers the challenges of the opponents of such food with hard science, explaining why many of their complaints simply do not make sense.

Fedoroff, a leading geneticist and molecular biologist, makes a strong argument for the future of agriculture. I, like many consumers, thought that local, organic produce is the ideal kind of food. I still think that buying local whenever possible is a great way to help the environment and get the freshest, best tasting produce at the same time. But as Fedoroff points out, if every farmer switched to strictly organic farming methods, we would need another 2 or 3 planets just to feed the current population, to say nothing of projected population growth. And that would be cultivating every single arable acre of land, including those currently reserved for wildlife, the entire rainforest, and many other wildlife habitats. Organic farming simply can't come close to providing enough food for our planet.

So is GM food the answer? I have to admit that I'm coming around to her way of thinking. Scientist have developed some of these crops especially to solve nutritional problems. The book opens with Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus coming up with a rice that contains a gene from a flower which contains the code for making beta carotene. The rice, Golden Rice, would be a simple way for even the poorest people to avoid the results of Vitamin A Deficiency, including blindness.

Potrykus wasn't hoping for fame, exactly, or fortune. He just wanted to help. Instead, he was vilified. Protesters went crazy. The term 'Frankenfood' was first used to describe this rice. Potrykus was at a loss. This was still rice. And today, 35 years after he started his research, not a single field anywhere in the world is growing Golden Rice. And Vitamin A Deficiency continues to cause blindness in third world countries.

I am not a scientist, so I would have a hard time putting Fedoroff's words into my own. And even other scientists still don't all agree with genetic modification. But she tackles their arguments, one a time, quoting other geneticists and plant breeders. I could go on and on, but there's not enough room.

Will I buy GM food in the future? Yes. I do admit I still feel a little uneasy about irradiated produce, such as strawberries, but in reality, such strawberries are safer than the produce in the recent E. Coli scare.

My only complaint about the book is that the illustrations and diagrams provided were a little too technical for me to understand. And I could have really used a glossary. Still, I didn't have too much trouble following along, even if I occasionally had to reread a paragraph once in a while.

In short, I have to thank my mom. If we hadn't had that discussion, I would not have noticed this book at the library. Now that I am a more informed consumer, I feel like I can make some better choices for my family. Highly recommended book for any American consumer.

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