Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Genetically modified


I'm usually pretty frugal when it comes to grocery shopping: I go for generic chocolate, for instance, and I follow the prices of basic staples (flour, milk) at the two grocery stores nearby with a zeal that borders on religious fervor. I tend to buy in-season produce, and store fliers get perused thoroughly should there be a sale item that we need (which is rare).

But I shell out for Braeburn apples. If I'm in the weekly farmer's market, it'll be Royal Gala or Fuji apples. Granny Smith apples will do in a pinch--it's more about the crunch, though I'll confess to having a sweet tooth.

Braeburn apples are only 50 years old, discovered as an accidental seedling in New Zealand, and hypothesized to be a cross between a Granny Smith and a Lady Hamilton. Most of the apples we know today, such as the Golden Delicious, Royal Gala, and Jonagold, are comparatively recent additions to the apple family tree, arising mostly as accidents or freak mutations in established orchards in the twentieth century. Cortlands, Romes, and Granny Smiths are amongst the few that have been cultivated since at least the nineteenth century.

I mention this because it seems that public opinion is still largely against GMOs--Genetically Modified Organisms. HRH the Crown Prince of Wales is still actively campaigning against them, and most people recoil at the thought of "Frankenfoods". Their fears aren't entirely unjustified: I still remember scientists marveling (completely oblivious to the horrible PR spin) that they were thinking of inserting a gene, "borrowed" from deep sea fish, into tomatoes so that the plants could withstand the frost better. The gene encodes a protein that prevents ice crystal seeds from forming--pretty nifty, if you ask me--and thereby keeps fish blood liquid.

But really, there's no difference between genes that have been modified by selective breeding and genes that have been modified by a scientist hovering over a petri dish. The only difference is time. And money. Lots of both, if you want to do it the old-fashioned way; lots of one if you want to pay a scientist to develop a strain of corn that will make a better popcorn.

So to suggest that my favorite Braeburns aren't genetically modified and the apples that have their own insecticides "built in" are, is to be completely oblivious to the fact that civilization would not exist were it not for people genetically modifying plants and animals since the dawn of time. (Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel makes this abundantly clear) Humans have been making cows bigger, chickens lay more eggs, dogs more friendly, horses faster, grains heavier...you get the point. None of what you see in the supermarket exists in the wild, from whence it came.

Next: GMOs and the organic agenda

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