Thursday, June 6, 2013

Two very disturbing developments

Recently, disturbing news involving genetics has been making headlines in the US.

On May 29, the US Department of Agriculture announced that test results of wheat plants growing on an Oregon farm confirmed the presence of genetically-engineered wheat, despite the fact that genetically-engineered wheat is not approved for human consumption.

Here is a link to the USDA's press release on the discovery.

This discovery is disturbing in that it reveals the clear possibility that genetically-modified wheat has already entered the food supply, unbeknownst to farmers, regulators, or consumers.  Most commentators are assuming that this GMO wheat is somehow descended from genetically-engineered plants that the USDA allowed to be "field tested" in sixteen states from 1998 through 2005.  

How this wheat spread to fields under cultivation that were not part of the test, and how many such fields are now contaminated, is unknown.  What is known, however, is that it not only did spread but that wheat being grown today is descended from this genetically-engineered variety.

Here is a recent article from the New York Times downplaying the safety concerns of this discovery, saying "Absent any proven health threat, the most common fear is economic — that organic farmers will lose crops, or that food exports to countries that ban imports of gene-altered products will suffer."  In other words, farmers and exporters and other business entities participating in the sale of wheat are the only ones with anything at stake here: no one who consumes such wheat has anything to worry about. 

However, that statement is debatable.  Numerous previous posts have looked at the subject of genetically-modified food, such as this one and this one, and noted that this issue is related to the overarching theme of this blog, which is that individuals should consider the evidence for themselves about important subjects.  

The safety of genetically-modified foods is far from a settled issue.  In fact, there are serious reasons to investigate this question further.  Even if the safety of such foods were settled beyond any doubt (which it is not), there may be reasons of conscience, religion, etc. why some individuals may wish to refrain from consuming genetically-modified foods, and the fact that genetically-engineered wheat may be entering the food chain without their knowledge means that consumers have a stake in this issue, and not just the growers and the exporters as the New York Times story alleges.

Further, the "safety" of this genetically-modified wheat appears to be based on the assertions of its developer, according to the USDA press release.  The USDA release states that:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) completed a voluntary consultation on the safety of food and feed derived from this GE glyphosate-resistant wheat variety in 2004.  For the consultation, the developer provided information to FDA to support the safety of this wheat variety.  FDA completed the voluntary consultation with no further questions concerning the safety of grain and forage derived from this wheat, meaning that this variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market.
This is a very illogical paragraph.  It asserts as a conclusion that "FDA completed the voluntary consultation with no further questions concerning the safety of grain and forage derived from this wheat, meaning that this variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market."  The conclusion that "this variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market" does not follow at all from the fact that the "FDA completed the voluntary consultation with no further questions."  

All we can conclude from that is that the FDA decided not to question the developer any further.  They could have decided that for a number of reasons, but it does not follow automatically that we must conclude from this that the GMO wheat is "as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market."

The fact that wheat is used in a tremendous variety of foods, and that the US exports a huge amount of wheat to nations around the world, makes this a very important and disturbing development.  In fact, wheat has been referred to as "the staff of life."  This particular phrase may well descend from the venerable English translation of the 105th Psalm, verse 16, in which we read that, "he called for famine upon the land: he brake the whole staff of bread."

Elsewhere in the news, the US Supreme Court this week decided in a case entitled Maryland v. King that individuals who are arrested may be compelled to yield a DNA sample, which can then be entered into federal crime records.  The case was decided by a vote of 5-4, with an eloquent dissent written by Antonin Scalia, in which he asked why an arrest entitled such an invasion, when an arrest does not entitle a warrantless search of someone's house, for example.  "But why are the 'privacy-related concerns' not also 'weighty' when an intrusion into the body is at stake?  (The Fourth Amendment lists 'persons' first among the entities protected against unreasonable searches and seizures)" (page 35 of the pdf file of the decision).

Remember that an arrest is not a conviction -- a person who is arrested is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.  The Fourth Amendment codifies the inherent right of all men and women to the security of their persons, houses, papers and effects, and declares that this inherent right shall not be violated except by a legally-issued warrant, and that such warrant must specifically -- in fact, "particularly" -- describe exactly what is being searched and what particular person or thing the searching agent is looking for.

This new decision completely overturns that requirement, allowing the state to compel an arrested person (who is innocent until proven otherwise) to give up his or her DNA, which will then be searched not for anything in particular.  It is almost as if the court had ruled that agents could come snooping through someone's home, not looking for anything in particular but just for anything that might tie the resident to any crime, except that snooping through someone's DNA is even more intrusive, at least according to the dissent authored by Scalia and signed by three other justices.

The entire decision can be read online here, with Scalia's dissent beginning on page 33 of the pdf file.

The majority opinion asserts, "By comparison to this substantial government interest and the unique effectiveness of DNA identification, the intrusion of a cheek swab to obtain a DNA sample is a minimal one" (page 27 of the pdf file). 

So, instead of saying, "Papers, please," arresting agents can now say, "open wide" and gather a DNA sample from a citizen, which is a far more comprehensive form of identification than anything seen in the past.

Thus we now have a situation in which citizens apparently do not have a right to know the genetically-modified status of the wheat in their pizza, but the government has the right to demand to know the entire genetic content of an individual who is arrested by authorities.

These developments highlight the importance of thinking for yourself, and not simply accepting at face value every assertion made by the "experts."