Commentary: Medicine vs. food

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Let me share a news flash that caught my attention yesterday.

Okay, so I spent 20 minutes online searching for it; big diff. Point is, the following press release makes a very important point:

“The Leona M. Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is providing a $42 million grant [to establish] a Center for Genomic Medicine to enable scientists in stem cell biology, endocrinology, cancer biology . . . and gene therapy to explore how certain cellular pathways serve as lynchpins for chronic diseases.

“Scientists at the new center will study how genomic networks control stem cell development, with the aim of enabling researchers to manipulate genes to make stem cells useful for regenerative medicine, as well as how disease alters the epigenome, chemical switches on the DNA molecule that influence genetic activity and may explain why patients with similar genetic profiles respond differently to treatment.”

Notice the phrase, “manipulate genes to make stem cells” that hopefully will be useful in treating diseases such as cancer and endocrine disorders. Anyone in the anti-biotech community have a problem with such research? I doubt it.

Furthermore, the genetic manipulation we’re talking about here isn’t the hit-and-miss, trial-and-error techniques associated with conventional plant breeding, in which plants are bombarded with radiation to produce unexpected mutations. Then, if those mutations appear potentially promising, the long, slow process of cross-breeding and selection begins.

This is about scientists identifying very specific genes that control very specific biological functions—such as control of the epigenomic “switches” on the DNA molecule—and then using very precise biotech techniques to trigger the desired changes.

I’m willing to bet the ranch that anyone suffering from one of the diseases such techniques aim to address would opt for the most precise, the most accurate, the most sophisticated protocol possible, especially when their health—and life—are at stake.

So why would those same people, who eagerly embrace the highest levels of biotechnological intervention and understand instinctively that whether it’s surgery, medication or genetic manipulation, the more precise, the better, why would they so quickly turn around and rail at the very same scientific strategy when it’s applied to plants?

It doesn’t make sense.

Not unless you account for two variables: Activist propaganda, No. 1, and the distance—or maybe better to say the proximity—of food to the rituals of our daily lives, No. 2.

Medically muddled

Reason No. 1 is easy to understand. When a relentless campaign of demonizing “Frankenfoods” is aided and abetted by clueless media personalities, the results are predictable. Many people end up swayed by the fear that they’re eating some strange and deadly food ingredient if so much as a billionth of a percent of GMOs (and most people don’t even know what that is) might be present in their bowl of cereal or the box of taco shells.

Reason No. 2 is a little more complex. With respect to medicine, most people’s experience is as follows: We sit in a doctor’s office while he scans inscrutable medical charts and pores over x-ray or MRI images that might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics to the average patient.

Then the learned physician pronounces his or her diagnosis, followed by a prescription for medication, therapy or surgery. Even when a doctor takes the time and makes the effort to explain the pathology we’re dealing with, our grasp of medical terms and treatment modalities is pretty much nil. We take it on faith and trust that the physician is recommending the best course of action.

That’s why we don’t question a research project aiming to manipulate genes in the service of medicine. Few of us know what that entails, but if it cures what ails us, we’re all in.

With food, however, we’re all experts. We know what we like; we know what we won’t eat. It’s one of the few areas of modern life, quite frankly, where most of us actually do exercise some control.

Thus, when we’re exposed to hyped-up tales of foreign proteins that might be lurking in GM foods, or lurid stories of fish genes inserted in tomatoes to turn them into sliceable cubes that are easier to package, we rebel. Tomatoes are just fine as is; why would somebody screw around with the genetics of a vegetable?

And indeed, the single most relevant reason why the biotech industry has shot itself in the foot is that its formidable skills have been deployed to benefit farmers and producers, not consumers. It’s a logical business model to take care of customers first and foremost, but it’s a terrible PR strategy, and genetic engineering has taken a beating in the media as a result.

Maybe a $42 million grant to find ways that “genetically enhanced” food could overcome chronic disease might sway some people in the other direction.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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