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Thursday, 5 September 2013

A little knowledge ...

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I was struck by this yesterday as I read the comments to a fairly comprehensive article about the hazards presented by certain 'designer' drugs currently returning to popularity among the younger scene. One commentator, responding to someone else who had, rather bluntly, pointed out that people who use drugs of unknown provenance, and die of the effects of bad reactions and impurities, are actually exercising a Darwinian "natural selection" response, came back with a rather ignorant attack about the first commentator dying nastily of cancer "caused by the GMO food you eat".

Recently there have been a number of serious scientific responses to the so-called ecologists and others who have campaigned to have Genetically Modified crops banned on the grounds they MAY cause diseases, spread uncontrollably or decimate insect populations. The irony does seem to escape them that virtually everything we eat today is "genetically modified" in some way. In fact, one reason we see so much Celiac Disease (sensitivity to gluten) is that the wheat we eat today is very different from that cultivated a thousand years ago, and different again from wheat grown even two hundred years ago. Modern wheat, has been developed by selective cross pollination of different grass species over the millennia since it was first cultivated. It is a hybrid, and today does not produce pollen and does not self propagate. However, the result of the wholesale transfer of genes from one grass species to another, and then from one hybridised wheat strain to another, is why the gluten content of modern wheat is high enough to cause allergies.

Another of the major causes of rising allergy sensitivities is pesticide usage. GM crops use far less of this, so the exposure is reduced in the consumer, which is not the case in the normal strains the campaigners don't want replaced. Once again, we hear of the Bio-foods being better and healthier, but, if you use natural fertilisers (cow droppings, pig droppings, etc., you are actually increasing the likelihood of spreading e-coli, listeria and a few other nasties including tetanus. Plus, not using pesticides (so-called natural pesticides are terribly inefficient), means that loss of crops to slugs, beetles, caterpillars and so on reduces yields and increases prices. Bio-food can never produce anything like the volumes of food required to feed the world's current population. Its exponents actually reveal either a naiveté or are concealing the fact they actually want to reduce world populations drastically and return the globe to their idealised vision of a perfect human/natural balance.

What the GM crop developers have done is splice in selected genetic material ( a technique really only possible in the last 40 or so years) to reduce the gluten content, make wheat more resistant to things like Ergot (a toxic fungus now known to have triggered the Salem Witch hunts), to attack by insects and drought. Once again, the hysteria by the anti-GM activists, fuelled by irresponsible headlines like "Frankenfoods given the go-ahead", and even more irresponsibly emotive reporting which highlighted "the risks" without pointing out that all the testing and all the trials had shown these to be almost non-existent was whipped to a frenzy. It followed exactly the same pattern as the anti-innoculation campaigns run by a small group of campaigners and based entirely on their own fear.

As a recent article I read on this subject points out, often the anti-campaigners have a hidden agenda. They are opposed to the commercial interests developing and marketing the GM foods, or the vaccines. They want a world filled with benevolent governments where everything is free to everyone, and hate commerce - so they attack the product on the grounds of "public concern for safety/the environment". The result, in the case of GM foods, is that genetically modified crops which could go a long way to alleviating the regular famines in Africa, are now universally banned from those countries that would reap the most benefit. Rice, which is very low in Vitamin A, but is a staple food in the Far East and many other countries is a major problem. However, the GM version, modified to produce the Vitamin A and address some other deficiencies, is banned, and not grown - ostensibly because of fears over its 'safety' but the reality is the political opposition to the US based firm which developed it.

There is no evidence to support the claims that eating GM foods can increase allergic reactions, rather the opposite, yet throughout Europe the "Greens" campaign against it on the grounds that it MIGHT. Likewise forty years of testing have failed to provide a link to cancer, but, again, the "Greens" shout loudly that one, very specially selective and now discredited trial by an anti-GM campaigner "proves" that there is such a risk. (The trial used specially bred rats that are very susceptible to tumours. They have been 'modified' so they will develop tumours and are generally used to test methods of controlling a tumour. And there must be an irony there, for an anti-GM campaigner to use a genetically modified rat to prove his case ...)

In almost all these campaigns fear is the driver for the wider majority. Few have more than a vague idea of what they are afraid of, or of precisely what is actually involved or modified. None I have met actually knew that the crops they were so keen to destroy don't self propagate, so cannot 'spread' across 'natural' plants and 'destroy the natural diversity'. The focus is always on the fact that some crops have been modified by splicing in segments of viral and bacterial genes, and their battle cry is always 'we don't know what will happen if it mutates'. Actually, the scientists and biologists do have a pretty good idea - that is what all the trials and tests are about. Nothing that can mutate into something dangerous ever leaves the lab now, the lessons of Thalidomide and a few others have been learned by the leading companies involved.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but far too many people today think that they can become experts on a subject by consulting Wikipedia or some other 'source' that reinforces their views. Sadly, it is impossible to debate with these folk, and because the media are currently locked into sensationalism, poor fact checking and emotive reporting, this is a debate that isn't going to happen any time soon. Probably not before all the anti-campaigners have succeeded in triggering the next major famine.  

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