Message Number: YG4369 | New FHL Archives Search
From: RRC
Date: 2001-06-07 09:39:00 UTC
Subject: Bob C: A MAD Look At Genetically Altered Foods

I received several (4) emails asking my opinion regarding genetically
altered foods and if they were safe for ferrets to eat. As far as I am
concerned, this is more of a philosophical question than anything, but
since the question touches on ferret feeding....

The current public debate regarding genetically engineered foods is
mostly a combination of hyperbole and poor understanding. Unless the
genetic manipulation results in a biotoxin, which isn't likely, it is
just as safe to eat as anything else. Genetic engineering isn't anything
new, and while some of the organisms are fundamentally changed (such as
giving bacteria the ability to consume crude oil), those changes are not
incorporating anything that nature hasn't already seen. Are there risks?
Absolutely! Are those risks reasonable? I think so; the chance to have
cloned replacement organs, high quality pet food grown from pure tissue
cultures (negating the need to kill animals), and pest resistant crops
which do not require pesticides are all good things.

Take a trip down memory lane for a moment. I love science fiction
movies; "Them," the movie about them giant ants, was my favorite as a
child. I still love it. In that movie, ants were somehow transformed by
radiation into giant beasts twenty feet long. And giant ants were not
the only nuclear monsters; there were giant bees, grasshoppers, moths,
and, of course, Godzilla (good and bad versions). And not just monsters;
Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, the Hulk was transformed
by gamma radiation, the Fantastic Four from some sort of space radiation
found in the Van Allen Belt, and so forth (damn that electromagnetism!).
Oh yeah, in "Space 1999" the moon was blown out of orbit from a nuclear
reaction when waste containers reached critical mass (I have a litter
box about to do that right now). And what was the ONE thing that could
unsuper Superman? Radiation from kryptonite; you died, but at least you
were a cool green. And what about that whole "Boy and His Dog" thing, or
the "Man With The X-Ray Eyes"? From an anthropological point of view,
these various forms of entertainment reflected the FEARS of the public,
ranging from simple fear of radioactivity, to radiation mutations, to
nuclear waste and war. The fears still exist, but the public has become
educated to what radiation will or will not do, and it has largely
disappeared as a science fiction device except maybe in the poorer
X-files plots and Marvel comic books (Stan Lee: "I know, he got his
powers when he was exposed to, uhhh, lets see.....RADIATION!!"). Today,
such ideas are clearly unbelievable.

Now we have gene splicing and genetic manipulation and tomatoes with
tobacco genes and gene-altered corn and genetically-altered bacteria
that eat oil spills and mice with human ears growing on their backs. And
guess what? Check out the current science fiction and you will notice
the same sort of stuff coming out like when I watched Elvira (I didn't
watch the movies; I watched ELVIRA). On the Sci Fi channel, you have an
"Invisible Man" who is changed by a genetically engineered gland
implanted in his brain. Both the Pretender and Alien's Ripley were
cloned (Ripley had that cool acidic blood that should have dissolved her
bones into antacids, or at least made it really painful to pee. Still
THAT was more believable than a second super sensitive guy who could do
everything AND look sincere). Mixtures of humans and aliens have been a
common theme on the X-Files and in many movies, usually resulting in a
beautiful female that wants to kill you after mating (so, how is that
different from real life?). Dark Angel was genetically altered to be the
most empowered female on the block, yet sexy in an innocent, pedophilic
way. Kurt Russell's Soldier showed us no amount of genetic altering
could overpower our good old normal genes, especially when lusting after
another man's wife. A "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode had
genetically engineered humans which caused a deadly aging virus in us
normal beings, but unfortunately Wesley was unaffected and remained a
nongenetically altered wimp (there were a lot of Star trek episodes and
movies which decried genetic engineering, which never made sense
considering all the females on the show were obviously engineered to be
beautiful and have large breasts). Not to mention the Jurassic Park
stuff (like a dinosaur with a walnut-sized brain in it's ass could out
think a mammal with a hyper-inflated cranium. Ok, don't mention
religious fundamentalists; I'll drop it). It's the same sort of thing as
seen in the 1950s through 70s, except now it's about genetic engineering
rather than radiation. But it does reflects the same sort of fears. And
it is also just as unbelievable.

The attempts to make a buck while exploiting the public's fears should
be seen by scientists as huge neon signs saying "STOP AND EXPLAIN THESE
SCARY THINGS BETTER!" But they are ignored except in cultural
anthropology symposia where pimple-faced baby graduate students pretend
they are real scientists and have something meaningful to say about how
the fact that OJ got away with murder is inversely proportional to the
quality of teaching grade school level genetics. Soon enough they will
realize that no one on the planet wants to listen to scientists who
study humans. It is so much better to watch Jerry Springer and just be
happy some other family is marginally screwed up more than yours. The
point I haven't made yet is, while genetic manipulation seems really
scary and all that, it is NOT a new science. In fact, while lithic
engineering and projectile science are older, genetic manipulation is as
old as civilization itself.

Really. What do you think domestication is all about? There is NO
fundamental difference between breeding dogs to be really tiny and
loving tacos than in finding a gene for the same thing and artificially
implanting it in a doberman. Well, there is one difference; one took
20,000 years to go from a wolf to a bug-eyed yipping taco dog, and the
other took the last century, if you count from my good friend Gregor.
You remember the good Father Mendell, or Puff Greggy as he is known in
Rap. He was the guy who first noticed traits were mathematically
inherited from both parents, describing the effects of recessive and
dominant genes. While he had absolutely no idea of what a gene was, he
is credited with fathering genetics, which is strange since he was
already a Father. Father Mendell had no idea of the concept of
conservation of genes and how they are passed down lineages from species
to species because even though evolution had reared its ugly head, no
one knew how it worked. Puff Greggy had an advantage over modern
creationists; he understood the earth revolved around the sun. (Don't
you think it curious that the man who discovered natural selection,
Darwin, was trained in theology and planned to become a member of the
clergy, and the man to discovered genetics, Mendell, was a monk? The
foundations for modern evolutionary theory were built by Church-trained men...)

Whoa! Gene conservation? I'll bet you thought that had something to do
with endangered species, right? No, what it means is that genes are
conserved within animals, and the genes for, say pigmentation, are
fundamentally the same in humans AND ferrets and just about every other
mammal. There are exceptions, of course, but for the whole, the rule is
valid. This has two important implications. First, it means once a gene
for a specific trait is "invented," it is not reinvented within the same
familial line; offspring inherit them from their ancestors. Also, it
means the closer the familial relationships, the more the shared genes.
That is one reason why we know the closest relative to humans are Bonobo
chimpanzees, who share more than 98% of our genetic code. The point is,
genes are not "invented" for each new species. Rather, most of what we
are is shared by all other creatures, and it is a few changes which make
us so profoundly different. This is why a vet can learn how to treat one
animal, then use it as a template for treating others. It is also why
chimps wear sunglasses and pretend they don't know us; who the hell
wants to admit they are related to a televangelist?

Ok, back to ferrets eating meat from genetically engineered cows. First
of all, ALL cows are "genetically engineered" and have been for more
than 5000 years. They are domesticated, right? That means someone bred
them to be a specific way; dumb, large and full of fat (not to be
mistaken for half the taxicab drivers in New York. Or was that cops in
the South?). True, we haven't cut apart a strand of DNA and inserted the
human gene which makes insulin like we have with bacteria, but we have
STILL regulated which genes are allowed by eliminating specific
individuals we don't like. We also selectively breed for and conserve
mutated genes, such as those for albinism and large breasts, I mean,
large beasts. This is what has been known for a very long time as animal
husbandry, which now requires a license to practice in the South. Animal
husbandry is to genetic engineering like an abacus is to a computer; it
is not the intention nor the final result which is different—only the
technology. That scary scientific technology.

At this point in history, when scientists add or subtract genes, it is
not as if they are "inventing" them; that is, writing the code from
scratch. All they are doing is taking an existing gene from one
organism—even the same species—and planting it in the code for another.
We already know what the genes do; the difference is that one organism
never did it before. Is that bad? Well, we could spend hundreds of
generations selectively breeding the organism until we hit upon the
right combination (or had the lucky mutation) that did what we wanted.
How is that different? I mean, if you did the long term breeding, you
might end up with a lot of unenlightened Republicans someone has to
euthanize or send to Washington, but the end result is still the same
thing; you have something that is significantly different from what you
had before.

There is a great advantage to genetically altered livestock. If you
drive by a lot of farms, you see a lot of different types of cows and a
lot of idiots who moo when they drive by. Some cows give great milk,
others are great meat factories, and still others are kind of good at
living off scrub plants (and thats no bull). One of the problems with
breeding for traits is that some of the traits are linked to others,
either biochemically, or because they are near each other on a
chromosome. So it is very hard to breed a cow that gives a lot of milk
AND grows great hamburgers. But, through the miracle of genetic
manipulation, you can breed for one trait, and insert the genes for
another, so you can have great cheeseburgers from a single cow. You
might not find this a useful technique, but I'll bet someone with a
genetic disease might disagree; the exact same technique could be used
to cure cystic fibrosis, or dwarfism.

The real danger in genetic engineering (or at least to me) is not the
mixing of genes, nor the consumption of products made from altered
organisms. To me, the real danger is the possibility of creating super
pests. No, not raccoons what can open your mail, but organisms which can
out-compete native organisms. This is much more of a danger with plants
and lower organisms than in mammals, but it is still a risk. I wouldn't
want those oil-eating bacteria in my car, but if it means the beaches
and sea life are safer, I'll take the risk. Hopefully, someone will
invent a hose-head eating bacteria, and we can get Jerry Springer off
the air.

I am not personally worried about genetically engineered foods; in a way
I've been eating them all my life. You think corn looked like it does a
couple of thousand years ago? Back then, it was hardly larger than a
cigarette, and it made really bad popcorn. Even if I or my ferrets
ingest an "artificial" gene, they are nothing more but a series of amino
acids which are easily broken by digestive enzymes into those "comfort
proteins" I've heard about on TV. Now, in all seriousness, there are
risks, but with proper supervision and review, those risks are minimal.
I see the risks of feeding genetically engineered food as acceptable,
and I wouldn't worry about feeding such foods to my ferret.

Bob C