What’s WORSE than genetic modification?

Genetic modification (GM) is coming under increasing scrutiny, despite the efforts of companies like Monsanto and Coca Cola to squash legislative action to require the labeling of genetically-modified foods.

GM refers to the use of gene-splicing technology to insert or remove a gene, a collection of techniques advertised by agribusiness to be precise, generating the desired characteristic, such as resistance to an herbicide, and nothing more. Of course, this is patent nonsense: Insert a gene to resist an herbicide, for instance, and there are unforeseen consequences in changing other genes alongside the inserted gene, alterations in epigenetic control over gene expression, interactions with the products of other genes, not to mention the uncontrolled nature of just where in the chromosomal collection the gene is actually inserted. We now have a number of reports, including the most recent French study of Seralini et al of glyphosate-resistant corn fed to rats documenting early deaths from large tumors, suggesting that genetically-modified foods, as well as glyphosate itself, are not as benign as advertised.

Stephen Colbert: Amber Waves of Frankengrain

Stephen Colbert: Amber Waves of Frankengrain

So could anything be worse than GM? Yes: Mutagenesis.

Mutagenesis refers to the intentional induction of mutations in an organism, usually using chemical methods, ultraviolet radiation, gamma rays, or high-dose x-ray. Geneticists make vigorous use of the methods of mutagenesis, as mutations can help define the function of various genes by turning them “on” or “off,” changing their code sequence, and other manipulations.

But key to understanding mutagenesis is that it is not a fully controllable process. If I aim a beam of gamma rays at a seed, embryo, cell, or other creature, plant or animal, I cannot predict what will happen, where in the genetic code changes will occur, or whether they result in viable or non-viable organisms.

Take a look at this study, for instance, from a Portuguese research group working with rice (not wheat): Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion. (Transgenetic = GM. Yes: genetics is painful!) From the abstract:

We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants. We propose that the safety assessment of improved plant varieties should be carried out on a case-by-case basis and not simply restricted to foods obtained through genetic engineering.

(Note that the genetics of rice are far simpler than the genetics of wheat. For instance, rice contains 24 chromosomes, while modern high-yield semi-dwarf Triticum species of wheat contain 42 chromosomes.)

In short, the techniques of mutagenesis have potential to exert greater genetic change and thereby more biochemical alterations in the plant than genetic modification. And the potential for unpredictable changes via mutagenesis are likely to be much greater in the more genetically-complex wheat plant than in rice.

So the mutated products of mutagenesis, such as imazamox-resistant Clearfield wheat, now grown on one million acres in the Pacific northwest, have been on store shelves for years. The Wheat Lobby is absolutely correct when it says that no commercially sold wheat today is genetically-modified. The wheat sold today, much of it the product of the techniques of mutagenesis, are the product of something potentially far WORSE.

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