Plant Breeding and Genetic Modification
After reading Dr. Davis’ Wheat Belly, I decided to take another look at how man modifies his food. While there’s a lot of concern about genetic modification of foods, with some standards attached, traditional plant breeding has only a few steps between creation and marketing of the modified food.
Genetic modification (GM) is the process of inserting genes or portions of genes into a plant to introduce a specific trait, such as resistance to a herbicide. Most of the soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the US are GM crops. In most cases, they have been modified to be resistant to a specific herbicide, Monsanto’s Round Up, or to be resistant to pesticides.
There is a patina of acceptability touted by the proponents of GM foods as the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition “evaluates” them. But the review process is less stringent than a driver’s license test: the food producer submits “summaries of food safety data” that are based “in part on the basis of comparability to conventionally-produced foods.” There are no specific tests done by FDA to determine safety.
Plant breeding, on the other hand, is a time-honored method of cross-breeding plants to obtain certain traits. Prior to the 1940’s, most cross-bred plants were within the same family, such as a mildew resistant pea being cross-bred with a high yield pea to produce a high yielding, mildew resistant pea. This type of cross breeding can occur in nature, but is a slow process, depending on the vagaries of wind, rain and animal movement to introduce new varieties.
There is a dark side to “traditional” plant breeding. Different techniques are used that would not be found in nature. In some cases the food scientist uses a chemical to produce mutations in a plant, and uses the resultant mutation to cross breed with a “normal” plant. The Wikipedia overview highlights the possible danger:
With classical breeding techniques, the breeder does not know exactly what genes have been introduced to the new cultivars. Some scientists therefore argue that plants produced by classical breeding methods should undergo the same safety testing regime as genetically modified plants.
The Poisonous Potato
There have been spectacular failures with traditional plant breeding, including poison potatoes:
. . . for example the poison solanine was unintentionally increased to unacceptable levels in certain varieties of potato through plant breeding. New potato varieties are often screened for solanine levels before reaching the marketplace.
As that quote indicates, there is no requirement to ensure the cross-bred plant is suitable for human consumption. The determination is made based on a plant biologist’s interpretation of how close to the original plant is to the cross-bred plant. In the case of the potato, the food company will look for the presence of a specific, known poison. But there are no long-term trials and no testing on human subjects. The impact on human health is not considered by a physician. We simply don’t know if the new, cross-bred plant carries a toxin that will be found only after the unwitting “test subjects” — the general population — start to have health problems.
As Dr. Davis has documented with more authoritative sources, modern wheat is a result of aggressive plant breeding, as Wikipedia notes:
The novel technological development of the Green Revolution was the production of novel wheat cultivars. Agronomists bred cultivars of maize, wheat, and rice that are generally referred to as HYVs or “high-yielding varieties”. HYVs have higher nitrogen-absorbing potential than other varieties. Since cereals that absorbed extra nitrogen would typically lodge, or fall over before harvest, semi-dwarfing genes were bred into their genomes. A Japanese dwarf wheat cultivar (Norin 10 wheat), which was sent to Washington, D.C. by Cecil Salmon, was instrumental in developing Green Revolution wheat cultivars.
No long term testing using human volunteers was implemented. The foods were introduced on the basis that a plant biologist deemed them similar to existing foods. There has been a long term test, of course. On all of us. The fact that we didn’t volunteer doesn’t seem to bother the plant biologists or food companies.
Wheat Belly shows us the result of just one of these “frankenfoods”, the modern dwarf wheat mutant that we have all been eating since the mid-1970s. Because wheat is so ubiquitous in our foods, its effects may have bubbled up to the surface faster than less-commonly used foods such as soybean, cotton and the high-yielding rice (although, there is plenty of evidence of issues with soy for certain people).
Note: I have used Wikipedia articles rather than the scientific journal articles to enable sharing of the resources by the general public, as the journal articles are long, hard to read, and some require payment to access. For those so inclined, Dr. Davis has 16 pages of footnotes to journal articles and studies in his book Wheat Belly.