The Billings Outpost

Genetically modified foods? They’re all around

Strawberries are not as sweet as they once were. We know that for a fact. Old women have been telling us so for 100 years.

Last week, my friend LaBeau and I were playing cards and solving the world’s problems.

“You know,” sez he. “I learned that Heinz uses genetically modified tomatoes in its ketchup [EDITOR’S NOTE: Heinz says it uses no genetically modified ingredients]. I asked the grocer if he had any old-fashioned ketchup made without GM tinkering.”

What did he say? I wondered.

“He said you can’t buy anything that doesn’t include GM ingredients.”

What do you think should be done?

“The government ought to do something about it.”

“Maybe it has. Maybe Uncle Sam is the instigator of all this GM idiocy.”

I dealt the cards while LaBeau fumed. I could see his jaws growing tight.

I reckoned it was my job to lighten his mood. I told him GM crops had doubled production of rice, wheat, corn and other comestibles. GM food has saved the lives of starving millions.

“Do you think it’s worth it?” he asked, eyes blazing.

I think I do, I said.

“Have you tasted those store-bought tomatoes recently?” LaBeau wanted to know.

I never buy store-bought tomatoes, I said.

“Well, there you go,” he said.

In May a patch of GM wheat was found in a wheat field in Oregon. Wheat farmers demanded to know how it got there. They wanted the government to stick its nose in their business and tell them.

The unexpected GM wheat was tampered with. It was engineered to resist poisoning by the powerful herbicide Roundup. An agriculturalist could spray Roundup all over his wheat fields and it would kill nasty weeds while the grain thrived.

“Roundup ready” sugar beets have increased tonnage and relieved farmers of the expense of hiring migrant workers to weed the crop by hand. A new GM rice comes with a bonus of Vitamin A. From 250,000 to 500,000 children go blind every year for lack of vitamin A in Africa and Southeast Asia. Half those kids die within a year.

“Those Southeast Asians are Vietnamese, aren’t they?” LaBeau asked.

“Yes, I guess so,” says I.

“Aren’t they the ones who killed 60,000 Americans?”

I left the table to fetch the coffee pot.

LaBeau is not alone in his distaste for GM food. Many, maybe most, folks share his view. There are no old women remarking, “Mmm. I just love the taste of these GM strawberries.”

The notion that strawberries have lost their sweetness over the years probably has some validity. The sweetest strawberries are still the tiny wild ones.

The plant depends upon birds to spread its seed. A robin gobbles a wild strawberry, the seed goes through the bird’s GI tract and falls to earth, germinates, grows and produces more fruit. The bird can pick at the sunny side of a strawberry but most of the garden-raised strawberry (now the size of a golf ball) is hidden from view and inaccessible.

Wild strawberries restrict their fruit to bird-bite size. The process is called natural selection, an ancient form of genetic modification.

Wheat, too, profited from GM tampering. Einkorn, wheat’s wild ancestor, ripened on a brittle stem. Wild wheat would fall from the stem at the slightest touch. The first critter passing by would scatter the grain over an area the size of a throw rug.

Our ancestors recognized that the heads of some einkorn plants did not shatter. They kept the shatterproof heads, planted them and captured the gene that made the einkorn grain stick together. By 8,500 years ago, the wild grain converted, bit by bit, into modern wheat. This process is called artificial selection.

Artificial selection can be credited with producing apples that taste like they are seasoned with sugar and cinnamon, Holstein cows that give four buckets of milk per day and are hated by farm boys and girls across this genetically modified land, cucumbers as big as pumpkins and pumpkins as big as Hereford bulls.

Development of modern grains provided a storable, long-lasting food source.   Wheat or rice in a silo allowed the pioneering hunter gatherers to think instead of working all the time, time to invent gravity, pyramids and more genetic modification.

A brief disclaimer: LaBeau is neither as stubborn nor uninformed as he is portrayed above. He is also a much better card player than indicated. I have never beaten him in a rummy game. I doubt that I ever will.

How, you ask, can you libel him so unmercifully? Easy. I have a column. LaBeau doesn’t.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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