You are not a thing so much as you are a process. You start with one cell and you split from there. Your cells split continually until you finally look like... well, you. The process doesn't stop there, of course. The process of changing continues throughout our lives.
What we eat and drink plays a large role in this process. Part of our food becomes part of us, and makes living, growing, healing, and aging possible. If you eat food that your body can't properly digest or integrate, you often quickly become sick. If you eat food laced with toxins, the toxins collect in the fat cells of your body until eventually they pose a danger.
The old saying eventually comes true: We are what we eat. Eventually, some of us are toxic.
Given food's endless importance, the debate surrounding biotech altered food is expected. Despite the world's growing dependence on packaged food (much of which is downright unnatural), a vast majority of our food still comes from just one place: the ground. Most all food is grown from the earth and is of the earth, but if you believe that most of it is "natural," think again.
We've long altered our food
Mass agriculture has long depended on pesticides, herbicides, and hundreds of other man-made chemicals, traces of which end up in food. Meanwhile, most meat products have been injected with hormones or other unnatural chemicals, and exposed to various pollutants (such as mercury in fish).
One generation ago the largest problem facing the world's most populous countries, including India, was mass starvation. That potential disaster was sidestepped by much of the world thanks to The Green Revolution of the 1960s. The Green Revolution was largely made possible with the aid of fertilizer and other chemicals, but it wasn't just chemicals. Vast gains were made by breeding different species of plants together to make new ones, or by using only plants with desired characteristics, thereby forcing a speedy Darwinian evolution to result in sturdier crops.
A worldwide boom in grain was largely the result of breeding plants with shorter stems, because the shorter stemmed plants can support more and heavier grain seeds per stem.
Man's interference with agriculture goes back much further than The Green Revolution, however. More than 300 varieties of corn exist. For generations we have mixed corn seeds to create new breeds of corn that grow stronger or larger. Tomatoes, apples, potatoes, and various berries have all been altered by man's nimble hand as well, resulting in some of the most popular and sturdy breeds sold today.
But agri-biotech is a new game
Mixing existing species of plant life isn't the same as biotech-altered food, though. Agri-biotech means introducing new and alien genes to a crop. Some biotech crops are made to release their own insecticides, while others are made to withstand a heavy spraying of weed killer. I admit that both alterations in a crop disturb me, but I also admit a lack of in-depth knowledge regarding both.
In cases that sound much less threatening, some biotech crops, such as rice, are engineered to produce vitamin A, which rice lacks, in order to end malnutrition and blindness in countries such as China. Several other studies are underway to introduce various vitamins and nutrients to popular crops that otherwise lack them in order to benefit the population, much like fluoride is added to city water supplies.
Adding vitamin A to rice to help stop 2 million children from dying of malnutrition and 500,000 more from going blind each year sounds like a great improvement, and other crop improvements sound equally promising -- including the ability to increase yield and lessen starvation. A sensible public can't argue with the attraction of these possibilities. Therefore, the public outcry over biotech food is mostly due to fears of the great unknown, namely: What are the long-term dangers of eating crops that have been altered with alien genes? We don't have an answer because the technology is so new.
Weighing risk and reward
Many people are trying to stop the spread of biotech food due to their unspecified fear, but as the International Herald Tribune wrote on June 11, "The genie is already out of the bottle." The paper went on to say, "More than 100 million acres of the world's most fertile farmland were planted with genetically modified crops last year, about 25 times more than just four years earlier." Add to that "black market" biotech seeds, commingled seeds, and wind-blown pollen, and the result is unavoidable: Genetically altered crops are here to stay, and are spreading rapidly.
It's ironic that in a world that has thousands of man-made chemicals circling in the air, in the water and in the soil, and in a world where beef is injected with hormones, where many food products are made in factories without natural food involved at all, and where crops are soaked in fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers, we're most concerned with biotech crops -- crops that use natural substances but in new ways. I admit that before I began to study the issues of agri-biotech, I was against genetically altered food. However, now I am much more neutral or at least open-minded on the issue.
I believe that genetically altered food has the potential to improve the world in many ways, while also greatly decreasing our use of farming chemicals. However, I also recognize that unknown risks exist, both for people and for nature (and "nature" is increasingly hard to define). Whatever thoughts a person has about this topic, attacking the leading agri-biotech companies -- including Aventis (NYSE: AVE), Monsanto (NYSE: MON) and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) -- isn't a solution. (Tom Jacobs recently wrote about the industry's woes.) We need to continue learning about the issues, rather than attacking the unknown.
Nobody knows yet what biotech food will ultimately mean to the world -- good or bad -- but what are your thoughts on the topic today? Share your fury or love for genetically altered food, a potentially large Rule-Breaking industry.
P.S. Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI) holds a conference call today to discuss its gene database, which is now free of priorly exclusive contracts with drug partners, meaning that the data can be sold anew. HGS wants to monetize the database at considerably higher dollar amounts.
Jeff Fischer has a box of organic fruits and vegetables delivered to his home every week, and now he wonders if it's really all organic. You can view his portfolio online because the Fool has a full disclosure policy.