“Something’s just not right — our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise… at The Cartoon Bank.

One of the most thought provoking cartoons in the New Yorker of recent years was that of two cavemen sitting in puzzlement in their cave. {linked above}One is saying to the other: “Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free range, and yet nobody lives past thirty.”   Who says nature is best?  I’m prepared to wager that should I follow the most strident GM protestors and with bare faced cheek, cavort around in goose-pimpled, un-ironed state on the grounds of Parliament, I would in all probability wind up itchy, with a case of the sniffles and convincing the TV news watchers of New Zealand that despite my desperate sincerity, intellectual prowess was not my long suit.

I am all for varying sectors in society stating environmental concerns as a major concern but the unthinking adoption of simple slogans should never take the place of carefully reasoned debate.  In fact this word “nature” is rapidly establishing a major cult following. The new religion says natural foods and natural remedies are best, that organically farmed is best and that genetically modified or artificially produced is dangerous.  The disturbing and thankfully now distant memory of colourful pink bra protests about GM crops suggests just how far from time to time cult followers have taken the debate from discussion of the facts into the realms of emotion.

Surely it is a reasonable question as to why natural foods and natural medicines are automatically better than the artificial.  While I concede that we might chew willow bark for the acetyl salicylic acid as treatment for pain relief, the fact is that willow bark also contains other substances that are frankly poisonous.   Since willow bark varies in its chemical constitution at differing ages it is far safer to take 300 mg of acetyl salicylic acid in the form of an aspirin tablet.

I know this moves against new age philosophy whereby organically grown foods and herbal remedies are supposed to be good and the artificially produced or genetically modified is supposed to be bad, but it is also fair to ask ourselves how we arrived at this belief.  The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that not all things in nature are designed for the benefit of the human species.  Nature is such that all species are constantly battling for position and most natural organisms have a selection of protective devices so that tapeworms, viruses, pathogenic bacteria, wasps, cockroaches and even humble plants can all survive in uneasy balance, sometimes to the detriment of other species.

Most naturally grown foods contain poisons, natural antibiotics, or even carcinogens so that they can keep their enemies and competitors at bay.   This is why eating too much of a particular organically produced food may well be positively detrimental to the human species.

The tag “natural” confers no guarantees.   Early lettuce plants were loaded with soporifics and consumed by the early Romans before bedtime. Nicotine is natural and is a nerve poison and is only one of a host of harmful substances produced by varying uses of tobacco.  Potatoes, greened in natural sunlight rather than artificially shaded by paper or dark cupboards, are deadly for their alkaloids – as is the oxalic acid in green rhubarb. Digitalin can stop your heart – yet is produced very naturally in the foxglove.  Peanut butter can give liver cancer if made from mouldy peanuts.   And what could be more natural than mould?  At the risk of offending against the Tiriti, in the interests of truth we should admit that the South Island taonga of fern root kai is brim full of carcinogens. Almonds not only contain cyanides, but they can make a Geiger counter tick. Swallowing the odd apple pip won’t do much harm, but crunch up a whole cupful and you will get enough hydrocyanic acid (or cyanide) to get a mention in the dispatches section of the Herald .

Children have died from consuming thorn apple (datura), deadly nightshade, oleander, lantana, or foxglove.  One castor oil bean is enough to kill, and those who love the outdoors have been known to die when using an oleander stem as a shish kebab skewer.

Some plants like parsnips and celery produce photo-sensitizers called psoralens to which act as a sort of insecticide because they sensitise insects to sun damage.   These are also potentially dangerous to human skin hence the blisters some horticultural workers get when working in the parsnip paddock.

Dried beans are particularly stomach churning if they are then soaked and only lightly cooked.   Dried beans especially those like kidney beans, black beans haricot beans navy beans and pinto beans are rich in lectins some of which attack the stomach lining and others actually cause the red blood cells to clump.

Melatonin and butterbur extracts are both effective medicinal naturally derived products . Melatonin is sold as a “sleep aid”, for which the naturally derived melatonin is extracted from the pineal glands of animals.  Unfortunately it is not always safe because the pineal glands sometimes contain viral material. Synthetic melatonin while containing the same molecule, is much safer to take.

Butterbur is a plant containing anti-inflammatory compound called petasin, which is turns out to be a natural remedy and preventative for migraine treatment. However the butterbur plant also contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) that can cause severe liver damage, and thus it’s important that butterbur extract is artificially purified to remove PAs.

While I have sympathy for those who claim that the reason they are against genetic engineering is that they  cannot be sure it is safe, the simple fact is that there is almost no food which we know enough about to declare safe.   Nor do I buy into the argument that the real threat is the unknown effect of introducing foreign genes into a species.  The understandable disquiet about winding up with genes from one plant or animal in another might be moderated if more people knew that there are already countless genes shared by virtually all plants and animals. A host of internal corrections and environmental constraints keep the evolutionary process under some sort of control. Every new strain of anything, whether it be an improved plant, or improved animal, must differ in genetic make-up from the starting species or it would simply not differ enough to constitute an improvement. The whole of nature is constantly changing as species are modified. Despite the many claims to the contrary, typically genes are common across many species. Quite apart from common ancestry which guarantees that your average farmer shares something in common with ragwort, and  the leader of the Green party to have at least 90% of her genes in common with a sheep, the  consequences of genetic transfer are there for anyone to see.   You don’t need an electron microscope and a PhD in cell biology to notice the similarities in bone structure between the skeletons of a host of different animal specimens in the museum. There are even uncomfortable similarities in brain structure, other internal organs and function all because the higher animals share so much genetic material and gene sequences.

Sometime ago I remember Dr Tony Conner, a Lincoln College lecturer and scientist at Food and Crop Research turning the current argument on its head by pointing out that genetic engineering is far safer than traditional conventional breeding experiments because as he put it: “with traditional breeding we don’t know what we have done at the genetic level.”

In one of the many common modification mechanisms, bacteria bring in foreign DNA, sometimes in the form of complete genes, to be incorporated into evolving chromosomes. This natural form of random genetic engineering has been happening since life first appeared on Earth.  Under normal circumstances eating a genetically modified potato should be no more dangerous to our own gene arrangement than eating any new variety of potato.   In any event, taking foreign genes into the body in the form of food is a very inefficient way of modifying our own genes, which is why we don’t necessarily finish up looking like peas, pie and pud.   Again there are no guarantees and it might be argued that the peculiar behaviour of some of our politicians may be due to dining at the Beehive.

But whatever the cause of the genetic transfer, it has happened many times and has been happening since life first occurred on earth.

The natural processes of genetic modification present a very real problem for those who are seeking to police genetic engineering.  Unless the genetic engineer is sporting enough to say which genes were imported, there is no way of being sure that foreign gene material did not transfer by natural processes.

We already interfere with natural evolution by artificial selection and have benefited tremendously as a consequence. We do not in practice refuse to eat a Pacific Rose apple, kiwifruit or whole grained cereal because it can be shown to be genetically different from the pathetic ancestral forms.  Remember it is not just the newcomers we have doubts about.   Because each living organism, plant or animal, has a host of different molecules present in reality we have absolutely no idea about the long term effects of eating even a single species of vegetable or herb. In one relatively recent experiment to produce a new potato cultivar in the US in a natural breeding experiment the new species was found to be toxic.  It is not just the deliberately genetically modified species that requires caution.

As an aside we should acknowledge the debt humankind owes the evolutionary process of incorporation of new and rearranged genes.   Without it we might be perpetually consigned to the role of lemur-like leaps in John Cleese imitations of Edwardian waiters on Benzidrine.

As far as I can ascertain, the only substantive threat of a new or modified species is the risk that it might be too successful.  New Zealand’s recent ecological history with the unwise introduction of sparrows, possums, wasps and gorse shows what might happen. Visions of  pesticide resistant plants becoming super-weeds choking our waterways and taking over existing niches is also a valid concern.  This is why the present system of requiring oversight of experiments with new species is essential. The prospect of GM “Franken foods” and hideous new diseases seems less realistic in that despite the prognostications of the doomsayers there is virtually no evidence that it has happened or would happen.  Certainly the occasional breeding experiment occasionally throws up something unexpected, but this is far more common with traditional breeding experiments than with the targeted genetic engineering experiments which have had a far more comforting track record. Even the conspiracy theorists’ claim that the CIA sponsored the synthesis of AIDS appears to have evaporated through lack of plausible evidence.  That is not to say such scenarios have zero probability. Again this argues for wise oversight in the scientific community.  Since there is a competent watchdog body already in place, headed by acknowledged experts to authorise genetic engineering research projects in New Zealand, uninformed public panic rejection of trials in genetic engineering research seems unwarranted.

As an aside, I must also confess puzzlement at the practice of registering a farm as organic.  First there is no agreed definition of what constitutes organic farming.  At best we have the agreement that to claim organic farming the farmer uses totally natural herbicides and pesticides as if they are somehow less toxic than the artificial ones and not use fertilisers like superphosphate since they contain minerals which are artificially treated with non-organic substances.   Since water is a non-organic substance and since some soils without artificial fertilisers are deficient in essential life minerals like selenium I do not follow the logic.   I personally would not wish to develop the symptoms of the human equivalent of the staggers because I was exclusively eating food raised on untreated selenium deficient North Canterbury soil but I cheerfully concede the right of others to choose differently.  Please note I am not advocating the careless use of any fertiliser, pesticide or additive, artificial or natural.  I don’t want dioxin in my weetbix – but on the other hand nor do I wish my  tea to be flavoured by the natural insecticide, pyrethrum, my food sweetened with naturally occurring lead acetate as the sugar starved ancient Romans used to do, or even to sniff deeply at mercury laden thermal waters which have passed over natural cinnabar.   I leave the attractions of mercury poisoning to mad hatters.

I can see some cultural or religious reason for a refusal to eat genetically modified meat if we were introducing genes from a cow into something a Hindu was eating.  Similarly genes from a pig in a lamb chop might at least be seen as culturally repugnant to a practicing Jew.   But it doesn’t do to think too deeply about this  because the claim that we would  be practicing cannibalism if we ate meat with inserted human genes conveniently overlooks the fact that we already share thousands upon thousands of genes with many other animals – which is why for example we have so many organs in common with other mammals. Disquieting news perhaps for the Hindu and Jew…  The common genes between acceptable food and food seen as unacceptable are already in place.

There is of course that famous saying that there are two common elements in the Universe.   One is hydrogen and the other stupidity.   In arguing for a wise application for the artificial I am not going as far as to argue for the stupid use of science.  Wholesale cloning of animals and humans is currently considered impractical for valid scientific reasons by a vast majority of the scientific community.  It would be foolish to adopt such techniques unless the objections can be overcome. Selling genetically-modified, herbicide-resistant and insecticide-resistant seed to third-world countries to increase yields may sound good in theory but at the same time poisoning off the local farming population with the herbicides and insecticides is clearly reprehensible.  But from another point of view rejecting genetic engineering and instead fattening chickens on hormone supplements or antibiotics is another example of short-sighted  stupidity, and assuming the propensity for eating fried chicken is now totally ingrained, some might argue that genetically engineering the chicken to grow bigger might be a less worrying prospect than some current practices.

In summary I have no wish to return to nature.  Caves I have visited are interesting but damp and draughty. Using modern plumbing may not be natural, but it sure beats the alternative.

When it comes to food, I have a distinct preference for eating large juicy Kiwifruit rather than the pathetic wizened little Chinese gooseberries I remember from my youth and there is virtually nothing in my pantry or freezer which has not benefited from decades of artificial improvement.  That scientists should choose to make the improvement for a particular food source by a controlled gene-by-gene process in genetic engineering rather than by the unpredictable and relatively uncontrolled methods of traditional artificial selection adopted from time immemorial does not worry me.  I would have thought that the unpredictable and uncontrolled traditional processes have more chance of producing the unexpected and the undesirable.   Nor am I in the position to advocate natural rather than artificial medicines.  Since my father had his life saved by an artificial drug before I was even a twinkle in his eye I may have lost the moral right to comment further.

To paraphrase the advertisement I once saw on the side of a van.  “Others might promise the earth.  I prefer good carpet.”

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