Unwarranted Fear of GMOs Harms Us All
Paul Boyer, professor of chemistry at UCLA, was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1997. This article appeared in NPQ's Nobel Laureates series in 2002.
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 product.
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 in the United States. 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.