Monday, December 31, 2007

“GE”—Bringing Bad things to Life?

Is it just my imagination, or is the entire world going nuts (not to mention corn, tomatoes, and soybeans) over the issue of genetically engineered foods? I swear there has been more written and said about this issue the past few months than any other health or environmental issue I can remember—ever. The media overkill is positively sickening. That's why I couldn't resist writing this!

By genetically engineered ("GE") foods I am talking, of course, about plants (we'll leave animals for another day) that have had their genetic structure modified, usually through the introduction of foreign genetic material. That genetic material doesn't necessarily have to come from other plants. It may come from animals, bacteria, or even viruses. Indeed, GE foods became a big issue for vegetarians a number of years ago when some Bozo got the bright idea of transplanting an "antifreeze" gene from a flounder into a tomato. Suddenly, the traditional tests we vegetarians use to assess what's appropriate to eat (Does it have a face? Does it run away?) seemed woefully inadequate.

GE foods have been getting wide attention from a lot of non-vegetarians too, because of the antics of a "life sciences" company by the name of Monsanto. It may as well be named "Hitler Industries" for all the infamy it's getting. Not only have the Monsanto folks used genetic engineering to create new crops that are immune to their own herbicide (so farmers will buy both seeds and herbicides from Monsanto), but they've created seeds that produce sterile crops (so farmers have to buy more seeds from Monsanto every single year, instead of being able to grow their own). Do these Monsanto guys have a public relations department? Are they all out to lunch?

The Claimed Problems and Benefits

If you read about the dangers of GE foods you may decide this is a good time to go on that therapeutic fast. Scientists are making credible arguments that these previously unknown biological creations may cause enormous, unexpected problems for the humans and farm animals who eat them, and that they have the potential to create superweeds, and even superviruses. Equally good arguments can be made that GE plants will foster increased use of toxic chemicals by farmers (since their crop plants will now be immune to such large doses) and will hasten insect resistance to pesticides (since pesticides engineered into plants can be many times stronger than those sprayed on.)

Arguments as to the benefits of GE plants aren't too shabby either. Promoters, including many environmentalists, cite the ability of GE crops to substantially reduce the land utilized in farming, increase wildlife habitat, reduce pesticide use, reduce the need for additives to preserve foods, and improve taste and nutritional values.

This is probably is not a circumstance where the truth lies somewhere between the opposing viewpoints. Rather, it is probably the case that, depending on the situation, both camps are right.

The Facts

Whatever you think about the problems vs. the benefits of GE foods, there are some immutable facts. First, genetic engineering is possible and it is effective—therefore it will continue to be developed and used. Humans have insatiable appetites for knowledge, and a GE lab can be up and running for $20,000. All the governments of all the countries of the world couldn't stop genetic engineering now, even if they tried. The proverbial cat is already out of the proverbial bag.

Second, you are already eating GE foods, and they will be even harder to avoid as time goes on. As just one example, by next year most of the US soybean crop will be genetically engineered, and this percentage will increase. (I've seen predictions that Monsanto licensees will own as much as 100% of the market within the next few years. I don't believe this though. Monsanto isn't very good with percentages. It's corporate website claimed that "over 100%" responded positively to a survey. That's a lot of people!) Over 80% of processed foods already contain GE ingredients, and even rennet for "vegetarian" cheese is being made with gene-splicing techniques.

Some Suggestions

Genetic engineering is with us to stay, and will almost certainly have a profound effect (good or bad) on life on this planet over the next generation. We can't stop this, but there are some things we can do to make the future a little less scary:

1. Promote Vegetarianism—Vegetarianism can significantly reduce the strain on our agricultural resources and the perceived need for genetically engineered products. With vegetarianism everyone wins.

2. End the patenting of life—The ability to patent plants and animals (and thereby gain a 20-year, government-sanctioned monopoly) is the biggest economic engine for biotechnology. Nothing else does as much to promote profit over the public good. Unfortunately, these patents have been granted for several years now. Considering the economic interests at stake here, this cat is probably out of the bag as well.

3. Test (?)—Many GE foods are allowed on the market with virtually no testing. As shocking as this is, I, as a vegetarian, don't want to promote the use of guinea pigs (or any other animals!) as "guinea pigs" for these foods. (The whole field of biotechnology presents unprecedented opportunities for animal exploitation.) Indeed, there is considerable doubt that animal models are sensitive enough to reveal small differences between modified and unmodified foods. Instead, what we need is good science, and the development of new ways to assure the safety of our actions.

4. Label—Although 78% of Americans surveyed want labels on foods to tell us if they contain genetically engineered ingredients, these labels are not now required. Our government should make GE foods withstand the test of the informed consumer. Furthermore, GE foods should be specifically excluded from the definition of "organic" in the upcoming National Organic Standards. We have a right to choose what we eat and, contrary to the paternalistic attitude of agribusiness, we are smart enough to make this decision on our own, thank you.

Too bad we aren't smart enough to put the cat back in the bag.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Word About Cats

When I got married I inherited four cats. That's right, four cats. Count 'em. Now, I like cats as much or more than the average person does. I grew up with a cat, and he was one of my best pals as a kid. But that was one cat. One cat will pay attention to you, and isn't that much trouble. If you have more than one, they prefer to spend their time with each other, and of course the amount of "cat upkeep" increases exponentially. Did I mention that we have four?

The relationship between cats and human beings is ambivalent to say the least. At our best we love them as pets, buy them expensive food in little cans, and even freeze dry them when they die so we can keep them around. At our worst we curse their shedding, let them live overpopulated and homeless on the streets of our cities, and worse. But more about that later.

Perhaps one reason for the love/ hate relationship we have with cats is that they are smart enough that we can attribute all kinds of human characteristics to them, but inevitably, since they're cats, they always let us down. A few months ago I was unpacking a new electronic gadget in the living room. All the cats got very excited and gathered around to watch.

"It's got dual power supplies and discrete circuitry," I told them, taking the gadget out of the box and holding it up. They really didn't care about that, of course. What did fascinate them was the plastic wrapping and the box half filled with Styrofoam peanuts.

Oh, cats. They have such strange taste. Every time our cats bring some poor bird home in their mouths I'm reminded that these are vicious carnivores. Back to the wild, I think. How can we humans ever expect to get along with heathens who prefer catnip to watercress, cottage cheese to truffles?

"Care for a glass of Bordeaux?" you ask. "Perhaps a '61 Chateau Haut Brion?"

"Not interested," replies the cat. "But if you don't mind, I would like to bat the cork around the kitchen floor."

I suppose one reason cats were originally domesticated was precisely because they don't enjoy the same foods humans do. That way they could be trusted to protect the stores of grain from rodents. We've come a long way since then. Cats still have an economic value to humans, but in a much more grisly way—as laboratory animals for medical experimentation.

They do a lot of brain research on cats, and the mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Cats being who they are, it also makes me doubt the wisdom of the researchers. I mean, just how much can they expect to learn from studying the brains of animals who think it's fun to chew on houseplants and then systematically throw up on the carpet in five different rooms?

The other day I was at home working for several hours. For my own sanity I tried to ignore the cats, who were busy playing a game I didn't understand, but which seemed to involve chasing one another several times across every piece of furniture we own.

Late that evening I was very grateful when the house finally quieted down. That was when our little cat Henry jumped up on my lap and nuzzled against my hand. As he curled up in a contented ball I was reminded that, despite our obvious differences, we have a lot in common. Along with all the other animals of the earth, we share an innate need for physical and emotional comfort, freedom, dignity and peace.

Looking down at the furry body, now lost in sleep, the areas of antagonism between cats and humans—be they as trivial as shedding on the furniture, or as significant as death in a medical laboratory—seemed gratefully far away. Yeah, cats are pretty terrific, I thought. I could only hope little Henry might feel the same way about humans.

The holiday season is approaching, and with the help of a sleeping little cat in my lap I am renewed in the hope that someday the lion really will lie down with the lamb, and the peace so many of us have hoped for between our own species and the others on this earth will finally be realized.