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!
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
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!"
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
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
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!!!
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?