The mass protest
s at the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Center in Seattle, Washington are considered a high point in the history
of activist group power. Tens of thousands of protesters, from various
activist groups, descended upon the city to demonstrate on a variety
of issues, most of them relating to the environmental
, and labor
consequences of globalization and greater world trade. One of the lasting memories of these protests (at least in my mind) was the news footage of a man
in a large costume
that resembled a cross between Frankenstein
's famous monster and the Tony the Tiger mascot of Frosted Flakes
cereal. The tiger was green, complete with neck plug
s and a vaguely stoned look.
He was there as part of a demonstration against genetically modified (GM) foods, or, as the demonstrators referred to them, "Frankenfoods." The connection between genetic modification of food and the Frankenstein monster in our society gives us an interesting glimpse into how many people, including nearly all environmental groups, view GM foods and other GM products. I think that genetically modifying food represents a huge potential solution for many of our health and environmental problems with minimal risks.
Many people, (mostly in Europe but also many in America) are strongly in favor of banning GM foods and/or putting restrictive labels on them that would effectively drive many of the foods off the market.
In a society where people have a poor understanding of how genetics work (a recent study in the UK found that only 40 percent of people knew that ordinary vegetables contain genes), slapping a big label on a product is an effective product ban. It also needlessly promotes fears. As the recent Human Genome Project has shown us, our genetic makeup is very similar to most other animals. We even share most of our genes with plants. We do have some unique genes that only show up in our species, but we also have a unique combination of genes found in other species as well.
Nature has been practicing genetic engineering far longer than humans, as genetic material is constantly being swapped between species in the natural world. Pollen from one flower can often impregnate another flower of another species. The food chain cycles genetic material from plant to animal to bigger animal. Humans have also been genetically modifying food, in the strictest sense of the term, for thousands of years. The first farmers in ancient Mesopotamia were humanity's first true genetic engineers. They looked at various edible plants and chose which ones should be planted in the ground in neat little rows to grow more food.
The next year, they took the plants that produced the most food and replanted them. In that way they changed the genetic makeup of a species. If Greenpeace claims that genetic modification is a recent development, they should travel to remote farming villages in the Andes and eat what passes there for a potato. The uniformity, large size, good taste, and natural resistances to chemicals, pests and frost are all genetic traits of modern vegetables that have been carefully nurtured over generations of farming selection. For hundreds of years we have been genetically altering plants and animals through various breeding and mutation process.
The new "genetic engineering" recombinant DNA technology is simply doing the same thing we have always done in a more efficient manner. Instead of madly cross-breeding species in order to produce new genetic traits, the new genetic engineering simply inserts the DNA directly into the cell. It's a new twist on an old theme. The public is misinformed on these issues, and has little conception of the true health and environmental risks involved. Genetic scientist Alan McHughen, in his book on the subject, recounts a meeting on GM food where the leader of a large group of anti-GM activists stormed out of the room saying, "I will never eat DNA!"
The issues involving GM foods relate mostly to health and the environment. Health concerns are chief and foremost in most peoples' minds. What are genetically engineered foods going to do to our bodies? We cannot prove that genetically altered food will not have negative health consequence or, for that matter, that it will not have negative environmental consequences. Science cannot offer us concrete, 100 percent proof of something like that. What we can prove is that these products are basically no more harmful to us than any other food we eat.
There has been no reputable scientific study that has proved that any genetically modified food is any more harmful to our health or the environment than a conventional counterpart. Certain highly publicized reports to the contrary have been proven wrong or focus on the wrong things. And we already do have a large system in place for regulating the safety, health and environmental consequences of all new cultivars of crops and new species of livestock. The Food and Drug Administration, together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency combine to give us a complicated regulatory framework that keeps unsafe or environmentally unsound products out of production. Some genetically modified foods do produce health risks.
But no more so than normal foods do. We trust the government to keep unsafe products off the shelves. Why should genetically modified foods be any different? The potential environmental benefits are enormous. Genetic engineering is already allowing us to increase crop yields. This means less of our land is devoted to agriculture and more can be reclaimed for forests or other conservation purposes. They also allow us to use less pesticides, which helps wildlife living in proximity to agricultural fields and promotes healthier crops. Stopping plant diseases through genetics allows us to save local farming economies, like the disease-threatened papaya culture in the South Pacific.
Health benefits are huge as well. New "golden rice" may solve many of the problems of famine and malnutrition in developing countries. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading causes of sickness and death in the world, and new strains of genetically engineered food can make all that go away. Are there potential environmental problems? Of course. One of the foremost among the potential problems is the possibility of creating superweeds that will overwhelm an ecosystem. I think, though, that such risks are manageable with a smart policy, one that the current administration should work hard to formulate. They are also outweighed by the huge benefits to both farmers and consumers offered by the prospect of genetically engineered food.
Many anti-GM activist groups prey upon people's fears of new technologies and the new issues that they bring. The truth is, though, that new science frequently solves environmental problems faster than it creates them. A rapidly growing population demands more food, and that demands more land. Using more land for agriculture means razing more wilderness. How much Brazilian rain forest could be saved if we gave them genetic crops that took less land to grow? Or how many lumber needs could be met with fast-growing trees, grown in tree farms that allow our beautiful forests to remain untouched? Genetic engineering will change everything. It will change the way we relate to the Earth and the way we live. I think that those changes will be for the better.