Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Response to a Facebook Discussion re: GMOs

So, let’s see what we have to cover today--the legal status of biotech, genetically modified organisms, transhumanism, human genetics, and agriculture.  I should be able to tackle that in one blog post, right?

Okay, background first.  I’m writing this in response to a threaded discussion on Facebook, which I will provide for you so that you know the context of my thoughts.  Since I haven’t asked permission to repost any of this, I will replace names with initials (I don’t want to be a dick and put people’s names on my corner of cyperspace without asking first).

Here’s the conversation:

RMB: This is something TRULY disturbing… I hope the Supreme Court -- for once -- weighs in on the side of PEOPLE rather than CORPORATIONS… In short, a corporation has claimed that it can PATENT a HUMAN GENE.  Watch the video and be chilled to your soul imagining what happens if this claim is upheld.

LS: This is old news, [RMB].  The transhumanist movement is already well underway.  Mansanto [sic] and the other elitist corporations are already changing our DNA through GMO crops, especially corn.  Check out www.2045.com for the global agenda to turn us all into robots.  This is not a joke.  Is anybody awake out there?

RMB: [LS] -- You understand that GMO crops CAN’T change HUMAN DNA, right?  Perhaps Robert Lewis or [MP] might want to weigh in on the GMO thing -- they both have strong feelings on the matter, they are both scientists, and neither is what I would call a corporate apologist -- not by a LONG shot.

Well, indeed I do want to weigh in on this, because there are a lot of things that need to be said here.  The science can get a little complicated, and so can the legalities.  The good news is, in order to be sufficiently informed to make educated decisions, the general public doesn’t need to fully grasp the fiddly details of the science; the issues can be distilled for the non-scientist without dumbing them down, which is what I’m going to try to do here.

First, let me tackle some personal issues.  I AM a transhumanist, at least in philosophy.  I have some questions about practicality, but I think pursuing certain human modifications is definitely worthwhile.  In this post, I will try to explain why I’m a transhumanist and why I think you should be too.  I say this now not to reveal a bias, but so that you know what perspective I’m coming from as you read.  But I will certainly explain myself fully, to demonstrate that my position is solid, and not just the result of some political ideology.  I do support GMOs (and plenty of other areas of biotech research as well).  Again, if you read on, I’ll explain why GMOs are not only much safer than many people think but also a necessary part of agriculture in the coming decades.  And finally, in response to RMB’s comment, it is true, I certainly am not a corporate apologist.  Neither am I anti-corporation.  I am a capitalist, and I think corporations do plenty of good things, but I’m also not afraid to call them out when they get up to shenanigans.  Which is to say, while I support the work of plenty of corporations, I do not have any sort of pro- or anti-corporate bias.  I judge issues on their merits rather than on the size of the corporations involved.

Now, let’s start with patenting genes, since that’s what started this whole thing off (and also because it’s the part of this I have the least to say about).  First of all, I’m not overly  familiar with the particular legal battle referenced here, so you’ll have to forgive me for offering only some generalized thoughts instead of an in depth commentary.  It sounds very much like the sort of thing I’d like to read more about, but as I haven’t yet done so, I don’t want to pretend to offer expertise on something about which I’m not qualified to do so.

My general position on the matter is that intellectual property law has done a poor job of keeping pace with expanding technologies.  Patent law, as with the rest of the body of intellectual property law, is meant to protect and encourage the efforts of creators.  When it comes to biotech, I think it is perfectly reasonable to issue patents to individuals or to corporations who have synthesized new genes, certainly.

The difficulty comes when it’s a matter not of actually synthesizing a new gene, but simply describing one that evolved naturally.  Certainly it seems perfectly reasonable to offer some protections to the individuals who are responsible for particular discoveries, even if they don’t create the genes, but it also seems somewhat unreasonable to grant a patent for something that exists naturally.  I tend to be of the opinion that the best (far from perfect, but the best I can think of) method is to grant patents for the specific applications of the discoveries.  One should get a patent for the method of isolating a gene.  One should get a patent for any biotech that uses the gene as a component.  One should get a patent for any direct medical applications of the isolation of the gene.  But one should not get a patent for the gene itself unless it is the product of a new synthesis in the laboratory.

I don’t know the history of Myriad Genetics or this legal battle beyond the one video that I linked to above, so I don’t know if that’s an accurate portrayal of the reality.  Assuming it is, I think I’m in agreement that this is an abuse of the law.  The BRCA genes are present in every human genome, and mutations of those genes have been implicated in increased risk for breast cancer.  I think Myriad Genetics should be perfectly entitled to patent all of their techniques for testing these genes, but not the genes themselves.  So I agree with the original post (though I don’t find it quite as “chilling”).  What I would like to add to that, however, is that I would hope the Supreme Court wouldn’t err too far on either side.  Yes, we absolutely need them to protect people (in this case, by vacating a patent that probably should not have been granted).  But we also need them to protect corporations.  It is the corporation, after all, that has the resources necessary to actually do much of this research.  It’ll likely be a biotech company of some sort that finally cracks the cancer puzzle.  So we don’t want to loosen the REASONABLE protections that corporations enjoy for work produced in their laboratories.

Here’s the gray area that I don’t quite know how to handle.  Say there is a unique mutation on someone’s genome that has some medical application.  It evolved naturally, as mutations do, but is not present in all humans.  It’s only been isolated in one person.  Scientists are capable of isolating and amplifying this gene, and perhaps then inserting it into another genome in order to develop the treatment of some disease.  This is all stuff we can do.  So, who owns that?  Is the patient who developed the mutation assumed to have ownership of this mutation?  I can see arguments in favor of that, but at the expense of the medical researchers.  What about the doctors who found it and want to use it for medical research?  That might provide the greatest social good, but at the expense of the individual.  Can one claim complete ownership of one’s genetic information?  I don’t know.  When it’s part of one’s body, sure.  But when it’s been extracted (with consent) during a medical procedure and is then sequenced by someone else, who (if anyone) can claim ownership?  There’s an economic incentive to want to assign ownership in such cases, but there’s a practical difficulty about it.

I don’t know the answer to those questions, so I’m open to other people’s thoughts.  It’s something I intend to do more reading on, because I think it’s an important issue.  What’s more, it’s of critical importance that when we finally do get around to updating laws to keep pace with technology, we need to get it right.  In this issue, there are no less rewards at stake than the individual right to oneself and the future of biomedical research.

If anyone reading out there has some insight in regards to how to find an appropriate balance between these competing interests, both of which are worthy of legal protection, please join the conversation.  I’m curious what everyone has to say about the matter.

Now let’s talk about GMOs for a while.  GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are organisms that have been modified specifically through the modern techniques of biotechnology.  It’s actually a really interesting field, and I encourage all of you to read up on some of the techniques scientists can use in the laboratory to move genetic information around in a specific and targeted manner.  I won’t go into the specifics here, however.  It’s not really necessary to understand exactly HOW genes can be modified.  It’s sufficient to know that they can be.

Before I tell you why I think GMOs are both desirable and necessary, let’s have a look at some of the concerns people have about these organisms, specifically when marketed as food crops.  There are several concerns, some valid and some not, and they generally fall into a few broad categories: safety for human consumption, environmental safety, and political and economic consequences.  As we go along, you’ll see that I freely admit there are some legitimate concerns--however, we simply do a basic risk-benefit analysis and find that it’s easy to compensate for what few valid concerns there are.

First, let’s talk about the safety of these food crops for human consumption.  The simple fact of the matter is, there’s no evidence that there is any more danger from these crops than any others.

I’ll start with the assertion that GMO crops can change human DNA.  As RMB pointed out, this isn’t really possible.  DNA is just a molecule, and the DNA sequence of a human is determined before birth, and doesn’t change based on what one eats.  Now, it is true that mutations do occur throughout life, but because the “blueprint” of the human is laid out at the time of conception, all of these changes are localized.  They don’t really change “your” DNA--they are mutation in specific somatic cells.  Every cell has a sophisticated DNA repair mechanism (or actually a series of mechanisms) that do a good job of correcting these mutations as they occur, but a few always slip through.  Almost all of these are benign.  On occasion, they can lead to cancers.  Those are the only kinds of things that cause changes in an individual’s DNA.  Now, how does this relate to GMOs?  The simple answer is, it doesn’t.  Cancer isn’t fully understood, though we do know of certain substances that are carcinogenic (that doesn’t mean they “cause cancer,” as cancer isn’t a single thing--instead, it means they increase the likelihood of mutation in the somatic cells).  If there were any danger to DNA from eating GMOs, it would be of this variety (not some nebulous “changing” of DNA).  However, there’s no evidence (really: none--not a shred) that GMOs are any more likely to cause such a mutation than any other crop.

You must remember that DNA is a molecule.  It is a sequence of nucleotides, which consist of nitrogenous bases (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine--A, T, C, and G) attached to a sugar-phosphate backbone.  Any genetic modification does not change the chemical nature of the gene (a gene being nothing more than a specific sequence of DNA).  What that means is that the DNA of GMOs still consists of the very same nucleotides, just in a slightly altered sequence.  Whenever you eat something, you are consuming a large number of DNA molecules.  They’re broken down in your digestive tract, and the products of this process of digestion are used as the raw materials for the construction of your own biomass.  Slightly different ratios of one nucleotide to another does nothing to increase or decrease potential toxicity of the food product.

Now, in order to build a body, you need more that just DNA.  In many ways, DNA is just the recipe.  It codes for specific protein (proteins are sequences of amino acids) products that result in the complex biochemistry that produces bodies.   Perhaps it is these protein products that are dangerous.  Indeed, if there is to be any danger from GMOs, it will not come from the DNA itself, but from the protein products, just as the danger in any crop would come from the protein products.  And that danger would most likely be more of a general toxicity rather than carcinogenesis.  But here’s the thing.  Wild crops (those you would call “natural”) have random mutations, just as all organisms do.  It’s possible that these crops could produce the toxic product.  GMOs are specifically engineered and tested to ensure that they do not produce toxic products.  Is it possible that, once deployed in the field, they could further mutate and eventually come to produce undesired effects?  Sure, but the same can be said of literally any other food crop, too.  Mutations will happen.  The probability of developing a toxin are extremely remote, so it’s nothing to worry about.  More importantly, GMOs have no more risk of this than any other food product.

To further put the issue to rest, consider that GMOs, before they’re approved for the market, are extremely well tested.  They’re tested by the companies and laboratories producing them (if you don’t trust these companies, consider that there isn’t a very good business in producing products that are harmful to the consumers).  They’re also tested by independent scientists and regulatory bodies.  No tests have ever been done that can demonstrate any added risk in GMOs that is absent in other crops.

I know the phrase “genetically modified” is scary to a lot of people (personally, I find these kinds of technological breakthroughs exciting rather than scary), but the simple fact of the matter is, there is no such thing as an organism that is not genetically modified.  The only difference is that in this case, humans are selecting for and engineering desired traits, rather than simply leaving everything to the evolutionary combination of chance and natural selection.  What’s more, humans have been genetically modifying crops since the agricultural revolution.  We selectively breed food crops.  We hybridize plants to produce desired phenotypes.  The simple truth of the matter is, there is no food item that reaches anyone’s table that is not the product of human engineering of the genome.

Safety of the food products is simply not a good reason to oppose GMOs.  They are perfectly safe.

But what about the ecological concerns?  That’s where there may be some more valid concerns, but I think I can briefly show you why it’s really nothing to worry about.  Basically, all of these issues come down to unintended consequences not directly related to the crops themselves.

First, there is a risk that crops that have been engineered to include pesticides could potentially damage non-target species.  In other words, if someone has engineered a crop to keep a particular kind of insect away, it could be harmful to other species of insects like butterflies.  Indeed, there was some thought that particular GM crops were harmful to Monarch Butterflies.  However, properly controlled studies have found that, in this case, there is a negligible risk, and indeed that deployment of the GM crops has coincided with an increase in the butterfly population.  So that particular scare was nonsense.  Does that mean that there’s no cause for concern here?  No.  It just means that scientists must be careful to consider potential ecological consequences when developing crops.  Indeed, GM crops may be better for insect species than non-GM crops.  How?  Well think of it this way: farmers are going to do whatever they can to keep harmful insects away from their crops.  Traditional methods include spraying pesticides.  But if a nontoxic deterrent is engineered directly into a crop, it can be possible to keep the pests away without actually causing harm to the insect populations.

The second type of unintended consequence is the creation of new selective pressures that drive the evolution of other species.  This is probably the one and only problem that needs to be addressed, and it does not apply only to GMOs either, but to any exotic factor introduced into an ecosystem.  There are two basic types of this that can occur.  First is a rise in secondary pests.  It is possible that a crop is resistant to a particular species of pest could suddenly (in the absence of competition) become particularly attractive to a secondary pest which is not targeted by the pesticide.  Secondly, as has actually happened, herbicide resistance may promote the evolution of other herbicide resistant species.  The idea is that farmers plant herbicide resistant crops so that they can spray for weeds without damaging their desired crops.  If they over-spray, they risk creating a new selective pressure that causes the emergence of weed species that are also resistant to herbicides.  Both of these are valid concerns.  However, both can be addressed by carefully monitoring ecological consequences.  Risk can also be minimized simply by not over-spraying fields with herbicides (or by varying the chemical composition of the herbicides to avoid having a single selective pressure on the weed species).

Then there’s the matter of the possibility of gene flow to neighboring crops.  This does happen, as plants interbreed, and can lead to the introduction of novel genetic material into otherwise unaltered crops.  However, I fail to see the problem here.  First of all, genetically modified crops, as with most crops, are fairly well contained, so while this can happen, it’s unlikely to be a common problem.  Furthermore, unless you have an irrational fear of GMOs, I fail to see why anyone cares.  All it’s likely to do is make the neighboring farm more productive.

If anyone else can come up with other objections or concerns, I would be curious to hear them so that I can do some further research and determine their validity.

With that, we turn our attention to political or economic objections, of which I can think really only of two basic categories.  First is the idea that GMOs are economically harmful to “small” farmers.  Second is a matter that has to do with intellectual property.

The matter that modified crops may be harmful to the farmers of non-modified crops is, as far as I’ve been able to tell, largely unverified.  Probably the most famous of these claims is the accusation that once Monsanto entered the Indian seed market, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide, allegedly due to economic hardship caused by Monsanto.  First of all, while any suicide is tragic, economic hardship is the risk of doing business.  If someone sells a superior product at a better price, there should be no special protections for the competition.

However, there’s good news: it’s a complete myth.  Monsanto entered the Indian market in 2002.  Between 1997 and 2007, there was a rise in suicide rates in India from about 100,000 to 120,000.  However, despite this rise in suicide rates (already hardly the “hundreds of thousands” claimed by GMO opponents), suicide rates among farmers remained constant, at around 20,000 per year.  Indeed, farmers actually benefitted from Monsanto’s entry into the Indian marketplace.  Between 2002 and 2008, farmers’ yields increased by nearly 25%, with corresponding profit increases of about 50%.

So, at least in India, it seems that transgenic crops have been a boon for farmers.  And that’s the way it generally is in other markets as well.  If transgenic crops were to be widely deployed around the world, the only people whose business would suffer would be those silly enough to resist technological advance.  Monsanto, for just one example, does its primary business selling products to farmers.  It’s not just corporate giants, but “Farmer Jim” who benefits from biotechnology, because the farmers are able to buy seeds capable of producing higher yields (and higher profits) at lower cost.

Intellectual property claims are the worst-sounding of the lot.  People claim that companies like Monsanto have filed lawsuits to protect their patents against farmers whose crops were accidentally contaminated by patent-protected crops.  However, this has not happened.  Of Monsanto’s 145 lawsuits against farmers, 11 defendants alleged that Monsanto’s crops had accidentally contaminated their fields, and that they were being wrongfully sued for something over which they had no control.  In fact, Monsanto won all eleven cases, and this defense has never been shown to have any validity at all.  Monsanto’s policy (as with every other biotech company I’m aware of) is not to sue farmers unless the infringement was deliberate.  This is a perfectly reasonable business practice, as biotech companies have a right to protect their patents--otherwise there would be no profit to motivate research.  Incidental growing of patented crops does not land farmers in legal trouble.

Now, here’s why GMOs are essential: we don’t have enough food.  Billions of people around the world are hungry.  Millions die of starvation, many of them children.  Genetically modified food crops are able to grow in locations other crops would not.  Furthermore, genetic modification can allow for higher yields from the same amount of land.

Let me introduce you to Norman Borlaug--The Greatest Human Being Who Ever Lived.  He is one of only seven people to have received a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.  He also received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor.  What did Dr. Borlaug do to receive such honors, and to be known by many (including myself) as the greatest human being in all of history?  He developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat strains, which he then spent his life introducting to Mexico, Pakistan, India, and much of Asia and Africa.  What was the result of this work?  It is generally estimated that his work saved a BILLION lives from starvation.

A BILLION people.  That’s what people who oppose genetic modification of food crops advocate losing.  And with the human population expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, without a new agricultural revolution, that number can only continue to increase.  I don’t see several billion people willing to die of starvation because of a few Westerners with more food than brains.

But the importance of biotechnology and GMOs is not limited to prevention of doom and gloom.  Imagine a world in which the entire world has a surplus of food.  Imagine what we could produce.  Imagine the contribution to world peace!  Or if you prefer to think small, think about the novel food items we could introduce to your local supermarket.  Selective breeding produced fruits and vegetables we like to eat (the desert banana does not even remotely resemble its wild ancestor, for instance)--imagine what we could bring to the dinner table without having to spend so many generations of selective breeding that amounts to little more than trial and error!

What about opponents to GMOs?  They’re not harmless.  As I already mentioned, if they are successful, they will cause a holocaust of starvation in the developing world.  But their effects are closer to home, too.  They cost farmers more money and labor to produce the same yield of crops, which is harmful to local and global economies.  Near and dear to my heart, though, is the effect on science.  Anti-GMO activists have regularly destroyed crops, including those used for research and not actually intended to be food crops.

Activists in India recently had a chilling effect.  They persuaded the powers-that-be to ban a particular genetically modified food crop, even though all evidence is that it’s perfectly safe and generally speaking a good thing.  But that’s not the end of it.  While this only extended to particular food crops, it had a chilling effect on Indian science.  Researchers, who are perfectly within their legal rights to conduct genetic experiments under Indian law, have found that their funding has dried up as everyone is afraid of the politics now.  I should not have to point out that this is disastrous!

That all said, let’s go with a more dramatic change of direction and talk about something completely different: transhumanism.  Transhumanism is basically the perspective that humans can and should be improved through technological advance.  Like any technology, the technologies involved in transhumanism can be used for good or for evil.  Hitlerian ideals of a master race, for instance, could be considered transhumanist, but are not representative of the transhumanist movement, of which I am a member.

To me, transhumanism is just the logical next step of a rational humanist philosophy.  I am first a humanist, and a transhumanist second.  I believe that increasing technological capabilities can and should be used to improve the human condition, both mentally and physically.

We all know Moore’s Law which has to do with the progression of computer technology, and most of us are familiar with Ray Kurzweil’s related Law of Accelerating Returns.  The idea is that technology begets new technology at an increasing pace, such that things that are science fiction today may be science fact in the near future.  Philosophically, I agree.  Practically, I think much of the transhumanist movement is overly optimistic.  We probably will not see the singularity Kurzweil has been waiting for within our lives.  We will probably not see radical life extension anytime soon.  But these are admirable goals to aim for.

Imagine a world in which people live much longer than they do today.  Perhaps a world in which humans can achieve a sort of immortality by uploading their consciousness into a computer system.  Imagine a world in which humans are physically improved and can do tasks only machines can do today.  This is transhumanism, and it’s a good thing.

It seems that LS fears that transhumanism will turn us into the Borg.  Admittedly, because technology is amoral and can be used toward good or evil ends, we must be vigilant.  However, there is no reason to assume the worst, especially when considering that the vast majority of the transhumanist movement share my ideals and philosophy.

Now, I’m unfamiliar with the linked Project 2045, so I can’t comment on that, except to say that at a quick glance, I fail to see what’s wrong with it (except perhaps that they’re overly optimistic about their timeline).

If anyone can tell me why they might object to transhumanism, or even just ask me questions about it, I would be happy to have that discussion.  As it stands, I don’t understand the objections, so I feel ill equipped to lay misconceptions to rest.

Now that I’ve laid out some of my thoughts, let us have another look at that original post that I’m primarily responding to, with my (brief) commentary interspersed:

“This is old news, [RMB].  The transhumanist movement is already well underway.”

If by “well underway,” you mean that there are a lot of people thinking about it, then this is true.  But the fundamental goal for much of transhumanism is radical life extension, which is not within our grasp.  As it stands, we have significantly extended average human life expectancy, but if you think that’s the same thing, then you’re confusing an increasing average for an increasing maximum.  Humans just don’t live much beyond 100 years, and that hasn’t changed throughout human history.  We just don’t die prematurely as much anymore.

I also fail to see how this might be construed as a bad thing.

“Mansanto [sic] and the other elitist corporations”

I get it--Monsanto is the “villain du jour” these days, though I don’t quite understand why.  But I’d like to know what “elitist corporations” means.  As RMB pointed out, I’m not a corporate apologist, but neither am I anti-corporate, and I fail to see anything elitist about biotech companies that can “do good by doing well” and significantly improve the lives of millions or billions of people.

If by “elitist” you simply mean that they value education above superstition, then I can’t speak for the corporations, but I would personally wear the “elitist” badge with pride.

“…are already changing our DNA through GMO crops, especially corn.”

Nope.  As I explained above, this is untrue.  And I’m especially uncertain what corn has to do with anything, as most GMOs are rice or wheat strains engineered to grow in different climates or with an increased yield.  Other improvements have been herbicide resistance or natural pesticides.

“Check out www.2045.com for the global agenda to turn us all into robots.”

Robots?  While I personally welcome the merger of humanity with technology (consider the “smart” prosthetics currently hitting the market and tell me that’s a bad thing), I fail to see this as anyone’s goal.  Robots, by most definitions, are not human, and so humans cannot become robots.  No one is trying to make cornbots, so I really don’t know where you’re getting your information.

“This is not a joke.”

If you’re not joking, then I wish you were.

“Is anybody awake out there?”

Clearly, SOME people are, but I obviously cannot speak for everyone.

Because of the magnitude of what I’ve been talking about, I’ll let the late, great Dr. Borlaug have the last word: “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels.  If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that the fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”