Mashey on GM Food

John Mashey had some great comments on my post last week on GM foods. Since it seems unlikely that very many readers dig through old blog comments here, I thought it worth pulling them out and posting here in full. The setup is an argument between David King and Robert Watson over whether starvation in Africa is a product of political opposition to GM food, or whether there really is ample food, and it’s merely a distribution problem. Mashey:

But they’re both right…

Most starvation is from distribution problems.

However, especially given the likely problems we’re going to have with agriculture over the next few centuries, we’re almost certainly going to have to do more (carefully done) GM, especially as cheap nitrogen fertilizer disappears, and as we need to get more drought-resistant crops, etc.

People need to be careful of GM in various ways, but uncategorical rejection of it shows people don’t understand where their food comes from.

One might want to look at the opinions of the father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug:

More GM = less fertilizer or less pesticide, and sometimes more forest, all good things.

I especially recommend: “Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Food”, by Nina Federoff & Nancy Marie Brown. Nina is a professor of Biology at Penn State, and a NAS member.

A couple Q’s for people: (p16-21 above)

a) What do you eat that is natural? (I.e., never modified by humans).
Read about wheat, which comes from a bunch of weird mutations. And of course, modern corn is incredibly far removed from teosinte. Triticale (what/rye hybrid) is totally unnatural, being crated with colchicine (chemical).

[Some wild fish and game are more or less still natural. There might be a few plants around, but most human food comes from highly-bred plants and animals.]

b) How about seedless watermelons? How does that happen?
(Colchichine again).

c) Do you eat pasta from Creso durum wheat (esp. popular in Italy)? or beer from Golden Promise Barley? or California Calrose 76 rice?

Of the hundreds of varieties of bread wheat, ~200 were created using X-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, or various chemicals, and so were the others in that list. (p17).

For some reason, smashing genes with radiation and selecting mutations ifs fine, but actually *engineering* the same variation cannot be considered. Of course one needs to be careful.


  1. Pingback: » Mashey on GM Food » GM-free Food

  2. Johns (Mashey and Fleck),
    Thanks for posting this. Friends and I have been talking about these details for years. Some of the conversations were with Nina, who is a neat lady.

    I never thought to write any of these conversations here.

  3. You’re right. No-one reads the comments. So why do I write them 😕

    But “For some reason, smashing genes with radiation and selecting mutations ifs fine, but actually *engineering* the same variation cannot be considered. Of course one needs to be careful.” is unreasonable. Without defending that mentality, I can explain it: apart from simply not knowing what goes on: radiation-induced mutation is just what happens naturally, but faster. The very randomness of it makes it harder to do damage. Carefully splicing things from A to B has at least the potential to do more damage, by f*ck*ng it up -W.

  4. Thanks for raising this post.

    I suspect there might be a more carefully-balanced view of GM foods if people were a little closer to farming.

    In 1900, ~40% of Americans lived on farms. Now it’s ~2%.

    I grew up on a farm that had been in the family ~100 years when I was born, Dad had a B.S. in Agronomy (from Penn State, by coincidence with Dr. Federoff. Penn State started in 1855 (one of the earliest) as a land-grant university “for the purpose of bringing modern science to bear in making agriculture more productive and efficient.” Of course, it’s been a lot more than an ag school for over a century, but it’s still strong in that domain. For 150 years, university ag research has contributed to prosperity in the US, but this is sometimes not so obvious.

    PSU has always had a truly awesome creamery, supplied by the ag school dairy herds. (Ben & Jerry took correspondence course in ice cream making.)

    When I attended PSU (not in ag), there was a graduate classmate from New York City whose only office decoration was a NYC subway map. He seemed to think milk came from stores, but he liked chocolate milk and ice cream.

    So, one day we took him to the fields to show him the dark cows that supplied the chocolate milk.

    He wasn’t sure we were kidding.

  5. One of the more interesting suggestions is that we had better start breeding plants that can process the higher CO2 levels that we are likely to see in the future. See Long, Ainsworth, Leakey, Noesberger and Ort in Science 312 (2006) 1918

    * There is no CO2 fertilization effect for C4 crops although increased drought resistance may be significant.
    * FACE studies show that current ag models significantly overestimate CO2 fertilization for crops
    * C3 crop CO2 fertilization saturates somewhere between 600 and 800 ppm CO2
    * Crop breeders should work on developing strains that can benefit from higher CO2

    Rabett Run had this two years ago

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