Before everyone goes bonkers with end of the world scenarios about genetically modified foods, this whole “genetic pollution” concept seems kind of ridiculous to me, because genetic pollution has been occurring for as long as agriculture has existed. Wheat itself is an artificial invention, and corn, and rice, and so are most citrus fruits and a lot of green vegetables. Potatoes were genetically modified. The marijuana that people smoke is genetically modified. It’s just that these were all modified using carefully controlled Mendelian genetics as opposed to altering the genes themselves. Farmers would look for genetic mutations–mutant grains, mutant tubers, mutant cabbages–and using mutant offspring of those mutants, and then mutant offspring of those mutants, invented wheat, potatoes, Brussels sprouts. When you pick up a bag of variously colored and shaped potatoes, you’re looking at mutant varieties of an original potato. They are mutants in every sense of the word. As mutated as the cast of Freaks, or a Shetland pony, or a two-headed sheep. As mutated as the latest version of the Ebola virus. Something got messed up when the genes duplicated and voila, a purple potato. And in almost every historical case, especially in the grains, these genetically modified plants–these mutants–polluted already existing gene pools that they were capable of inter-breeding with, or simply out competed the native plants, with often ecologically devastating consequences. The verdant hillsides of Southern California in the spring did not exist before the introduction of Spanish farming, herding and viticulture. It was a completely different landscape then. This sort of man-made genetic pollution goes back ten thousand years at least. These plants altered through Mendelian genetics as opposed to laboratory modifications have had profound impacts from the very beginning of civilization, even before. Everywhere humanity has introduced agriculture it has fundamentally changed the plant life around it. This is nothing new. The only difference now is that geneticists can go in and selectively alter the chromosomes of plants and bring about specific characteristics artificially rather than letting mutations occur naturally. But keep in mind that naturally occurring mutations can also be tightly controlled. Ask any one who grows hydroponic pot, or raises guppies even. But then if that very process of artificial gene modification scares you, well, nothing I can argue will alter that. You’re just a little freaked out by science, I think. A lot of people are. It’s nothing new.
I’m not saying that Monsanto should be allowed to lobby themselves all kinds of protections. I’m not saying that Monsanto isn’t an octopus worthy of a Frank Norris novel*. Not at all. But those are issues of corruption, monopolization and anti-small business policies. If that is your issue, well more power to you. But this fear of genetically modified food itself is bizarre when virtually everything you deal with in your daily life that is organically based–i.e., not made of mineral or wild wood–is the result of genetic modification at some point in human history. And I mean everything. Everything you wear, everything you eat, just about everything man-made you touch that is not stone or metal or perhaps carbon-based is somehow a product of genetic engineering. Even the damn cat.
Incidentally, it strikes me as incredibly ironic that the same people who adamantly opposed the Bush Administration’s ban on stem cell research are so opposed to genetic engineering in plants. They are the same thing. Just one is people, the other plants.
Now if you want to see a really creepy display of genetic engineering, creepier than any wheat, get thee down to a dog show. My god, those mutant creatures used to be wolves. Wolves. That yappy little chihuahua? A wolf. Creeps me out every time.
* In fact, Norris’s 1901 classic The Octopus–a tale of independent wheat farmers struggling against the corrupt and monopolistic Southern Pacific Railroad–was to be the first volume of a trilogy called The Epic of Wheat.