Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Scary Genetically Modified Plants!

I take fish oil daily. My chiropractor first recommended it, and I've been seeing the father/daughter at that practice for 20 years. It's pretty rare for me to take anything for granted, but the more I read about the benefits, and as I experimented with it I noticed a difference. I think that is important for EVERYONE to do, with ANY nutrition recommendation, or assertion. EVERYONE is different, and NOTHING is ABSOLUTE (OK....we all need air, water, and food). I encourage people to investigate and experiment for themselves. Moving on......

I read an article in New Scientist recently about about genetically modified soybeans that provide Omega-3s (There are several kinds EPA, DHA, and SDA which appears to be DHA on steroids) in some fashion. The FDA has declared them safe. Based on what? I see the benefits possible to fish stocks, and for general health. From what I read in this article they don't mention any studies.

I acknowledge that genetic engineering as we perform it today, is just a simple extension of breeding and cultivation we've done for years. I see the possibilities in modifying crops to make them insect resistant (though I guarantee nature will catch up pretty quick), and adding vitamins & minerals, or even modifying plants to increase their usability for conversion to fuel. There are some concerns though. First and foremost is our limited experience playing with nature in this way. I'm pretty adventurous but I also believe I am educated enough to know we should be careful. I also want to cite to facts from chapter 10 of one of my favorite recent works, Natural Capitalism:

Clear-cutting at the microscopic level of DNA may be creating the gravest problem of all. The world's farming rests on an extraordinarily narrow genetic base. Of the 200,000 species of wild plants, notes biogeographer Jared Diamond, "only a few thousands are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of those have been more or less domesticated." Three-quarters of the world's food comes from only seven crop species, wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, barley, cassava (manioc), and sorghum. Nearly half the world's calorie and protein intake eaten as food, not as feed, comes from only the first three of these crops. Adding one pulse (soybeans), one tuber (sweet potato), two sugar sources (sugarcane and sugar beet), and one fruit (banana) to the list of seven would account for over 80 percent of total crop tonnage. In every one of these key crops, genetic diversity is rapidly disappearing as native habitats are destroyed.

What the heck?!? We know inbreeding is bad. We know we don't put all our eggs in one basket. Back to my point about nature catching up, they also mention:

Monocultures are rare in nature, in part because they create paradises for plant diseases and insects, as science writer Janine Benyus puts it, they are like equipping a burglar with the keys to every house in the neighborhood; they're an all-you-can-eat restaurant for pests. Disease already damages or destroys 13 percent of the world's crops, insects 15 percent, and weeds 12 percent; in all, two-fifths of the world's harvest is lost in the fields, and after some more spoils, nearly half never reaches a human mouth. The conventional response of dousing infested plants and soil with biocides seemed promising at first, but using technology to combat natural processes hasn't worked. Around 1948, at the start of the era of synthetic pesticides, the United States used 50 million pounds of insecticides a year and lost 7 percent of the preharvest crop to insects. Today, with nearly 20-fold greater insecticide use, almost a billion pounds a year, two-fifths more than when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the insects get 13 percent, and total U.S. crop losses are 20 percent higher than they were before we got on the pesticide treadmill.

The worst (best) part of it all is that they point out a lot of ways in which we can become more efficient AND safer by working on the smaller details, planting synergistically with other plants and animals in the loop.

For economic, health, and environmental reasons, a major overhaul of current agricultural production methods is needed to achieve adequate, acceptable, and sustainable food and fiber supplies. Many practitioners in both developed and developing countries are therefore adopting new or modernizing old methods of agriculture that are more clearly based on natural models. Their overhaul doesn't involve just doing the same things differently, because the problem of agriculture cannot be solved within the mentality that created it. Rather, the new solutions are the result of whole-systems thinking and the science of ecology; they embody the principles of natural capitalism; they follow the logic not of Bacon and Descartes but of Darwin.

I plan to build a mission to mars style waste recycling system that produces water, vegetables, and even fish. The best part is it's easy. Just copy nature. It's called biomimicry. A good friend of mine I collaborate with me once pointed at a bunch of plants and said "You know what these are? They are natural air, water, and waste filtration systems. Some of them even produce FOOD!"

I'd like to hear your thoughts.

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