Last week I assigned some homework, to read an article in the NYT Magazine entitled “Learning to Love GMOs.” I realized that I haven’t written anything about GMOs, which is odd since it’s the most discussed agricultural topic in the media. I usually write on topics that are not so well known, so I guess I skipped over GMOs for that reason. I’m writing this assuming that you read the article, so if you didn’t get to it, you can click here.
Via genetic modification, plant biologist Dr. Cathie Martin developed a tomato plant that produces fruit with a high level of anthocyanins, a class of flavonoids that is responsible for the purple pigmentation of certain fruits and vegetables like blueberries, blackberries, plums, purple potatoes, and eggplants. While some of the anthocyanins of tomato plants exist in the fruit, most of it is stored in the leaves. By inserting a gene from the snapdragon plant into the genetic code of a tomato plant, Dr. Martin was able to turn on a “switch” that changes the location of anthocyanin production from the leaves over to the fruit. She fed the resulting, deep purple tomatoes to mice, who lived longer than those mice who were fed normal tomatoes without that switch turned on (of course you knew this, because you read the article). Seems like something reasonable at first, does it not?
This leads me to the purpose of this week’s newsletter: I would like to problematize, if I can’t answer, the following question: are GMOs inherently bad? We know that as they currently stand they are without question horrible. The environmental effects, the effects on human health, the actions of companies like Bayer-Monsanto, etc, are all well documented, and I will not spend time on them here. But could GMO technology perhaps be viewed like a tool? A hammer can be used to build a house, though it could also be used to hurt someone. We know that GMOs are now used en masse to hurt someone, but could the technology be used to build a house? The author of the article, Jennifer Kahn, while acknowledging some the current harmful effects of the hammer (though there are several false statements in her article), and Dr. Martin certainly believe that it can be used to build a house.
Well, not so fast. While the idea of increasing the concentration of a specific nutrient in a tomato seems nice, there is a lot to consider. Let’s start by zooming in by asking some questions about this particular case involving Dr. Martin’s purple tomato. I’ll be tying each of these questions to a specific point, which I will discuss immediately after asking the question. At the end of it all, I’ll zoom out to discuss the issue within a larger, philosophical framework where I hope to lend an answer to the initial question that I posed above. My hope is that this piece will provide you with a fresh perspective on the GMO debate.
Question 1: Anthocyanins protect plants from stress caused by excessive heat, drought, flooding, pests, and disease. As many of these stresses affect leaves, how much, if at all, does the production of anthocyanins in the fruit affect their concentration in the leaves?
Purpose of question 1: Plants have been around for a long time. They have over 500 million years of evolution under their belts. During this time they have developed numerous means of protection. It’s why they have survived for so long. The pathway for anthocyanin production emerged around 450 million years ago, around the same time that plants emerged from the sea and began to colonize the land, where there existed different forms of stress. Many plants produce it, not just tomatoes. Anthocyanins are just one means of protection that plants developed, and all of these pathways are amazingly beautiful in their complexity, so much so that it is but it isn’t a stretch to say that plants have some form of sentience.
We do not have and probably will not have any time soon a complete understanding of this complexity. When scientists modify plant genes, they subvert this complexity that emerged from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This leads to the following objection: “GMO technology is just doing quickly what nature itself does already, whatever ‘nature’ means anyway.” This objection does not hold ground when we consider one major difference between natural evolution and genetic modification: while plants have evolved in accordance to what THEY themselves require, we modify plant genes in accordance with what WE desire.
Since our understanding of these pathways is limited, and since many scientists have a tendency to reduce complexity in order to find an independent variable to achieve some predetermined aim, it is very likely that something important will be overlooked. One thing that could be overlooked in this case could be the natural protection of the leaves provided by anthocyanin. If such genetic modification methods become commonplace and extend to other plants within the next few decades, and if at the same time we experience (even more) severe weather conditions due to climate change, the natural, adaptable resiliency of these crops, what PLANTS require, could likely be compromised. That’s a big long term risk to take for the immediate reward of a more nutrient dense purple tomato, what WE desire, when we could just eat more blueberries and blackberries for the same anti-oxidative effects. What plants require and have established via evolution usually translates to what’s best for us, and what we desire through genetic modification could end very badly.
And just a corollary to mention quickly: yes, we use hybridization to promote traits in plants that WE desire, but that’s very different from genetic modification. Hybridization involves assisted natural reproduction, and this is what happens in nature all the time. Hybridization maintains evolutionary protections, unlike GMO technology, which alters them and which will never occur in nature. They are worlds apart. No need to discuss this further.
Question 2: Under what conditions was the normal red tomato that was fed to the mice grown?
Purpose of question 2: While plants have developed protective compounds, they can’t develop them out of thin air. The biosynthesis of anthocyanins requires carbon, phosphorus, magnesium, nitrogen and a number of trace elements. It is further optimized by the presence of cyanobacteria in the soil. If the soil is properly built up with the addition of carbon from high quality compost, magnesium from dolomite lime, phosphorus from soft rock phosphate, and nitrogen from either cover cropping or blood meal and with the encouragement of biological life via minimal tillage, the entire plant will have much higher levels of not only anthocyanins, but also a whole host of other beneficial compounds. The concentration of anthocyanin specifically would not be at the level of Dr. Martin’s tomato, but it’d be just fine for a healthy plant that yields sufficiently nutritious fruit. Scientists who genetically modify plants generally do so without regard for the findings of agronomists and organic farmers. It takes proper soil management to produce resilient plants and nutritious food, and genetic engineers work under the incorrect assumption that we need complex genetic alterations to produce healthy plants that yield nutrient dense food.
GM tech currently solidifies conventional agricultural techniques. While in this specific case it may increase the concentration of one beneficial compound in the fruit, in that process it may lead to the conclusion that organic practices are not necessary to produce nutritious food. That may very well be the case, but what of other negative impacts of conventional agriculture? There is no mention of how synthetic fertilizer negatively impacts the environment and creates dead zones in bodies of water far away, or how they destroy carbon sequestering microorganisms in the soil; no mention of the impact on native flora and fauna and the ecosystems they support; and no mention of the depletion of soil of vital trace minerals. GM proponents tend to focus on single thing, whether it is anthocyanin concentration in tomatoes, vitamin A concentration in GM golden rice, or Bt production in GM sweet corn and claim that this one thing will improve the world. They tend to ignore everything else that comes with the territory. The harm of solidifying conventional agriculture greatly outweighs those less substantial perceived benefits.
Question 3: Why wasn’t there any additional control where the mice were feed blueberries or another anthocyanin-rich food?
Purpose of question 3: Not including another control group of mice strikes me as very odd. Essentially not doing so implies that purple tomatoes are necessary. If another control group of mice was fed blueberries, and the life extension was similar to those mice who were fed the purple tomato, as it likely would have been, it would imply that this specific genetically modification is not necessary. The project would lack purpose. In an interview, Dr. Martin explains that you can eat 70 grams of blackberries to get the same amount of anthocyanin as only two purple tomatoes. She says that that’s a lot of blackberries and laughs, and that you’d be eating a lot of sugar in the process. That sort of made me laugh too: 70 grams of blackberries is like a handful of blackberries. I can eat that in less than a minute. And not only do blackberries have very low levels of sugar (they are keto-friendly), but the sugars found in fruit, when maintained as whole fruit and not juiced, are great for you. Contrast this to Dr. Martin’s goal of marketing a juice derived from her purple tomatoes: tomatoes still have sugars, and when you juice any vegetable or fruit the glycemic index shoots through the roof. This all struck me as silly.
Besides, it’s okay that tomatoes don’t naturally have high levels of anthocyanin or other flavonoids. This specific compound is found in much higher concentrations in blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, pomegranates, grapes, cherries, cranberries, plums, red cabbage, beets, purple potatoes, purple peppers, eggplants, purple beans, purple cauliflower, and purple peas. Tomatoes have much higher concentrations of other beneficial compounds. In fact, they have one of the highest dietary sources of lycopene, a carotenoid that is beneficial for cardiovascular health and protects against the sun and certain types of cancer. It’s completely unnecessary that tomatoes have high levels of anthocyanin. Why should they when anthocyanins are readily available elsewhere in high concentrations?
Question 3 leads me to the unfortunate conclusion that these purple tomatoes are largely a gimmick to profit off the mass production of GMO derived tomato juice.
Enough with the questions. I hope that by zooming into this specific crop we can begin to ask similar questions for other GMOs. The devil is always in the details.
Let’s zoom out. By having focused on the specific details of this one specific crop, can I extract a more general answer to the aforementioned question: are GMOs inherently bad? I think I can, and the answer will surprise you. No, I do not believe that they are inherently bad. Here is why.
Just because GMOs currently revolve around uncertainties in evolutionary biology, around the solidification of the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture, and around unnecessary gimmicks does not necessarily imply that the entire technology should be entirely discarded. I can imagine an ideal situation where we have a much better understanding of biology, where GM tech works within the framework of small-scale, organic agriculture, and where it is geared towards actual problems in agriculture that agronomists and farmers have been unable to figure out using good agricultural techniques. As of yet, none of these ideal scenarios have presented themselves. And they probably never will. I’m going to have to switch over to philosophy to really explain what I mean here.
Famous philosophers are hugely influential in world history. For instance, 19th century European culture and politics revolved around Hegel’s writings and the responses to them, and we can even see echoes of this in American political culture today. The same applies to science: Francis Bacon sparked the emergence of modern-day science. He had a lot to say about science and our role in nature, and he conceptualized this within a Christian framework. For Bacon, our role as humans is to use science to recover our “dominion” over nature, which had been lost by the fall of Adam and Eve. By “dominion,” Bacon does not mean our modern understanding of the words domination or exploitation. Rather, he means a peaceful coexistence with nature where humans are its philanthropic stewards through the use of science. He believed that knowledge and science must be subject “to the use that God granted, which is the relief of the state and society of man; for otherwise all knowledge becometh malign and serpentine.” Whether or not we are religious, it’s clear that Bacon was aware of the potential threat posed by a type of science that is not bound by responsible stewardship.
In the 1800s, when science and philosophy were compartmentalized and became more distinct disciplines, the two eventually divorced. Hence little introspection coming from genetic engineers as to to the overall social and environmental benefit within the context of Bacon’s idea of the philanthropic stewardship of nature. As the natural sciences themselves further split into the branches of biology, chemistry, physics, and later biochemistry bioengineering, each field focused on its individual pursuits. Hence little communication between organic agronomists and evolutionary biologists and genetic engineers.
Due to the uncertainties in evolutionary biology, the solidification of the detrimental effects of conventional agriculture, and the unnecessary gimmicks, I would characterize GMO technology today as an unfettered form of science that regards humans as having absolute liberty to modify anything in accordance to our will with no regard to Bacon’s idea of responsible stewardship. This echoes the anthropocentric conception that that humans are meant to exploit and conquer nature. This is an extremist position that does “science for the sake of science,” or just for profit. History is full of examples of different types of hammers that do lots of damage. The GMO hammer is no different. But, this is not inherent to the technology. If the circumstances around GM technology would improve with homage to what I’ve mentioned and more, and would be in alignment with Bacon’s ideas, I think that the GMO hammer might be able to be used to build a nice house. But, a word of caution, if there is any doubt about using a technology with such profound impacts, and doubt is a good thing, it’s best to give up the hammer rather than risk accidently smashing a finger because someone overlooked something somewhere. There are many other tools in our toolbelt to accomplish the same task, ones that have been used for millennia that may not be perfect, but work just fine.
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