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Your opinion: GMO crop opponents act like snake oil salesmen

I am a practicing family physician and also have considerable additional training and experience in the field of genetics. The most recent claims that genetically modified organisms pose a serious threat to our food supply are promoted by many of...

I am a practicing family physician and also have considerable additional training and experience in the field of genetics. The most recent claims that genetically modified organisms pose a serious threat to our food supply are promoted by many of the same people who warned of worldwide outbreaks of alien organisms if recombinant DNA technology was allowed to proceed. Those claims have been shown to be unfounded in the past 25 years since this technology has been routinely used in labs all over the world. Having failed in these predictions they now turn their attention to GMO crops.

What I find especially reassuring is the fact that GMOs have been used to produce many pharmaceuticals that literally millions of people have injected into their blood stream or under their skin since at least 1979. Since this material bypasses the normal protective mechanisms of the immune system in the throat and the gastric acid and enzymes that destroy essentially all protein products; if GMO products are unsafe, it seems incredible that these medical products have shown no adverse effects.

Insulin is a prime example. Starting in the '70s supplies of insulin derived from the pancreas of slaughtered cattle and swine were falling behind demand. In addition, since these animal insulins are slightly different than human insulin, there had always been some cases of immune reaction to these foreign insulin products. The production of pure human insulin from genetically modified bacteria offered the advantage of an essentially unlimited supply, as well as a product that was unable to elicit an immune reaction. The insulin story is even more instructive today in light of the current panic over mad cow disease in Europe. What if insulin was still being derived from beef pancreas?

There are at least 60-70 pharmaceuticals currently in use that are produced by GMOs. Other examples include Hepatitis B vaccine, TPA for dissolving clots during a heart attack, blood clotting factors for hemophiliacs, and growth hormone for children with a deficiency leading to short stature. Had some of these products been available earlier, tragic complications such as AIDS and degenerative neurologic conditions that were the result of earlier medications could have been prevented.

I think the cost of food is a key ethical point in this whole debate. A few years ago the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded for demonstrating that the poor are at the mercy of food prices and die during famines not for lack of available food in the country, but for lack of sufficient money to purchase food. So the food neurotics of the developed world will not pay a significant personal price for their folly -- they can afford to spend 25 percent of their income instead of 20 percent to indulge their fantasies; but the poor of the world may literally pay for the delusions of these well-fed folk with their lives.

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I realize Monsanto and other biotech corporations are not solely motivated by a desire to provide food for the poor; but the end result of increased production is decreased cost of food. Consider George McGovern's comments in his book on world hunger, "If further efforts to bring the advantages of science to developing countries are thwarted by ill-advised critics, millions of poor people will pay a painful price-perhaps even making the ultimate sacrifice, of life itself."

Or Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize winning agronomist, "Science and technology are under attack in affluent nations, where misinformed environmentalists claim that the consumer is being poisoned by high-yielding systems of agricultural production, including genetically modified crops." Or perhaps Nigeria's minister of agriculture, Hassan Adamu, "It is possible to kill someone with kindness, literally. That could be the result of the well-meaning but extremely misguided attempts by Europeans and North American groups that are advising Africans to be wary of agricultural biotechnology ... If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die." (These are turning out to be prophetic words in view of the effect of the GMO controversy in the current famine in southern Africa)

Some will say that perception is more important than reality and that if people want non-GMO food and can pay for it, then by-golly, we should get on the band wagon and give them what they want. In my opinion, this is the ethical equivalent of spreading rumors of a coming epidemic and selling snake oil as a cure.

Best, MD, is a family physician in Rolette, N.D. E-mail sbest@utma.com

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