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Is Nature Ours to Own?

Last week we started talking about GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  I am narrowing our discussion to plants that have had their genetic material (their DNA) altered in a laboratory.  Currently plants are the only organisms that are sold at your grocery store that have been genetically engineered.  Genetic engineering differs from natural hybridization and advanced hybridization to create lasting traits in plants.  The process of genetic engineering takes the DNA from an unrelated plant and inserts it into another.  With respect to the food we eat, generally the DNA from bacteria are used to create the trait that is sought.  We discussed that this is done for a specific purpose to develop a particular trait. 

Don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. There are a great many food-like items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food.. stay away from these.

- Michael Pollan

Before we get into what this specific purpose is, I think it’s a good idea to talk about the debate over patenting nature.  In my mind the discussion around whether a living organism should be patentable is just a distraction.  Way back in 1873 Louis Pasteur obtained a patent on a strain of yeast he used to make beer. That’s the first time in the United States that someone obtained a patent on something originating in nature.  Then in the 1930s our Congress found it necessary to pass the Plant Patent Act which permitted asexually-reproduced plants to be patented.  From that act the practice of hybridization and advanced-hybridization grew until in the 1980s in a very important court case called Diamond v. Chakrabarty the Supreme Court confirmed that seeds could be patented.  Our legislative history and Supreme Court support the practice and I believe it is important to be able to protect one’s inventions, whether they are my inventions or a big corporation’s inventions.  When people invest time, energy and resources into researching and refining products for the marketplace it promotes ingenuity and progress in society.

The question really is, WHY are we changing the genetic make-up of plants?  Should we care?  Nature, herself, modifies the genetic make-up of all living things over time.  That’s what we have come to know as evolution through natural selection.  If nature does it, why shouldn’t humans?  We might help nature along a little by putting the genetic material of one organism into another with the help of science, but why is that a problem?  When we genetically modified corn is it going to cause us to grow a third eye or an extra limb?  What’s the big deal?

Again, be aware of the distractions.  It is easy to get caught up in outrage about nature being patented or to merely dismiss the topic because it appears too extreme.  This is the two sides of how our media portray the issue.  Beware, the simplicity is just subterfuge.  So before we move on, there are two big ideas to clear up when thinking about and discussing organic food and investing time and resources into your everyday purchasing decisions: 

        1.  Forget about patents.  It doesn’t matter.  Nature can and will be patented.  It’s an important part of how the economy works in the United States and around the world.

          2.  It’s ok to modify the genetic material in plants and animals.  Genetic modification happens in three basic ways:  (1) by nature, (2) by hybridization (that’s when we introduce two plants that might not otherwise reproduce together and we encourage them to make friends), and (3) scientific genetic alteration (that’s where we scientifically pluck certain DNA strands from one plant or other organism and put them in another).  The practice of genetic modification is an important development in science and has many applications not relating to agriculture.  For example, it is because of genetic engineering that we have insulin used in medicine and the hepatitis B vaccine and mosquitos designed to prevent malaria.

        So, what’s left?  Why bother with organic food if it’s ok to genetically modify plants and patent the results?  We will continue this story….

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