Criticisms of genetic engineering

Alan McHughen, plant biotechnologist at UC Riverside and author of Pandora’s Picnic Basket, is one of the professors participating in Debating Science, helping the students to develop an informational website about bioethics that may one day be relesased to the public. He recently shared some insights with the group that he has allowed me to share with you (emphasis original)…

I just returned from a trip to Lithuania and Poland, giving talks to university students, farmers and the public. They confirmed what I’d often thought, that the variouscriticisms of GE crops could equally be applied to conventional breeding, but rarely, if ever, are.This doesn’t necessarily mean the criticisms are invalid, but it does mean we show prejudiceagainst GE by applying the criticisms exclusively to GE.

For some examples:

1.GEis unnatural; it requires human intervention to produce plants that could not be produced by Nature alone. Conventional counterexample: Grafts between rootstock and scion of different species could not exist without human intervention. GE is singled out for this criticism. There is no regulatory scrutiny for interspecific grafts.

2.GE is disruptive to the genome, inserts t-DNA randomly and unpredictably Conventional counterexample:Ionizing radiation is far more disruptive to the genome and unpredictable in its effects. GE is singled out for this criticism. There is no regulatory scrutiny for mutation breeding.

3. GE crosses the species barrier; nature does not allow genes to cross the species barrier Conventional counterexample: Wheat, triticale and many other examples of conventional breeding to move genes from one species to a different one. Even in nature, Agrobacteriumtumefaciens does itacross distant and completely unrelated species, and without human help.GE is singled out for this criticism. There’s no regulatory scrutiny for interspecific crossing.

4. HT GE crops can cross with wild relatives, creating hybrid ‘superweeds’. Conventional counterexample: All crop cultivars carry some (natural) HT genes, and these can (and do) cross into wild relatives to create hybrids with herbicide tolerance(e.g. triazine tolerant canola). GE is singled out for this criticism. There’s no regulatory scrutiny for outcrossing of conventional HT cultivars.

5. Successful GE cultivars can lead to broad regional monoculture, exposing the crop to diseases and other threats. Conventional counterexample: So can a successful conventional cultivar lead to monoculture. GE is singled out for this criticism. There’s no regulatory scrutiny for monoculture of conventional cultivars.

6. GEcultivars requirefarmers to buy seed each year. Conventional counterexample: Conventional hybrids also require farmers to buy fresh seed each year. They’ve done so since the mid-20thCentury. GE is singled out for this criticism. There’s no regulatory scrutiny for conventional hybrids.

7.GE seeds are patented and so use of their seeds is restricted. Conventional counterexample: Patents can also exist on conventional cultivars. And Not all GE cultivars are patented. GE is singled out for this criticism. Patenting is not unique or limited to GE, normustGE cultivars be patented.

8.GE cultivars are controlled by big companies and intended to make profits. Conventional counterexample: All seed companies intend to make profit, even with sales of seed of conventional cultivars. Also, not all GE cultivars are from private companies (e.g.GE papaya in Hawaii). GE is singled out for this criticism.

Can you think of any examples of a criticism of GE that cannot also be applied to conventional breeding?

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

1 comment

  1. Duh. It’s spelled “G. E.”

    Actually, in all seriousness, I had a debate with a sociology professor whose argument was that “GM” crops, as he put them, should be labeled even if the only thing that anyone didn’t like about them were the letters “GM.”

    I’d also like to add another one to the list – some people who might have a more sophisticated background in biology have argued that nature does not make “chimeric” genes, as in, putting parts of different genes together into one. The response is of course, to mention that that is the way evolution works, and we have examples of it everywhere, from antifreeze proteins in fish, to the gene that controls shape in tomatoes.

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