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The Absinthe Thinker

GM Foods

Subject category: 
Science and technology

In a sentence: Species-preserving technology currently denied large sections of the human race by ignorance, prejudice and misinformation; our grandchildren will never be able to understand what all the fuss was about.


Why is the general public so petrified by the mere thought of genetically-modified foods? Three of the factors that have contributed to this thoroughly illogical phobia are examined elsewhere in this book (see MSG, Marginal Risk and Thalidomide).
Here we will concern ourselves with a fourth factor: namely, the nations parlous understanding of the basics of biology. To be fair, the widespread incomprehension of matters biological is due less to stupidity or sloth than the general decline in academic standards in all subjects over the last 40 years and the fact that biology in particular has been hijacked by successive administrations in order to address a broad range of health and social problems. Tobacco, alcohol, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases as parents proved incapable of teaching their children about these things, civil servants concluded that the only answer was to tackle them in the biology curriculum and if that meant the science got pushed out as a result, too bad; the kids could always catch up when they got older by watching David Attenborough or the Discovery Channel. As a result of these twin erosive influences, it seems that school children sitting GCSE biology today need only scrawl a 40-word essay about how smoking is bad for you and then draw a picture of a condom to be more or less guaranteed an A star. Space in The Absinthe Thinker is limited and we do like to think of ourselves as operating at a slightly more advanced educational level but in order to address the misconceptions about GM foods we have duly compiled below a short remedial course in basic biology. We have also thrown in some modern-style GCSE examination questions on the off-chance that rates of Chlamydia fall and some real biological science is able to make its way back into the syllabus; relevant matriculation boards kindly take note.


Genes are chains of DNA each unit comprising a base, a sugar and a phosphate. They are harmless per se when ingested. The chances of the modified genes in GM foods getting out of your gut and worming their way into your genetic code (gene transference) are very low about as low as a nut falling off your washing machine one morning and your returning home that evening to find that it has rolled up the stairs and neatly screwed itself into the bracket that supports your bathroom mirror.

The real concerns about GM foods relate not to what genes are but to what genes do. Genes express proteins. To make GM foods, scientists take a gene from one organism and put it into another. The prototypical GM food is a tomato containing a gene from a snowdrop. The particular gene in question encodes a protein of the lectin family which is toxic to insects. Harvests of lectin-containing tomatoes therefore not only require fewer pesticides but are also frost resistant. This naturally begs the question that if lectin poisons insects what does it do to our insides? Human beings, after all, dont eat snowdrops.

This would be a concern but for the fact that the human digestive system is a highly evolved, highly efficient protein processing system. The arrival of food in the stomach stimulates the release of enzymes called proteases. It is difficult to convey just how ferocious proteases are to the non-biologist. Put crudely, these guys are the meanest mothers in the gastric swamp. Think piranhas. Within seconds the proteases begin to rip the lectin apart, tearing it bond from bond. Its dismembered limbs are then shovelled into the small intestine where further enzymes finish it off. RIP lectin.

The genetic modification of foods is not new humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Wild grapes are small and bitter. By cross-breeding different strains of grapes over the centuries farmers dramatically improved their flavour. Vintners and brewers did the same with yeasts, constantly creating new hybrids to try out in their fermentation processes. All this genetic modification was conducted in an entirely haphazard fashion and with absolutely no safety precautions whatsoever. None of the individuals concerned had a clue what sort of biohazards they might be creating and nobody checked up on them at the time or ever since. GM foods thus represent a huge advance on traditional methods in two crucial respects: (a) the process is now controlled and focuses on a single gene and (b) the newly created food is tested for safety as opposed to non GM foods which never have been.

GCSE questions:

    1) What are genes? (4 marks)
    a)Chains of DNA that encode proteins
    b)The things that keep your legs warm and where you put your mobile

    2) What is a lectin? (3 marks)
    a)A proteinaceous complex derived from the snowdrop
    b)The wooden thing the headmaster stands behind in assembly

    3) Where do wines, beers and spirits come from? (3 marks)
    a)Fermentation processes
    b)ASDA, Sainsburys etc.

    Grading: 5+ marks = A*; 3+ marks = A; 0 marks = B


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