Monday, January 7, 2013

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering is a scary subject.  It summons up images of mutant beings from science fiction movies.  But when it applies to your food it should not be a concern.  Some argue that consumers have a right to know what goes into their food and are requesting that genetically engineered products be labeled as such.  Is this really a push to inform or a push to scare?  Center for Food Safety promotes this concern with general claims of dangers and warns, “Congress has yet to pass a single law intended to manage them responsibly.”  On the other hand, the FDA presented to the House Committee on Science reasons why there is nothing to worry about.  In their conclusion, they emphasize that the current review process “allows us to ensure the safety of new food products and also allow the use of safe, new biotechnology techniques that give manufacturers the ability to produce better products and provide consumers additional choices.”

When dealing with such issues, it is important to deal with facts.  Just as I did with the fiscal cliff posting where I showed graphically how current spending practices would lead to a progressively worse situation, and how this new trend arose only in the last decade; here I want to pass along some reliable information on genetic engineering of the food supply to reinforce the FDA's position.

I recently read Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon.  It contains this excellent explanation on the topic (pp. 143-144).  Mutations occur naturally within plants.  Sometimes it harms the plant.  Sometimes it has no discernible effect.  Sometimes it is favorable and makes the plant more hardy, flavorful, attractive, or nutritious.  Formerly scientists had to use crossbreeding and other techniques to try to isolate and preserve favorable traits.  It was a slow, hit-or-miss process with only a small fraction of successes.  “The most direct method of obtaining plants with more desirable characteristics would be to directly transfer genes that control these features…thereby avoiding the uncertainty of cross-breeding.”  Although the main concern about genetic engineering is harm to human health, as techniques are perfected, the danger is no more likely than what may happen by traditional crossbreeding.  Use of genetic engineering in the future promises custom-made plants that are more resistant to pathogens and harmful insects, better able to withstand droughts, stronger, more productive and better in nutritional (or medicinal) value.

Time and energy limit the number of things we can be scared of.  Genetic engineering is only one example.  Before changing our habits or lecturing others about dangers based on information from friends, the Internet, interest groups with their funding on the line or TV where scare tactics are routinely used to enhance ratings; doesn’t it make sense to do some research?  Many things we believe to be dangerous are, in fact, quite safe; whereas many of our daily habits are long-term harmful.  Only good information can cure this.  Unfortunately the few sources of such information must compete against the daily onslaught of massaged facts and outright misinformation.

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