Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Genetically altered food?

  1. Jun 25, 2003 #1
    the riots at UC Davis and Sacramento convinced me it's time we brought up the issue of genetically modified food. is it right? should we tamper with nature?

    personally, i have no problem with it. as long as it is striped of its ability to reproduce (which could throw centruries of evolution a little out of wack) and grown only in controled enviournments. but what do you think?

    p.s.: i didn't know where to put this so i stuck it in here. it seems more a morality question than anything else.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2003 #2


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    I did a debate on GM food in college (I was pro). I don't even think stripping it of the ability to reproduce is important. People have been screwing with the genes of plants for centuries. Hybridization was the first genetic modification.

    Argements against GM food are generally structured one of two ways:

    1. We don't know the long term effects: more research needs to be done.

    2. What if....?

    Neither of these arguements are valid.

    Like I said before, hyrbridization has been around for centuries. And acutal gene splicing has been around since the 60s. There is no evidence whatsoever that there are any negative effects related to GM food. The arguement itself isn't even really meant to get more testing, the point is to get GM food restricted, labeled, or otherwise regulated. No amount of evidence will ever convince an envirofreak that GM food is safe. More research will ALWAYS be needed.

    "What if" scenarios are another smokescreen because they never adress the other side of the coin - any risk (and as of yet there are *NO* identifiable risks) must be measured against the potential reward. Certain African nations have rejected GM seeds and food based on "what if's" and millions have died as a result.

    There is a #3 as well. Its not an arguement, its an explanation of the other arguements. Fear of the unknown. People fear GM food because they don't understand it.
  4. Jun 25, 2003 #3
    Re: Re: genetically altered food?

    i think removing the reproductive ability is essencial. if a GM corn plant was released into the wild, it has a good chance of overtaking the original corn and disrupting a well balanced evolutionary process. enviornmentalists are always trying to stress the fact that the success or failure of one species can affect many other spiecies indirectly. (you know, the "fragile web of life")
    you are right about the hybrids, though. but can mules or flowers spawn copies of theirselves or does it split apart again to horses and donkeys/ flowers and other flower?
  5. Jun 26, 2003 #4

    tasty huh?
  6. Jun 26, 2003 #5

    Ivan Seeking

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: genetically altered food?

    Russ, I think you make some really good points and I tend to agree. We can point to examples of human intervention making things worse rather than better, but the average lifespan these days pretty much speaks for itself. On the other hand, we could be playing a game of Russian roulette with no way of even knowing which gun has the bullet, but the likelihood of catastrophic consequences, as compared to the alternative, to me seem too small to worry about. I think we need to worry more about human-spider hybrids and such.

    One last comment on a similar scenario. When microwave ovens first came out, I heard all sorts of hooting and howling about the horrors of "radiated food". I remember thinking how silly this was. Even though I was young I knew a little about physics. We radiate food when put it in a regular oven. Often we have fear of the unknown and of the misunderstood.
  7. Jun 27, 2003 #6
    I think protesting genetically altered food is stupid. I hope people realize that it could feed people in the world that do not get enough food to begin with. Gimme a break. It is stupid to protest, it is like wanting to never advance our technology or something.
  8. Jun 27, 2003 #7
    Well, I believe that I have read that their are some type of genetically altered food (corn, I think) that has been deemed unfit for human consumption, and is used only for farm animal feed.

    Maximus made a good argument about reproduction and why it should be limited. Also, think about cross-polination or just spread of an altered plant for a second. Let's say that you engineer a crop that is resistant to herbicides. Then it either breeds with other plants, or spreads off its little designatd area, and goes somewhere else where it's considered a weed (undesirable plant), or the other weed species picks up the immunity to herbicides. Now your herbicies are useless, or at least much less effective against weeds, either becoming useless, or requiring much more, which has bad environmental effects, as well as the introduction of these hearty plants in to the wild could have.

    Basically, I don't think that GM is inherently a bad thing. It's just another power that technology has afforded us, and, like all powers, we should be wise in how we use it. Most modern scientists seem to be more concerned with "Can we do this?" (probably so that they can get more grant money), and not thinking about the consequences. To badly quote Jeff Goldbloom's character from Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm,
    "You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think about whether you should."

    GM is not the same as breeding different plants, because you're not taking alread "naturally"-ocurring genes from similar plants, but introducing completely foreign genes and functions...not that that's necessarily a bad thing. More important than being concerned with the existence of GM food is being concerned with what, specifically, they plan to do with it....just like you can use computers to make a benevolent activity more efficient, or use them to encode messages for your world-domination scheme.
  9. Jun 28, 2003 #8


    User Avatar

    well, I think there are quite a few possible problems with GM plants.

    Two biggies would be that there is not guarantee that all seed will be made infertile, it's not a perfect science. So there is always a risk of cross pollination. The other, issue is of course selling infertile seeds and the farmer not being able to save seeds.

    Then there is the possibility of increasing pest and weed resistance, increasing the dependence on other herbicides, Creating highly BT resistant insects etc. etc.

    Cross pollination is a big issue with many of us who organicly farm losing their certification due to cross pollination, particularly in areas such as where I live with such a mix of famrland used for both organicly produced foods and GM modified corn and soy used for cattle and pig feed.
  10. Jun 29, 2003 #9
    That's probably the main thing here, that the people doing most of the research are funded by the people who stand to make the most profit, so how much is bias and failure to see the consequences? I'm glad many people are suspicious of new technology.
    Nature typically produces more wrong genetic variants than right ones, but this is random, how might the success rate of humans be? Are pest really such a big problem or is it that fewer pest mean more profit and more unproven harm to people? I hope our government keeps up with this sort of thing, although I'm sure they've failed on occasion.
  11. Jun 30, 2003 #10

    Another God

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: Re: genetically altered food?

    Have you ever seen a wild corn? Is it anything like the corn we eat now? If you put a farmed corn next to a wild corn, which do u think would survive? Now lets say you put a genetically engineered corn which has been engineered so that it "Tastes better" next to the wild corn...which would survive?

    The fact is, Farmed Foods are crap in the eyes of evolution. They are useless doomed to extinction organisms, which only survive because of human selection. Humans have selected all of our primary farm foods for thousands of years based on how big their fruits were, how easily farmable they were, how tasty they are, and other such completely useless in the real world traits.

    Now, if you get a plant which spends 90% of its growth on growing its seeds (ie: Not actively trying to keep itself alive), and a plant which stands up nice and straight ready for picking (rather than trying to stay low and avoid animals for instance), and a plant which doesn't even pollinate in the normal way because it hasn't needed to for the last 2 thousand years...how do you think that will compete with plants which actually dedicate all of their energy to growth, survival, predator resistance and mating?

    The fact is, genetically engineered organisms are NO THREAT at all to wild type plants.

    There are actually only two types of threats: The main one is the threat of cross pollination into Organicly grown plants (this happens, and is bad for the organic farmer) and the other is the slight risk of the pollen somehow crossing over into a wild species plant, and impregnating the improved geneticly engineered property, such as insect resistance, into a wild plant. That could create a pest. But this threat only exists for genetic changes which confer advantages in a wild environment. This threat does not exist for changes which "Improve taste, lengthen shelf life, add vitamin B" etc.

    This has been done for many many years. Well, not exactly infertile seeds, but for many years now Farmers have either had to sign contracts which made them not be able to use second generation seeds, or else the farmers have bought hybrid seeds which they wouldn't breed into a second generation because the properties which they are paying all their money for would be lost.
    ie: They pay money for the hybrid seeds because the hybrids would all be ripe at exactly the same time, they would all grow to the same height etc... the plants would grow perfectly for farming. If the farmers then bred these plants, then genetic recombination would occur (as happens) and the perfect properties would be lost, and the next seasons crop would be all over the place.

    Having seeds which are engineered to be infertile just simplifies this reality.
  12. Jun 30, 2003 #11


    User Avatar

    I think this depends more on the type of modification, and the way it is dealt with. Obviously, if you distribute weedkiller resistant genes in uncontrolled farm plants, and couple it with overuse of weedkillers leeching on to the surrounding area, this would have a big negative on biodiversity.

    There's a human element as well. We don't want to breed complacency in farmers having their perfect crop, and let them narrow down the gene pool. Infertile seeds and terminator genes exasperate this factor.

    Overall, GM is neccessary and beneficial, but it does need regulation and education to the true facts. I think it's pretty important not to get the ridiculous situation of the public versus the scientists... The people with real knowledge must take over the situation from the scaremongers, and get the real facts across.

    *Nudges Dubya, Blair Painfully*
  13. Jun 30, 2003 #12
    Re: Re: Re: Re: genetically altered food?

    this may be true for corn, for which the trait we change isn't so important for its own processes, but what about the fish that have been engineered to be several times the size of their predesesors. wouldn't these require more food and drive competition higher?
  14. Jul 1, 2003 #13


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    There are many government regulations regarding GM food (in the US and other countries). None are based on scientific findings that the food is "unfit for human consumption." They are based on the same baseless fears that the general population has.

    I didn't touch on this issue before, but this is why I am against labeling of GM food. The anti-GM crowd says why not label the food? Its just for informational purposes. But thats not what its for. Labeling GM food is an additional scare tactic - hey look, it has a warning label so it must be dangerous or somehow inferior to the "natural" (such a mutilated word) food.

    The screwing with natural evolution issue is separate from whether or not GM food is harmful to people, but to me is completely irrelevant. If what we produce is better than what mother nature has made (whether from GM or good old fashioned hybridization), we should use it.
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2003
  15. Jul 1, 2003 #14

    Another God

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: genetically altered food?

    The thing that you have to ask whenever considering whether a GM organism is dangerous to the natural world is : Is the modification advantageous over the wild species?

    Well, would being bigger be advantageous?

    Maybe it would be, but then u have to ask yourself, if it is so advantageous, why aren't the wild fishes larger? If it is so advantageous, and its simply a matter of growing faster, then we would see an evolutionary pressure quickly creating larger fish in nature. But we don't. Why don't we? Probably because there isn't enough food available for the fish to maintain that sort of growth rate. They'd starve trying to maintain their growth rate.

    I think humans would be hard pressed designing anything better in the natural world even if we tried to. Nature enters these local optima where anything similar simply wouldn't be better, because if it was, then evolution would allow the organism to go and inhabit that niche.

    And then, lets say that the larger fish which were engineered actually do survive better. So what? So now we will have a larger salmon swimming around in the ocean in more abundant numbers. OMG...us, repopulting the oceans with fish that are more capable of fending for themselves. How dare we do that?

    Oh yeah, i guess it may hold impact considerations in terms of other species which they prey on etc. I'm sure that won't matter anyway, any fish which escape captivity will quickly be caught by our abundant numbers of fishermen anyway....

    PS: Moral of all that is: I don't think Big Fish are a threat to wild type fish.
  16. Jul 1, 2003 #15

    Your post is FILLED with errors. First off:

    1. Food genetically alters itself. Doing so is no more natural than us altering it ourselves.

    2. There is no "should" no innate "should" or "shouldn't" or "right" or "wrong" exists.

    3. If a universal "should" did exist, don't you think once this "should" was discovered there would be no need to ask what the answer was? We'd all produce the same answer!
  17. Jul 1, 2003 #16
    And lastly, to think that a human altering another organism isn't natural is completely egotistic, and absolutely 100% absurd.
  18. Jul 1, 2003 #17


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Good point. People are in general far too arrogant about the power of mankind. The typical response to an environmentalist who says mankind will destroy the earth is that we don't have the power - we only have the power to destroy OURSELVES.
  19. Jul 3, 2003 #18
    Mankind is a power to reckon with. Look at all the incredible changes that we've already made. Bulldozers are really good for altering environments. So are warfare and nuclear weapons. The "we don't have the power" argument doesn't stand. I'm not saying that we have the power to disintigrate this chunk of rock and water called earth, or to kill every last bit of life, inluding microscopic ones, but we do have an incredible ability to change our environments and to drastically reduce biodiversity.
    It's funny when you look at who funds research and how that effects things. A person whom I know told me about a time when he was talking to some scientists that were working on making plants more resistant to pesticides. The purpose would be so that they could use even more pesticides. The person whom I know asked them why didn't they try to engineer the plants to be more resistant to the pests. They just looked at him like he was crazy. Their research was funded by pesticide companies.
  20. Jul 4, 2003 #19

    Another God

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    Of course we have the power to drastically reduce biodiversity, and if u ask me, we already have. Our impact on this planet is already irreversible, but guess what... "So What?"

    Everything has an impact, some big, some small...but in the end, it doesn't really matter. This is what nature does. It is an equilibrium. So what if we destroy everything? It all dies off, and then the one or two million strong species, or species unaffected by our actions survive, and then proliferate ands tart re-evolving into the niches which we have cleared... This is how stuff works.

    The fact is, we don't really care if we destroy the environment. Even the environmentalists more often than not aren't actually concerned with that (although they wouldn't actually realise this)...what matters, is that we will destroy the environment which WE are dependant on. We aren't concerned about THE environment...we are concerned about OUR environment.

    Save the rainforest, because rainforests deserve saving??? No...save the rainforests, because without them, we die. Everything comes back to us.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook