Analysis: Organic, All Natural, Chemical-Free, and Genetically Modified Organisms

One of the biggest fads of the current decade must be the rise of people promoting all-natural, organic, chemical-free, non genetically modified foods. The argument sounds quite romantic, healthy, and wholesome, for sure. There’s only one problem—scientifically speaking, it’s largely bunk…all of it. Let’s jump right in and address them one by one.

Organic

This word is often used to describe non-genetically altered foods that use natural fertilizers, like animal dung, as opposed to man-made fertilizers containing what people fear are harmful chemicals.fda_sign_web_14_0_0[1]

In 2002, the FDA passed the National Organics Program (NOP). Which sought to regulate the use of the word “Organic” on foods, defining four labeling category standards:

  1. 100% Organic – No man-made substances contained or used
  2. Organic – 95% or more “organic” content
  3. Made with Organic – 70-95%
  4. Specific Organic Ingredients – Food cannot be labeled organic, but if it contains any organic ingredients, they can be called out.

Everything else: not allowed to use the term organic.

Here’s the problem with the “organic” moniker, the word ORGANic simply indicates that item is an, or was once harvested from an ORGANism—a carbon based life form. All fruits, vegetables, and meats are organic by the true definition of the word.

Calling unaltered foods “organic” is deceptive language used to mischaracterize and stigmatize man-altered foods because some are skeptical about the safety. It serves to give the impression that, biologically-speaking, they are not “real” foods, which they certainly are. If such foods weren’t organic, they wouldn’t have genes to modify in the first place. So by no scientific metric could you accurately label such foods, “non-organic.”

The FDA, being in the business of protecting us through science, should be bound to the scientific method in their decision-making process and use scientifically accurate terms. They’re appointed, not elected officials. Appointed officials are supposed to ignore public opinion, instead making decisions based on facts, because they are shielded from the pressures of getting voter support to get elected—a premise they violate using these improper terms.

The FDA should simply classify them with accurate terms, like maybe “non-synthetically fertilized,” and leave the politics to the politicians.

All-Natural

Have you ever eaten all-natural corn? If your answer is yes, you’re already entering into a falsehood. Corn cannot, nor does not grow in the wild. It is entirely a man-made crop that is believed to have been started about 7,000 years ago in central Mexico by farmers planting a similar plant called teosinte.

Teosinte vs Maize
Teosinte vs Maize

But the fact is that most everything you eat from the fruit and vegetable aisle has been modified by people through cross-pollination for millennia in order to grow higher crop yields or achieve other desirable traits. Almost nothing we consume today exists in its all-natural state—unaltered by humans.

This is also true of meats, whether it be through cross-breeding, or genetic modification, man has found ways to keep them healthier and safer—both to themselves and mankind, such as hornless cattle. The horns aren’t needed as there are no predators to ward off, and they often end up hurting other cows and people with them.

Almost no one wanders the forest looking for wild fruits and vegetables, picks them, then brings them straight to market. Even if people had a jungle in their back yard, which most don’t, it would be a highly inefficient way to do it; you’d spend most of your time looking for food versus picking it. (Ever watch a Bear Grylls episode? He spends hours just to find a cockroach to eat.) This would lead to both ridiculously high food costs and increased starvation by virtue of the extreme low crop yields it would produce.

Bear Grylls eating "who knows what."
Bear Grylls eating “who knows what.”

On a side note, I’d like to point out that almost every disease known to mankind is all natural. So even if you did genuinely find all your food in a jungle somewhere and lead an all-natural lifestyle like primitive man, you’d probably never live past 30 or 40 (also like our primitive ancestors) because something else all-natural would kill you. Ironically for you, something entirely man-made, like many modern-day pharmaceuticals, would easily save your life.

Chemical-Free

Thanks to the efforts of people like Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe, who frequently criticizes food for containing too many “chemicals” in them, people have become chemophobic.

On Vani’s website, she does at least have a disclaimer that effectively admits she doesn’t have any qualifications on her blog’s subject, her education is in computer science, not biology or medicine.

Vani Hari aka The Food Babe
Vani Hari aka The Food Babe

Yet despite the fact that she admits her ignorance, (which is forgivable if she cited credible sources to back up her opinions) people follow her so vehemently, that she has a Food Babe Army!

Why is this? Aside from the fact that she’s visibly attractive, and many studies have shown attractive people tend to garner higher perceived credibility, Vani speaks in a language that people who have little knowledge in science easily understand. Among other things, she often argues that all those chemical names you don’t recognize sound scary. (Hint: Anything you don’t understand would sound scary)

Thankfully, there are people like Yvette d’Entremont aka The SciBabe, who holds a B.S. in chemistry, and an MSc in forensic science, and thus is significantly more qualified in the field. She vigorously debunks people like Vani, hopefully educating those willing to listen, as to why people like Vani are misguided. As Patricia C. Hodgell once wrote, “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.” A mantra Yvette epitomizes with her website.

Yvette d'Entremont aka The SciBabe
Yvette d’Entremont aka The SciBabe

So where does Vani go wrong? When she lashes out at chemicals, and their scary-sounding names, the obvious and simple answer is that EVERYTHING is a chemical. The only thing that isn’t a chemical is a vacuum, and no I don’t mean a vacuum cleaner, I mean the absence of something.

Does dihydrogen-monoxide sound scary? Because it’s water. (Di meaning two, mono meaning one, it’s two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, aka H2O). Does sodium chloride sound bad? It’s just table salt.

An accurate list of all the naturally occurring chemicals in an apple.
An accurate list of all the naturally occurring chemicals in an apple.

See this pic here showing the list of naturally-occurring chemicals that exist in a simple apple. These are not fertilizers added later, nor genetically added traits by man, they’re just what makes up what the FDA would call an organic apple.

While the sentiment to be cognizant of what you put in your mouth is a good thing, Vani’s logic is pure fear-mongering from a point of ignorance, not based on any scientifically-accurate knowledge on her part. Nothing is more dangerous than a charismatic, yet ignorant person on a mission.

The SciBabe has done such a great job debunking Vani’s false claims, I highly recommend checking out her work if you want to learn more.

Genetically-Modified Organisms

This one is by far the most complicated of the four, but I will attempt to lay it out in a way that makes sense without getting too jargony, although it may be a bit oversimplified for brevity’s sake.

“Genetically” refers to an organism’s genes or DNA. The easiest way to explain this, would be to start with the Theory of Evolution.

A human’s DNA has approximately 3-billion base pairs, or variables, in its makeup. But mankind is a fairly new species on Earth. If we go back to the beginning, there would have been a single-celled organism called LUCA (Last Common Universal Ancestor). As the name insinuates, much like you share most of your parent’s DNA and can use that information to trace a family’s genealogy, every living thing on Earth shares some DNA with one another. All the DNA that all living things share would eventually lead you back to LUCA.

Click for more info on LUCA from Georgia Tech Research
Click for more info on LUCA from Georgia Tech Research

So how did life go from LUCA to your humble correspondent? By accident—that’s how.

In my previous post about cancer myths, we discussed how cancer is simply your own cell’s DNA mutating to a new, “non-you” DNA, which then becomes its own organism. That doesn’t happen on purpose. Your body is constantly replacing most of the cells within it that die off (with a few exceptions).

But occasionally, rebuilding a 3-billion piece jigsaw puzzle leads to an error here and there. The likelihood of such errors can be increased by things like UV light from the sun causing skin cancer. Those things that increase the odds of cancer-causing mutations are called carcinogens.

Some of those mutation errors are small and have little if any real effect, or produce something that cannot sustain life and dies quickly because it’s bad code. But some however are viable life forms, and they become a new organism.

While cancer is an example of the negative impacts DNA writing errors can do, all the life on Earth today, including humans, are great examples of mutations having a mostly good outcome. I say “mostly” because it also brought us things like mosquitoes and viruses.

But if LUCA never mutated, LUCA would be one lonely organism—remaining today, the only life on Earth, it’s DNA faithfully replicated over and over again, producing an endless stream of LUCA identical twins.

So what does this have to do with genetically modified organisms?

As was discussed, DNA is mutated or modified, quite randomly and by accident, via natural processes. If these processes lead to a life form that is poorly adapted to its environment, it likely dies an early death. Makes sense, right?

2000px-Mutation_and_selection_diagram.svg[1]
Click to go to Wikipedia page on Evolution
But if nature “selects” a mutated life form that is highly suited to its environment, that life form will thrive. This is called natural selection; the process that made a single-celled organism eventually turn into us.

But those changes take thousands of years, and us humans being somewhat impatient, would like some of those changes now.

As an example, let’s imagine a fictional batch of tomatoes. You plant ten of them, and as they ripen, one seems to stand out as more plump and tastier than the others. There are two reasons why this might be.

Environmental factors affected one more than the other, such as bugs nesting in nine of them, but through dumb luck, avoiding one. As you can imagine though, if they are planted next to one another, it’s unlikely environmental factors would not affect them all equally.

Instead, the more logical reason is that one had a mutation in its genes that simply made it a “better” tomato. I say better, but it’s not better for the tomato, as that tomato is more likely to be eaten. It’s just better for the farmer growing it and the consumer eating it.

Now if you were a farmer 10,000+ years ago, you’d wisely select seeds from that one tomato plant in an effort to make sure all your future tomatoes are more like that one.tomato-plant[1]

Notice I sneaked the word “select” in there? We went from natural selection, to human selection. Where nature did something by accident, your prehistoric farmer would have done that on purpose. No one knows when this may have started, but it’s certain that the earliest farmers would have soon understood this process.

Now imagine in our tomato example, that two tomatoes of our ten were good but in different ways. One was bigger, but the other was tastier. Now our farmer has a problem—which one to pick? The solution is cross-pollination. The plant kingdom’s version of a blue-eyed blond marrying a brown-eyed brunette mating and producing a blue-eyed brunette child.

Here we’ve went from human selection of organisms to the primitive version of genetically modified organisms, because you now have a product that solely exists because mankind wanted it to. This process is believed to be nearly 10,000 years old, and for millennia, has been the extent of man’s knowledge on how best to alter his foods to suit him.

Cross-pollination, while effective, is still dependent on nature and reproduction writing that billion-plus line of DNA code. And as discussed, nature makes mistakes. But the other factor that makes cross-pollination less than ideal is that if we go back to our tomato analogy again, let’s imagine those two good tomatoes also have poor traits we don’t want. Maybe they’re bigger and tastier, but aren’t as easy to grow. Or have a trait that while meaningless to humans, attracts bugs that destroy them. With cross-pollination, you take what nature gives you by mating the two and hope for the best.

Now fast forward to the modern era (sort of). In comes Friedrich Miescher, who on 1869 discovered “nuclein,” what we now know as “deoxyribonucleic acid,” or “DNA.” Then nearly 100 years later, American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick finally observed the double-helix nature of DNA, and the understanding of life’s building blocks began.

Actual Image of Human DNA through an Electron Microscope. (Click image for more information)
Actual Image of Human DNA through an Electron Microscope.
(Click image for more information)

These tiny puzzle pieces in the makeup of organisms are basically binary code (technically it’s quadratic)—on and off switches for traits of every living thing. So going back to our tomatoes yet again, we finally understood that we could map our two good tomatoes’ DNA to understand what each line of code does, turn on or off the traits we did and didn’t want, leaving exactly the tomato we desired.  Just as importantly, adding the ability to make that exact tomato over and over again. We no longer had to hope that nature would write the code we wanted though cross-pollination.

Is that tomato something other than a tomato? No, it’s a tomato with the same basic genetic makeup as any other tomato, just precisely the tomato the farmer wanted. It’s important to understand also that it’s entirely possible that evolution would have created such a tomato on its own through random mutations, we just have the technology to bring it to market now.

Many fear the unintended consequences, which is fair. But there are a couple important things to understand as to why this needn’t be the case.

  • In most instances, nothing has been added to the tomato that makes it dangerous like a synthetic fertilizer might be. A tomato’s DNA was modified (Switches that are already there are turned on or off), not supplemented. Even when code is added, it’s added because scientists understand exactly what that code does, and have every reason to be confident they know what the result will be.
  • The process used to modify the organism’s code, usually a tool called CRISPR-Cas9, modifies only the lines of code the modifier intended. It is incredibly precise, and therefore is far less likely to lead to unintended consequences compared to cross-pollination.g-CRISPR_web[1]
  • There is a rigorous process used to test the modified food before they’re approved for human consumption. Not just by the maker, but then by the FDA. This approval process is far more rigorous than most other things you regularly put in your mouth, whereas cross-pollinated foods we’ve been eating for years, are rarely tested at all.
  • While I’m just a blogger, and shouldn’t be trusted as an authority, the American Association for the Advancement of  Science (The most sterling science organization you could ask for) is quite the authority on all things science. And they said in a 2012 report, “Indeed, the science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe.” I’d trust them before someone like Vani Hari, myself, or the myriad of less famous Facebook experts you might see on your timeline.

The Moral Of The Story

I was listening to the Talking Biotech podcast the other day, and something struck me. Dr. James Dale from the Queensland University of Technology was speaking to a group of people in Uganda about genetically modified foods. And one of the attendees from Uganda stated that he couldn’t understand the argument that people in America are arguing over one good food versus another when in his country, they just desperately want food.

Professor James Dale
Professor James Dale

His point was pretty powerful, that people like Dr. Dale are helping to grow healthy foods in places that couldn’t grow them otherwise, effectively doing something that few charities have ever been able to do efficiently—feed the hungry. Sending people food has never, nor will ever be, the best method to end starvation—it’s far too costly and inefficient. It’s also not a sustainable and renewable source of food since it depends on people to send it.

Designing food that can grow where the needy live, in a land that has otherwise been barren of real food choice previously, saves lives in a far more meaningful way for all future generations that live there.

As someone who values life over willful ignorance, I cannot stand idly by and watch the scientifically illiterate bemoan this most noble of sciences, endangering the lives of those they may help, without calling them out on their erroneous claims. It’s heinous ignorance at best, and willful, dangerous, depraved, and nearly sociopathic misdirection at worst. People’s lives are at stake every day via starvation, modified foods are the best way to save them.

 

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