Imagine that I’m a mad scientist (or perhaps just a geneticist who doesn’t blink an eye while fiddling with nature’s design) and I want to see what happens when I introduce substantial genetic changes into a chimpanzee.
In my experimentation, I double the chimp’s height, change it’s hair color to yellow, induce mutations to change eye color, give it the ability to see better at night, increase muscle strength in its lower body so that it can jump long distances, and several dozen other changes. The end result looks different, acts different, has changes in physiology, its capacity to tolerate heat, cold, light, nutritional requirements, etc. Our chimp will likely develop new diseases from these changes, as well.
Is it still a chimp? Should this big, yellow, night-seeing, physiologically unique, jumping creature still be called a “chimpanzee”? Or is it some new creature altogether, concocted through unnatural means, generating changes not seen in nature, even incorporating changes that are not truly adaptive but suit some ulterior motive that I have?
I don’t think that we should call it a chimpanzee any more, but give it a label that makes clear that significant genetic and outward changes have been introduced. Perhaps we should call it a “muta-chimp”—a chimp with extensive mutatations built into it. Imagine such changes were introduced into humans—extreme changes that substantially alter appearance, abilities, needs. It would be a stretch to call this creature “human.”
I engage in this thought exercise about chimps (thought only, thank goodness) to illustrate that wheat, in particular, has been subjected to some extreme changes: height, stalk thickness, seed size, seed head length, wheat germ agglutinin content, phytate content, alternations in the amino acid sequences of proteins such as alpha-amylase and thioreductases, changes in glutenin protein length and amino acid sequence, changes in the amino acid sequences of the gliadin protein, percentage of amylose sugar present, percentage of amylopectin A present, among many others. And note that modern wheat has the combined genomes (genetic content) of three grasses, the so-called A, B, and D genomes, all of which have had a variety of changes introduced.
Corn has likewise undergone extensive changes. Starting from teosinte, a wild grass with a small natural seed head, corn now has a large seed head (“cob”), large seeds, huge quantities of amylose and amylopectin sugars, changes in the zein protein (related to wheat gliadin), characteristics for pest resistance, as well as the toxic byproducts of genetic modification such as glyphosate, Bt toxin insecticide, and the altered genetics and protein products that result.
Like our chimp, perhaps we call it “muta-wheat” or “muta-corn.” It would be more truthful, though certainly a marketing nightmare for agribusiness. Regardless, the extensive changes built into these grasses suggest that the extensive and unnatural changes introduced make them so different that it is misleading to call them by their traditional names. Most of these new mutant varieties retain the capacity to mate with traditional strains, much as a human can mate with lesser primates (as apparently tested by the Nazis and/or Soviets during World War II), but the fact remains: what you thought was wheat or corn is something entirely different, new mutant varieties with new and unexpected effects on the unwitting humans who try to consume them.
And, of course, do not fall for the grain industry’s smokescreen propaganda claiming that you should rest assured that there is no such thing as genetically-modified (GM) wheat—they’re right: no GM wheat has yet been sold. But what they fail to tell you is that wheat (and other grains) have been subjected to methods to introduce genetic changes that pre-date GM, methods such as chemical and gamma ray mutagenesis that are, because they introduce dozens of mutations and not the relatively few of GM methods, are worse than GM. That is the sleight-of-hand used to conceal such things by agribusiness and its supporters.
Understand the fictions encapsulated in the “eat more healthy whole grain” message, however, and you are on your way to an impressive return to health. The modern conceit that we have sufficient knowledge to alter the genetics of things we eat is nonsense. Perhaps in 50 years we will have such collective wisdom and be able to eat, say, a GM apple that is grown sustainably, is as nutritious or better than natural apples, and introduces no adverse human or environmental effects. But we are far from those sorts of reassurances with grains.