08 May 2008

Not-Monsters Adding Not-Poison to Sugar

Andrew Kimbrell is a goddamn bio-Luddite, one of many.

It embarrasses me that certain liberals can be so staunchly and irrationally opposed to technology, based upon paranoia over corporate interest, a weirdly conservative adherence to the simple purity of "Nature," and their own naked ignorance. One of the major victims of bio-Luddite oppression is genetically modified (GM) foods, sometimes referred to as "Frankenfoods" (but not by me).

In a column today in the Huffington Post, Kimbrell sows paranoia over a specific GM crop, the Roundup Ready sugar beet developed by Monsanto. These sugar beets are genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup.

GM opponents often have a hard time explaining just what makes GM food so dangerous. Sometimes it's argued that the introduced genes themselves are somehow pollutive, despite the fact that it's all the same adenine guanine cytosine thymine, baby. Kimbrell makes a particularly poor argument here, based on glyphosate:
At the request of Monsanto, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on sugar beetroots by a whopping 5,000% -- glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Sugar is extracted from the beet's root and the inevitable result is more glyphosate in our sugar. This is not good news for those who want to enjoy their chocolate morsels without the threat of ingesting toxic weed killer.
He then goes on about how seed farmers could start making seeds from Roundup Ready sugar beets so the GM crop spreads, and how sugar from GM beets gets mixed in with regular beets, and how GM beet pollen could contaminate other crops' genetics, and how there could be a huge consumer backlash, and how Big Science is putting poison in your dear mother's chocolates OMG!!!

Notice a problem here? How about the fact that the glyphosate isn't coming from the beets, moron!

I repeat, these GM beets do not produce glyphosate. What they do is allow farmers to use glyphosate on their crops with greater confidence in killing off weeds and maintaining good crop yield. The GM beets may increase the incentive to use glyphosate, but if that's a problem, then can be kept in check by regulation. Kimbrell's glyphosate beef isn't with the beets, it's with the EPA's change in tolerable glyphosate limits.

But is that even a legitimate concern? He makes it sound as if Monsanto asked, "Could we please put deadly poison on our beets?", and the EPA said, "Sure, since you asked so nicely!" This is just a guess, but I'd bet the EPA actually looked at some of the science behind glyphosate and its associated risks before raising the tolerable limit.

Glyphosate actually appears to be a very safe chemical. (Please forgive me for referencing Wikipedia here, but seriously, it just goes to show that you don't need to dig too deep to uncover the stupid.) It acts by inhibiting an enzyme in plants called 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). Normally, EPSPS kicks off a pathway to synthesize aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. In the presence of glyphosate, this pathway is inhibited, so the plants can't make these amino acids, and therefore die. The GM beets contain a copy of the EPSPS gene found in a strain of Agrobacterium. EPSPS made from this gene is resistant to glyphosate, so the aromatic amino acid synthesis pathway is uninhibited. The gene is already widely used in GM soybeans.

Glyphosate does not have this kind of effect in animals because we don't have that synthesis pathway; we get aromatic amino acids from our diet. And at a glance, the evidence seems to suggest minimal other side effects from glyphosate. The EPA would know better than I.

So Kimbrell is getting his knickers in a twist over genetically modified sugar beets that aren't producing a dangerous chemical that actually isn't that dangerous. Yeah... Next time he wants to play bioethics, maybe he should get the "bio-" part straight first.

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

I agree with you there is not justifiable reason for opposing genetically modified crops. Virtually all criticism toward genetically modified crops is misplaced. It's too much ado about nothing. I have been trying to tackle this issue in a deeper detail on my blog GMO Africa (http://www.gmoafrica.org/.)