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Howard's End: You Say Tomatoes, I Say Tomatoes

You would have thought that New Zealand was about to embark on World War III if you were listening to talkback radio about the release of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification report. When we start fooling with Mother Nature, it doesn't seem to matter what is true, but what people believe to be true. Maree Howard writes.

The release of the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification seems to be dividing the country as much as the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour, the nuclear free New Zealand issue and our defence arrangements.

On the one side there are those that say genetically engineered food and medicine products are largely responsible for the dramatic increase in life expectancy and healthier lifestyles; that bio-engineering has doubled the global food supply while using less land; that migrating birds can bring and deposit genetically modified foods (and weeds) anyway.

On the other side, there are those that say not enough is known about the environmental impacts; that GE and organic systems cannot safely exist side-by-side; that GE trials should only be conducted in a controlled laboratory atmosphere; that our future food security should not be subject to the whims, profits and manipulations of large companies.

These are good points from both sides.

But the reality is that it's not the gene that confers a 'survival of the fittest' advantage, it's the protein (or proteins) that the cells produce.

So it might be instructive to examine a specific example of how 'gene splicing' was used to provide plants and animals with the means to make proteins that they need to survive.

This is the kind of genetic engineering which seems to be causing the most aggro across the nation.

Monsanto had an effective weed killer, Roundup, that also killed crops like soybeans and corn. They tried, but couldn't simply modify the plant genome to make it tolerant of Roundup. But, what Monsanto did find was a common bacteria in the soil that continued to live happily even when soaked with Roundup.

So they then inserted that whole bacteria genome into the corn and soybean genomes.

What happened was that Monsanto's Roundup-ready genetically engineered plant is then capable of making two slightly different enzymes; - the plant's original enzyme making capability not being Roundup tolerant but the added bacterial capability is.

As a result, with a little help from its spliced bacterial DNA, the plant grows even when treated with Roundup herbicide.

Roundup-ready corn has been approved for sale in the United States, Canada and Japan, but it hasn't been approved in Europe.

But - and it is a big but - trace amounts of Round-up ready corn were found in other non-modified corn shipped to Europe.

That raises a huge issue. Could it be at all possible that we already have genetically modified seed in New Zealand which has arrived in other seed and been planted by mistake?

You might be wondering at this point, how a gene from a bacteria could be inserted into the genome of a corn stalk or soybean plant. Well, it turns out to be a two-way street - not the original dogma that a single gene 'coded' for a single protein, - the one way street - by which there was no mechanism from which a protein could influence the gene.

We have about 30,000 genes but 150,000 proteins in our body. So if one gene codes for one protein, where the hell do all those other proteins come from?

For me, I go for the guaranteed food security of the Nation, - every time.

I definitely don't like the idea of seeds being able to be 'modified' so that they don’t reproduce and I am captured by seed companies into buying their seed year after year. That's what food security means to me.

I know it's subjective, but I don't like the idea of genes from one species being sliced, diced and spliced into another either.

While I don't mind controlled laboratory trials for genetic engineering and I don't mind genes of the same species being spliced together, or even a graft of one plant to another to produce a stronger and more productive plant, there is just something creepy and unreal about food which might contain something which is not true to label - a tomato should be a tomato.

Our food supplies are less safe when companies continue to merge into one big conglomerate and now, with the new mood for government/company partnerships, we are simply becoming far too reliant on imported food over which we have no control.


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