Recently I've been following the debate over genetically modified (GM) food, and it's done more to ruin my appetite than Weight Watchers, the Food Police1, and the latest fad diets combined. I hope nobody gets the bright idea to 'improve' chocolate. It would mean the end of civilization, as far as I'm
The whole idea of GM food has a lot of people worried. Many view it as a natural and beneficial development of existing plant breeding, while others say that we haven't had enough time to assess its risks and benefits. The latter group fears that the consequences of our tweaking won't be evident for some years, at which point there will be no turning back.
First the good news: there is some interesting work going on. Scientists at the Nara Institute of Science Technology in Japan have created coffee plants with beans containing 80 percent less caffeine than normal plants. Coffee brewed with these beans should taste more like the 'real stuff' and would be a boon for jittery coffee lovers. Scientists in Australia have developed a genetically engineered grass that lacks two common hay fever allergens, good news for the itchy-eyes and runny-noses crowd. And biochemists in India have come up with genetically modified potatoes, called 'protatoes', packed with 30 percent more protein and increased amounts of amino acids. If all goes well, later this year the government will distribute them as a cheap source of nutrients. In a world where many are malnourished or starving, this is no small benefit.
One of the more well-known Frankenfoods is Bt-corn, so called because it has been engineered to produce a protein called the Bt delta endotoxin, which kills the European and south-western corn borer. The endotoxin is produced by genes from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, and is highly selective and generally not harmful to other insects. For this reason it is considered safe for humans and other animals. Bt has been available as a commercial microbial insecticide since the 1960s, has an excellent safety record, and can be used on many crops until the day of harvest.
But after that it starts to get dicey. Despite assurances from scientists and producers of GM foods, we are already starting to see problems that they swore wouldn't exist:
Recent reports say that we're producing 'super weeds' resistant to the powerful weed killers that some GM crops were engineered to tolerate. This means that larger quantities of weed killers, not less, will be needed in GM-crop fields. For example, up
to five weed species have been found with resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, best known as Monsanto's Roundup. The super weeds do not contain genes from the GM crops. Instead they are the progeny of tough weeds that were not killed off by the herbicides.
Similarly, we're not only breeding better weeds, we may also be breeding better bugs. Instead of controlling pests, Bt-corn may increase the numbers of bugs that can tolerate it by killing off the weaker insects and leaving the stronger ones to reproduce. The Bt toxin, a commonly used external pesticide, might become worthless to other farmers who could have used it sparingly for decades.
DNA from GM foods is indeed finding its way into ostensibly non-GM plants. A new study found biotech corn genes mixed with maize DNA in Mexico. According to the study, pollen from biotech crops can not only fertilize plants of the same species, but can also blend its genes with related species, like weeds. Researchers conclude that farming practices will be as important as technology in managing GM crops; domestic and wild plants need to be well separated and fields must be carefully weeded.
This is all well and good, but who is going to educate insects, birds and rodents on the importance of separating GM and natural crops? And who will stop the wind from blowing pollen from one field to the next? To make matters worse, we're already seeing the beginnings of a black market in illegally-created GM plants. Some farmers in India are
cross-breeding Monsanto's insect-resistant cotton with local plants to create their own GM varieties.
Decisions about the use of genetically modified foods should be based on real data created by science, rather than bland assurances from politicians and corporate bigwigs. Unfortunately science is done under tightly controlled conditions, and the real world is anything but controlled. At this point many people and a number of governments are refusing to blindly accept GM foods. The merits and the fates of these products remain undecided.
Another Butterfly Effect
The debate over GM food took off in the United States when a 1999 study found up to 44 percent mortality among Monarch butterfly larvae that consumed milkweed leaves that had been dusted with GM pollen. Subsequent research, though, found the pollen's effects to be negligible. Only one type of the genetically modified corn, known as Bt-176, was found to pose a threat in concentrations low enough to be found outside of the laboratory, and this variety was expected to be phased out in the United States by this year.
But the plight of the Monarchs had caught the public imagination. They're decorative insects and they have an interesting lifestyle. The female lays her eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves which are the butterflies' sole food source. After the eggs hatch, the larvae eat for a couple of weeks until they're about two inches long. Then they spin themselves green and gold cocoons and hang out for a couple more weeks, after which they emerge with vivid orange, black, and white wings. Most predators have learned that the monarch butterfly makes a nasty snack. Both the caterpillar and butterfly are full of milkweed toxins and are poisonous to predators.
The Monarch living in the north and central parts of the United States cannot survive the cold winters, so it takes its cue from migratory birds and flies south in autumn. This fragile insect can travel up to three thousand miles as it heads for Baja California and Central America. Although these butterflies look like adults, they do not reach sexual maturity until they arrive at their winter feeding grounds. Come spring they fly back north, where they reproduce and the cycle begins again.
The Aztecs 2 believed the Monarch butterflies to be the reincarnation of their fallen warriors, wearing the colours of battle.
Food of the Gods
The Aztecs and the Maya3
were great consumers of xocatl, or chocolate, a drink made from ground fermented cacao beans, hot water, honey, and a cinnamon-flavoured bark (canela) native to Mexico and Mesoamerica. The Aztecs believed that drinking chocolate would bring great wisdom, understanding and energy. The Maya had a lifestyle many would envy - they consumed chocolate at every meal. It was the beverage of common people and kings alike. In fact, the scientific name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao - 'cacao, the food of the gods'. According to Spanish accounts, the Maya enjoyed their hot chocolate thick and foamy. While
standing, Maya poured the chocolate drink from one vessel to another on the ground. When dropped, the fatty cacao butter produced a thick head of rich, dark, chocolate foam - the most coveted part of the drink.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus4 was given some cacao beans, which he took back to Spain. Not much came of it: nobody knew how to prepare them. Then in 1519 the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez descended upon the Aztecs. The Aztecs were convinced that Quetzalcoatl5 had returned as prophesied and they tried to get rid of him by plying him with chocolate. This didn't work. Cortez and his invaders overthrew the Aztecs, killing Montezuma6 and destroying his capital city, and they took the chocolate back to Spain. This time they did know what to do with the cacao beans, and the rest is history.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is currently hosting an exhibit that explores the ecology, history, economics and worldwide allure of chocolate. One item on display in the exhibit is a ceramic 'teapot' with chocolate residue whose age suggests that the Maya, and their ancestors, may have been gobbling chocolate as far back as 2,600 years ago, pushing back the earliest evidence of cacao use more than 1,000 years. This shows that people know a good idea when they taste it; they also know a bad idea when somebody tries to feed 'em one. I hope producers of GM food are paying attention.
M-m-m-m: chocolate. Maybe I'm hungry after all.