Altered Genes, Twisted Truth
Steven M. Druker
Distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing
This tome has received rave reviews from a number of luminaries, described as one of the most important books of the last fifty years, a compelling page-turner. I can’t promise this would be a page-turner for everyone but it does a fantastic job of clearing the fog surrounding the murky topic of genetic engineering. Druker gives a detailed blow-by-blow account of how GMO food has been foisted on the world as foretold in the book’s subtitle: “How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government and Systematically Deceived the Public.”
One key to success in the approval of GMO food is corruption at the FDA. Not only did the agency ignore many of the scientific details, they ignored the law. Contrary to popular belief, there is no legal requirement for consumers, FDA, or anyone else to prove new foods or additives are dangerous. Rather, the producers of the new Frankenfoods must prove that they are safe. That has not even remotely been accomplished. One of the favorite industry arguments is that genetic modification is not only safe but can’t be dangerous. One of the first instances of genetic tinkering that was released for public consumption was an L-tryptophan supplement. It was a disaster. People died. Others were made severely ill.
In another case, Germans developed a soil bacterium called K. planticola that they hoped would increase ethanol production. When put to the test, all plants exposed to it died. Because K. planticola is involved in the root systems of all plants and multiplies rapidly, some scientists believe that its release into the wild could conceivably wipe out all life on the planet. So much for the claim of inherent safety of GMOs.
The Reagan era of relaxed regulation abetted GMO acceptance nearly everywhere in this country. Industry also managed to win the favor of prestigious scientific institutions like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It has gotten to the point where anyone who questions the wisdom of genetic engineering is quickly and viciously labeled anti-science. Those who issue such statements seem not to notice the obvious hypocrisy. How dare you question our sacrosanct scientific paradigm, you unwashed heathen? Science in the U.S. for the most part no longer studies different views objectively but picks the one that suits the prevailing agenda and makes the most money. The science card has been played to the hilt. It has become a religion. The NAS headquarters is referred to as the temple of science.
Eisenhower made a well-known and prescient statement about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. That was just part of a larger, perhaps more important point. He spoke of the rapidly increasing interconnection between scientists and government, and the danger that public policy would become if captive to a scientific-technological elite.
Druker details many arguments that reveal the insanity of genetic engineering. It is the technological argument he makes toward the end of the book that I find most compelling.
Most would agree that the analogy comparing DNA to computer software is about as good as we can do. I think most would also agree that comparing human-generated software to DNA code is like comparing a paper airplane to the starship Enterprise. The difference is actually more extreme than that but that’s the best I can articulate.
Druker goes into some detail describing how software is developed, maintained and repaired. As a computer engineer with much experience in the field I can certify that he is right on. He has done his homework well. Newbie software programmers are prone to writing what we call spaghetti code. Spaghetti code is very unstructured, complicated and unreadable, even to the person who wrote it. The code is so interconnected and elaborate that even the tiniest change can completely wreck it.
Software companies rigorously avoid such code because it is impossible to work with. They have developed ways to structure code using manageable subroutines with well-defined functions, inputs and outputs. The longest and most difficult part of the software development process is not writing the code but testing and debugging it. Changes and corrections of bugs have to be carefully and extensively tested. If you don’t understand the code thoroughly, you cannot and will not do it right. Even when you understand the code, things can go horribly wrong. Reputable software developers carefully store copies of previous versions of programs because, despite the utmost care, a change to a program can result in such a mess that it is easier to go back to a previous version and start over than it is to fix the fix.
As I pointed out earlier, to say DNA code is complicated is a gross understatement. It turns out that Mother Nature is the ultimate spaghetti coder. Richard Strohman, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley called it “transcalculational,” which is a mathematical term for mind boggling. DNA sequences will do different things depending on where they are in the strand. They can be turned on and off by epigenetic factors. It took years and the development of a few generations of supercomputers to map the human genome. For many years most of the DNA was considered junk until they figured out that it is not junk. It is very important.
If that’s not complicated enough, in recent years they have discovered that DNA codes have several levels of meaning. One DNA code not only specifies amino acids but also transcription factor recognition sites. What is that? As I said, it’s complicated. We have one language written on top of another language. This is a feature software engineers never dreamed of and multiplies the complexity by orders of magnitude. Codons with two functions are called duons. There may even be codons with three functions, which would be called trions (add a few more orders of magnitude of complexity). There may even be codons with five functions. They would be called quintons. And then there are bioengineers who think they can intelligently improve on this code! They would be called morons. Steven Druker correctly compares what they do to computer hacking, not engineering. I imagine that computer hackers have a better notion of what they are doing than bio-hackers.
Seriously, anyone who thinks for a second that they can understand and successfully modify such code is truly foaming at the mouth, barking mad. It is hard for me to imagine that history has ever seen such a transcalculational case of arrogance mixed with idiocy. Scientists in related fields have fallen for this lunacy. Richard Dawkins says, “The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth… [genes] can be carried over into another species …” And this guy is a leading scientist in his field?
There are speculations about the psychology behind the madness. Druker proposes that some scientists are driven by a moral imperative to feed the world. I mentioned religious fanaticism earlier. Druker points out that conventional breeding techniques have been shown to do better what biotechnology claims to do. I think we also have to consider the money-obsessed psychosis that permeates all corporations. My thumb is UP for this book, not for GMOs.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2015