Unwarranted Fear of Genetically Altered
Plants Harms Us All
Paul Boyer, professor of chemistry at UCLA, was awarded
the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1997.
Los Angeles-Among the scientific advances that
can help attain a sustainable and beautiful planet Earth, one of the most
important is the ability to add or remove genes from the DNA that governs
the inheritance of organisms. This is commonly known as genetic engineering.
Even though the promises are considerable, a scientifically unwarranted
view has arisen, especially among environmental groups, that genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) are inherently dangerous.
Through genetic engineering, plants can be obtained that give increased
yields; that have greater resistance to insects, diseases and poor soil
conditions; that carry needed nutrients; that decrease the use of questionable
chemical insecticides; that have undesirable antigens removed; that store
water better; and that produce wanted drugs or other products. Such genetic
engineering can greatly help feed an expanding population with reduced
cost and environmental damage.
Unfortunately, the view that GMOs are dangerous has led to restrictive
regulatory actions that block or hamper the production of useful products.
By and large, environmentalists and environmental organizations have had
a welcome impact on our society, resulting in legislative accomplishments
that underlie the cleaning of our air and waters. It is sharply disappointing,
however, to have a number of otherwise productive environmental organizations
misled by proponents of the dangers of genetic engineering. Fine people
waste their efforts and hamper progress.
The underlying mistake in the rejection of genetically engineered foods
is based on condemning the process when it is the product that should
be judged. There need to be assessments of whether a plant resistant to
commercial insecticide may on balance be useful, or whether farmers should
buy plants with sterile seeds. But this does not mean that genetically
engineered plants should be blocked altogether.
The recent furor over corn modified to contain a bacterial insecticide
illustrates the problem. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of scientists
trained in molecular biology would readily consume a product containing
such corn, particularly if it were less expensive. Yet, regulatory concerns
have led to the view that genetically engineered plants must be shown
to be demonstrably free of any deleterious effect for any person if consumed
in large amounts-an almost impossible standard to attain even for a harmless
Plants with new traits introduced by conventional plant-breeding methods
face no such requirement. It only needs to be reasonably sure that they
are safe, even though it is quite possible to produce toxic products through
conventional plant breeding, as is the case with potato species that have
been produced to resist molds. When eaten they make people ill. In this
case the process does not involve any genetic changes, but the product
is toxic. It is the product, not the process, that needs evaluation.
For more than 60 years plant breeders have performed "wide crosses"'
that transfer many genes for use in consumer as well as agricultural products.
A recent example is a cross with bread wheat and quack grass. Breeders
have also used random mutation by radiation to produce hundreds of genetically
modified plants. But plants produced by these means are free from the
regulatory handicaps of those produced by genetic engineering. Again,
look at the product, not the process.
Suggestions that the testing or using of genetically engineered plants
may lead to production of super weeds are similarly unfounded. Living
organisms have many ways of sharing genes. An incorporated trait of resistance
to a commercial pesticide might conceivably show up in other plants. But
the plants would not be super weeds, except for their resistance to that
particular commercial insecticide. And if the plant did not meet the challenge
of the insecticide, the trait would not persist because of the disadvantage
of producing a non-useful protein.
Genetically engineered plants are now grown on more than 100,000 acres.
More than 60 percent of processed foods contain such ingredients. There
has not been a single known mishap or injury to a person or an ecosystem
attributable to genetic engineering or the product in the development
and use of these plants. Why, therefore, continue the hampering regulations?
Such regulation and mistaken views can become self-sustaining. Environmental
organizations have found a satisfying cause in demonizing genetic engineering.
The jobs and status of lawyers and other staff of the US Department of
Agriculture and other agencies that develop and administer regulations
depend on such perceived evil. But efforts expended in the unwarranted
handicapping of a vital technology will in the long run become recognized
as injurious, not helpful.
The regulations hamper the university-based researcher. Most importantly,
requirements that tests of a strawberry plant that may be resistant to
frost damage need to be conducted in isolated plots with people dressed
in what resemble spacesuits are nonsense. And researchers must work under
threat that activists will tear up genetically modified plants. The result
is that a university investigator is greatly discouraged from undertaking
promising research. Innovation and progress suffer because of perceived
dangers that do not exist.
Now, movements are underway to require the labeling of goods containing
products from genetically engineered plants. That would foster the erroneous
message that such plants may be dangerous. Moreover, the labeling would
be costly, and it would be difficult to devise appropriate standards.
In the name of a process some fear because they do not understand it,
products greatly beneficial to humanity may never see the light of day.
Society frequently makes judgments about how to use a new technology.
For example, when a better steel alloy is attained, it may be used to
make more deadly weapons as well as better farm machinery. The same is
true with genetically engineered plants. But that choice must be based
on sound science, not on fear and misinformation.
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