Posted by jlwile on January 31, 2010
I am back on an airplane, this time on my way to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am speaking at an international education conference there. I did the same conference about three years ago, and I met some really incredible people. The location is nothing to write home about, and I really dislike the food. However, the conference attendees are truly amazing, making this something to which I am really looking forward!
In any event, since I am on a plane again, I am catching up on some of my reading. An interesting article in Chemical Engineering and News caught my eye1. It reported on a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that measured various nutrient levels in rice that had been genetically modified to be more resistant to insects and fungal infections. All three varieties of genetically-modified rice were found to be lacking in certain nutrients. One variety was deficient in vitamin E, another was deficient in protein content, and the last was deficient in key amino acids. The authors say that the study produced
…alarming information with regard to the nutritional value of transgenic rice.
Now I have no problem with genetically-modified crops, as long as they have been put through enough tests to make sure that they are safe for both the ecosystem and the consumer. Such tests are difficult, but certainly not impossible. However, I expect that very little research is done on the nutritional content of such crops. Geneticists tend to compartmentalize genomes, thinking that tinkering with genes involved in immunity won’t affect genes associated with metabolism and energy storage. Clearly this study shows that such compartmentalization is not a realistic approach to understanding genomes.
Anyone who knows me or has seen me in person knows that nutrition is just not all that important to me. I understand the value of good nutrition, but for me, taste rules. I eat the things I like, and I don’t eat the things I don’t like – regardless of nutritional value. I admit this is a short-sighted way to eat, but I would rather live happy than live long – it’s just that simple. So why do I care about this study on the nutritional content of transgenic rice?
Well, it reminded me of something I read quite some time ago in an incredibly interesting book called Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome by J. C. Sanford. Dr. Sanford is a top-line geneticist, credited with such revolutionary genetic inventions as the gene gun, the pathogen-derived resistance (PDR) process, and the genetic vaccination process. Because he is an expert in genetics, he is also a creationist.
In his book, he discusses how silly it is for anyone to think that mutations acted on by natural selection can ever lead to any genetic revolutions. He talks specifically about an area of research with which he was involved for quite some time. Essentially, the research attempted to “speed up” the evolution of plants by exposing them to lots of mutagens and then artificially selecting any mutants that were considered an improvement over the non-mutant versions. He sums up those years of research as follows:
For several decades, this was the main thrust of crop improvement research. Vast numbers of mutants were produced and screened, collectively representing many billions of mutation events…The effort for the most part was an enormous failure…low phytate corn is the most notable example of successful mutation breeding…The low phytate corn was created by mutatagenizing corn, and then selecting for strains wherein the genetic machinery which directs phytic acid production had been damaged. 2
Essentially, he says that while doing such research, he believed in macroevolution. However, his own research showed that the fundamental hypothesis of macroevolution doesn’t work. Mutations (even when acted on by artificial selection) do not produced genetic revolutions. Instead, they mostly produce genetic damage. Like any good scientist, he abandoned the idea of macroevolution when his data clearly showed that it doesn’t work. He is now a young-earth creationist. Why the leap from evolutionist to young-earth creationist? He says that the more he understands the genome, the more he realizes that it is clearly the result of design, and that most likely, the design was recent.
The point here is that Dr. Sanford sees an organism’s genome as a highly-organized, finely-tuned information storage system that was designed by an intellect that far exceeds that of even our greatest scientists. As a result, anytime that scientists “tinker” with it, most likely, the tinkering will not produce something better. At best, it will produce something that is moderately worse, but useful for a specific purpose, like the low phytate corn mentioned in the quote above (it is useful for livestock feeding, but the mutation makes the corn less likely to survive in the wild). This seems to be what happened with the transgenic rice. Scientists beefed up its immune system by tinkering with its genome, but the end result wasn’t necessarily an improvement, as it has a lower nutritional content. So now you have a crop that grows more effectively, but it feeds people less effectively.
We see this happening in other areas of science as well. I remember reading a study about scientists trying to “help” Acacia trees. As I have mentioned previously, these trees are protected by Cregaster ants. The ants live in the hollow thorns of the trees and eat nectar that the trees make especially for them. As a way of saying “thank you,” the ants viciously attack anything that tries to graze on their trees. This means they attack large herbivores (like giraffes), but it also means they attack other insects. When the tree flowers, the flowers produce ant repellant that tells the ants to stay away from the flowers. In the end, this makes the flowers the only safe place for a pollinating insect to land. 3 Obviously, this is well-designed system that enhances both the trees’ survival and their reproductive success.
Well, the authors of the study thought they would “help out” the Acacia trees by fencing them in. The idea was that these poor little ants couldn’t really protect the trees from large herbivores, so this would “help” the trees and the ants. Well, it turns out that the fenced-in trees were significantly less healthy than the surrounding trees that weren’t fenced in.4 In addition, there were fewer ants living on those trees. Once again, the scientists “tinkered” with a well-designed system that they didn’t really understand, and they ended up doing more harm than good.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that transgenic crops are bad or that transgenic research should not be done. I am also not saying that scientists should stop trying to “help out” other organisms. I am just saying that all such projects will most likely meet with limited success, because the organisms have been designed by God, and it is very hard to improve on something that such a marvelous Designer has made. Most likely, the best we can hope for is to partially fix what thousands of years of mutations have destroyed.
1. SLR, “Key Nutrients Decline in Transgenic Rice,” Chemical & Engineering News Jan 18, 2010:24
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2. J.C. Sanford, Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome, p. 25, 2005
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3. Willmer PG and Stone G, “Ant deterrence in Acacia flowers: how aggressive ant-guards assist seed-set,” Nature 388:165-167, 1997
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4. Todd M. Palmer, et. al., “Breakdown of an Ant-Plant Mutualism Follows the Loss of Large Herbivores from an African Savanna,” Science
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