Why GMOs aren’t all bad

18 06 2012

Recently, I have been reading Michael Specter’s book, Denialism. In it, he explores the topic of science denial in first-world countries. He dedicates a chapter to the subject of genetically-modified foods (GMOs.) Reading this book and seeing friends’ anti-GMO posts on Facebook made me really start to think about the application of science and how it should be regarded.

Casava roots

Casava (Source: Wikipedia)

There has been talk that corn and other foods are now toxic because of genetic modifications. These claims have been made and disputed. Unfortunately, the result of all this talk and the lack of noise from the scientific community on this topic has caused people to become fearful of all genetic modification.

I am dubious of the motivations of companies like Monsanto. These are massive biotech companies and they work to make a profit. Profit motive should always elicit some skepticism. I do not doubt that they have professionals who want to wield the awesome power of genetics wisely. Unfortunately, some things are created by these companies that should not have been introduced to world.

When I listen to this conversation, it seems like some have forgotten that many of the foods we would not normally think of as GMOs have been bred by humans for thousands of years.

All of the food we eat, every grain of rice and ear of corn, has been manipulated by man; there is no such thing as food that hasn’t been genetically modified.

Denialism, page 3

GMOs are as old as agriculture. Now, the tools are much more precise and only enhance our ability to engineer food to bring out the desired traits. This could mean an incredible opportunity to reduce famine and malnutrition worldwide.

There is a root vegetable from South America called cassava. It is used to make tapioca. It is very starchy and rich in carbohydrates, but not much else. Cassava grows well in dry, arid environments. It has been imported to Sub-Saharan Africa where it is now a staple. Unfortunately, it cannot meet a person’s dietary needs and it has resulted in malnutrition while keeping people from starving.

It is within our capabilities to make a protein-rich version of this vegetable. It may not be able to completely meet a person’s nutritional needs, but it would be better than what they have now.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that all technology is a double-edged sword and it is not fair to completely reject a technology because of a few abuses or mistakes. I willingly admit that there are many things I do not know about. If you think I am wrong, please say something in the comments. This blog does not get many views, but maybe we could start some kind of a conversation here.

Welcome to Mars National Park

6 08 2010

This is old news in astronomy circles but I just started thinking about it recently – we may have been polluting Mars for decades. I don’t mean landing probes, rovers, and the like on its surface since the first Viking mission in 1976. Microbes may have been hitching a ride on those probes and spreading to a degree in the areas surrounding those landing sites. There are two big ways this could be bad thing. It is possibly the pollution (even if accidental) of another world and it can interfere with scientific investigations to detect native Martian life.

NASA has long since been cleaning, baking, and otherwise disinfecting its probes before they ever get close to a launch pad. They are nowgiving a special eye to making sure the probes are absolutely sterile. There are some environments on Mars in which Earth-native microbes could survive and grow.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about Earth life growing on Mars. In a way, it’s kind of uplifting and encouraging. It would mean that life is possible on Mars, it could be common in the universe, and it might be possible for us to grow our own food there, a necessary first step toward colonization. The greatest drawback would be that it could contaminate Martian soil samples and make it difficult to determine if life already exists there.

Mars, for the most part, is untouched by human hands. It is a perfectly natural world. As missions to Mars become more common, we will have to decide how important it is to preserve Mars. Maybe we should declare certain areas of the planet to be off-limits to human exploration in order to preserve them, in much the same way we create national parks and reserves to preserve nature here on Earth.

This is really something that bears consideration as we plan for more missions to Mars. We have already made a mark upon our own world; we should be careful not to do the same to others.

The ethics of human cloning

19 10 2009

As I stood in the the shower this morning, I started to ponder the ethics of human cloning. I have no idea why. My mind tends to be both scattered and extremely active first thing in the morning. This is beside the point.

I was thinking about a Jon Stewart stand up routine that I listened to in which he went on for a bit about human cloning and how truly pointless it really is. As he put it, “There are already six billion people in the world. Clearly, fucking is working.” I would agree on this point. There is no point in cloning an entire human being when we already have unsustainable population growth as it is.

I can, however, see the utility of cloning specific tissues or whole organs for transplant procedures. There is a constant shortage of organ and tissue donors. In this context, human cloning is beneficial and merits increased research and expenditure in this area. On the subject of cloning an entire human being, my opinion is different.

I feel that cloning an entire human being for reproductive purposes would be inhumane. Only 1-2% of all attempted clones are viable and of those, 30% are born with genetic deformities that lead to a low quality of life that most, if not all, of us would find intolerable. I do not believe that the science of cloning has advanced to the point where we can safely and ethically clone human beings or create new organs that are safe for long-term transplant. Cloning is also too expensive and inefficient for widespread use.

Do not get me wrong. I think that the subject of human cloning is fascinating and merits a great deal of research. However, it has not reached the point where it is practical. In this case, practicality is the same as being ethical. Being able to simply grow new, healthy organs safely, effectively, and cheaply is a worthwhile goal and has the potential to greatly expand the human lifespan. It is definitely something that we should pursue.