Thursday, September 13, 2007


I've been taking a plant biotech course this semester, and it's been incredibly interesting. I've learned enough that I could probably create my own transgenic plants, given the right materials (and maybe a few good instructions as well). It's neat stuff, but not the right material for blogging. Well, that was until we started talking about the controversies surrounding genetically modified plants.

When I hear about the riots and protests that take place all over Europe regarding transgenic food crops, it strikes me as being a bit anti-science, with a hint of thinly-veiled agricultural protectionism. Still, we discussed some of the complaints in class, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to contribute your own.
  • "Superweeds" will devastate us all!
This isn't an unrealistic fear. Several species (~12) of Round-Up resistant weeds have been documented, and given its widespread use, there are probably more on the way. This can be curbed, by the use of a variety of herbicides, whether through cycling or through mixes, but we may still be in the situation of an ever-escalating arms race with the weeds.

Partially included in this is the risk that ultra-hardy crops might become weed-like and spread to areas where they'll choke out natural vegetation. This seems unlikely to me, at least anytime soon. After all, if we had a food crop that was anywhere near that robust, we wouldn't be worrying about insect resistance, drought resistance, and so forth.
  • "Superbacteria" will become antibiotic-resistant
This is a bit of an offshoot from the first point. Some crops use genes encoding antibiotic resistance as a selectable marker, and the fear is that bacteria in your gut may pick up the gene and become resistant.

I'm not sure why this is a fear. The bacteria in your gut don't make you sick as it is, and you don't need antibiotics to fight them off. Additionally, the "antibiotics" used as selectable markers usually aren't used therapeutically for people anyhow, as some of them will hurt humans just as easily as plants or bacteria. They're more like general poisons than antibiotics, really.
  • "I'm not eating that!"
The idea here is that unknown toxins or allergens may crop up in food and cause illness. This could be a conscious objection, or just a sub-conscious reaction that people may have, similar to the suggestion of eating insects or chilled monkey brains (the "yuck factor").

I'd say that the only good way to move past this one is education for the public. Transgenic foods undergo incredible amounts of testing before they're deemed safe for public consumption. They are tested to ensure that the chemical composition is identical to natural varieties. Should anything be different, it is tested to determine toxicity or allergenicity. Despite people's fears about heartless corporations, they won't risk billions of dollars trying to sell you food that will kill you. How do dead people buy more food?
  • Monoculture will lead to large-scale crop losses
This is another somewhat valid fear. If a variety of transgenic plants is planted very, very widely, but suddenly becomes vulnerable to some epidemic problem (herbicide-resistant weed, insecticide-resistant pest, a mutant virus, etc.), then a famine and economic fiasco could result. This problem could be more probable if there is little genetic diversity amongst a country's crops.

The fact is, this is a problem for natural plants as well. Hawaii's papaya industry was nearly wiped out by disease ~15 years ago, and it was transgenic papaya plants that saved it. While tinkering may open the door for a problem, those same tools can be used to solve those problems when they arrive.
  • Ecological damage
This is a difficult argument. The idea is that your transgenic crops may harm the environment, whether by leeching something harmful into the soil, or by killing beneficial insects through plants which produce their own pesticides.

There's been very little evidence for either of these happening, and I doubt the first would occur, again because these plants are tested for toxicity. However, it is possible that you could kill good insects. Discovering that fault would take longer than other indications or an unusable transgenic crop.

Still, it doesn't seem like a reason not to genetically modify crops. It seems like more of a "deal with it when we get there" kind of problem. In fact, transgenic crops allow for more environmentally farming practices, including no-till planting and less use of sprays.
  • BigAg wants all your monies!!!
Okay, it's not quite that hysteric, but there are people who argue that a lot of this is just a grab by corporations to get rich off the backs of farmers. Since most transgenic plants are male sterile, the crops can't produce seeds to be used the next year. Instead, the farmer must purchase new seeds each planting season.

This complaint runs head-first into worries that transgenic crops might cross-pollinate with natural fields of said crop and produce something either unknown or unhealthy. The example might be from corn engineered to maximize ethanol production, or to produce an antibiotic or some other industrial compound.

This is solved slightly by using plants which aren't used for food crops as "biorefineries." As for the other problem . . . I'm not sure there's an easy solution to that. There's probably an argument to be made, from the corporation's perspective, that only being able to sell seeds to someone once would be fiscally dangerous. You could even argue that by forcing the buying of seeds each year, you can limit the potential for the development of superweeds/bugs by "updating" the crop.

(Heh. "Yes, I'd like to buy some corn 2.1." "Oh, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to move on to the next version, corn 3.0. We've added lots of great new features!")

Again, this doesn't seem like a reason to not make GMOs to me. Which rather sums up my thoughts on all of these issues. I don't think any of them are deal-breakers, because a lot of them can be avoided through prudent scientific/farming practices, while others are more "what if" types of problems, which could again be solved through the same technologies. Transgenic plants might make it possible to end world hunger some day. Why not take a stab at it?

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