One evening, during the drearily sodden summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his friends read Fantasmagoriana, (a French translation of a German book of ghost stories—they were intellectuals after all) in his Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals). Afterward, Byron suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary, the wife of his friend, Percy. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable. Then one night they discussed the rumor that Erasmus Darwin had electrically “galvanized” a piece of a worm; an electric current had made the vermicello twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of what happens when arrogant science meddles with nature: “Frankenstein.”
In 1816, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. Dizzying technological advancements such as the spinning jenny displaced workers from their livelihoods. Angry bands of men, calling themselves Luddites, smashed machines, murdered industrialists, and fought with the military.
Today we are experiencing the biotech revolution. The human genome [e.g., all the genes that make up an organism’s DNA] has been mapped. Genes from one species are being placed into other species. Genetically modified E. coli bacteria now produce much of our insulin and GE yeast produce vaccines for us. About one-half of the acres planted in the United Stated are with genetically modified crops that resist insects or herbicides. The result is less soil erosion (the primary reason for tilling is weed control) and pesticide usage; one estimate puts the amount of pesticide (active ingredients only) not used at more than 100,000 tons and climbing.
Just as the Industrial Revolution triggered riots, so has today’s biotech revolution: vandals have uprooted genetically engineered (GE) crops and burned research facilities. Recently, Marie Mason, who said she was acting on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front, was sentenced to 22 years for torching the Michigan State University’s Agriculture building. She told the judge, “I meant to inspire thought and compassion, not fear.”
That humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting. As an example, the wheat we use for bread came about from the crossing of at least three different species of wild grasses from two different genera. This new food had new proteins and chemicals that were never, ever part of the food supply before. One European Union report put genetic engineering this way, “(A) genome is not a static entity but a dynamic structure continuously refining its gene pool. So, for a scientist in genetics, the act of splicing to generate a transgenic organism is a modest step when compared to the genomic changes induced by all the ‘crosses’ and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry.”
Consider this: natural breeding involves the random mixing of tens of thousands of genes (genes are recipes for proteins) from two parent plants, resulting in entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals never before part of the food supply, but anti-GE advocates find this practice totally natural.
Now, instead of breeding and crossbreeding, and then breeding again to breed out unwanted traits, agronomists can now select and place a single trait into a plant.
GM products are as safe as any other food products. The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk. The WHO says on their website, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption” of GM foods.
“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” says Stewart Brand, leading environmentalist who authored The Whole Earth Catalog. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…we make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”
“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted,” writes Pamela Ronald, Professor of plant pathology at University of California, Davis. “GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” Two-thirds of the processed food in our nation’s food system is GE.
Pamela Ronald has been slurred ‘a shill for industry’ in a recent letter to the Lake County Record-Bee’s editor. I suspect the writer had no idea that Professor Ronald is married to a certified organic gardener. Together they have written a book called “Tomorrow’s Table.” She has developed rice that can withstand two weeks of inundation, which will help poor farmers in Asia survive the monsoons. By the way, note the use of the term “poor farmers”: about ninety percent of farmers growing biotech crops are small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries, the majority of them in China.
It’s not Frankenfood; it’s just food, like we have been eating for thousands of generations, and it holds the promise to feed those most in need. “You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,” says Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya, “but can we please eat first?”
Nearly 200 years after fabulist Mary Shelley raised Romantic objections to science, some have labeled GM food as “Frankenfood.” Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations hold that we are playing god and meddling with forces that we cannot possibly understand. Yet, historically, predictions often end up quite wide of the mark.
About two hundred years ago, Britain’s Quarterly Review howled about “[L]ocomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches!” Some physicians predicted that the incredibly high speeds (nearly 20 miles per hour) would cause psychological harm. Others predicted that passing trains would cause pregnant mares to spontaneously abort. “We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour,” the Review admonished.” Worries about new technology have often proven to be overblown.
Let’s eat, and not confuse the product with the process.