Kauai is scared.
So is Maui.
Many of us are scared of change, of anything new, of anything different. We are like many other people around us. We have fears of novelty, just like our parents and grandparents did as well as our ancestors all the way back to the dark ages. After all, anything new could be dangerous! It could hurt or even kill us! Many among us wish that things would still be like they were a long time ago, even like they were when we were kids! All those new things could be so much trouble!
Being scared of new things was just as common in the past. For example, in the 19th century, a British inventor constructed a steam locomotive, which moved train carriages. Carriages had previously been pulled by horses! That locomotive moved carriages faster than horses could. As fast as 10 miles per hour! Yet, some people were scared about this “outrageous” speed. When a train track was built between two cities in Germany in the mid-1800s, city fathers ordered that a high, wooden fence had to be built on both sides of the track so nobody would see that fast moving train. The city council feared that anyone seeing anything move that fast could become mentally ill!
And when Daimler and Benz invented the first automobiles, many people refused to get off their horses. Why give up your horse just to ride in a noisy thing that poured out stinking fumes! That could be dangerous!
And some decades ago, this country introduced fluoride into drinking water to prevent tooth decay. At that time many people were scared that the fluoride would kill us!
These days — and it seems especially during 2014 — we have been scared of genetically modified organisms, even though many food products we have been eating for years contain some GMO particles.
Genetic modification (GM) of organisms is merely a tool that biologists use to change the characteristics of living things — just like cabinet makers use woodworking tools to build furniture. You can make beautiful furniture or ugly furniture with woodworking tools. And you can make improved or helpful organisms with GM tools or you could make harmless or even damaging GMOs using biological “genetic modification” tools.
Despite many carefully designed research efforts in many countries, there is no evidence that any of the GMOs that biologists have built to date are dangerous. Yet, we are scared of all GMOs. Again, we fear illness and death. We are told that we should only eat safe “natural” foods. But are all natural foods completely safe? Think of poisonous mushrooms and several other products that we have learned to carefully avoid.
Worse, when we get scared of new things, we often get confused. Many people want to avoid pesticides. Some pesticides, e.g., Agent Orange (used as a defoliant in Asia by the U.S. military), are indeed dangerous. But today, the unhealthy component of Agent Orange is outlawed and is not used in the United States. Yes, it is important to make sure that residents of Hawaii are not exposed to certain, specific, unhealthy pesticides. That, however, is hardly a reason to object to using the tool of genetic modification. And it certainly is no reason to object to all GMOs that the tool has generated. For that matter, medical researchers are now developing multiple GMO systems to cure cancer and other diseases. In other words, genetic modifications are once again used as tools, in this case to create effective treatments that fight disease. Medical GMO researchers have already cured several people who otherwise would have died.
Still, many of us continue to be scared of anything new. Yes, people have always been that way. But let us think of the consequences. For a moment, imagine one of our ancient ancestors — many thousands of years ago. This ancestor, like all others in his clan, was living somewhere in a cave, somewhere in some mountains. But that ancestor had a novel idea. He or she decided to use rocks and sticks to construct the very first house. He or she would want to build — and then even live in that house — outside of the cave! What would his or her friends have thought? They would have considered this inventor to be dumb. After all, how safe would that new house be from wild animals? And how sure could the new homeowner be that the ceiling of the house would not collapse and kill him? After all, the cave dwellers were sure that their cave ceiling would not collapse! Indeed, it would be much too scary to build a house! A very bad idea!
Just think of it, if some of our ancestors would not have been willing to accept change, if they would not have been willing to accept something new and different, then we might still live in caves. Humans advanced and improved their lives because they were not always scared!
Dr. Siegfried Streufert is a professor emeritus of medicine who lives in Kalaheo.