In the debate over genetic engineering, there are many emotions in play, such as optimism, anxiety, compassion, greed, joy, and fear. One emotion seems to dominate the anti-GE activists, and that is fear. Fear of corporations, fear of science, and fear of the unknown are wielded as weapons to scare the public into rejecting the use of this technology for crop improvement.
One of the most recognizable terms used to instill fear is the label “Frankenfood.” Images crop up of a monster that’s not supposed to exist, a mad science experiment gone wrong with parts taken from dead bodies, an abnormal brain, lightning, and the cackling of human hubris echoing in a castle. It lurks in your corn chips, and the pumpkins you use to make your homemade pies. Once humble grains and vegetables, wrested from the Laws of Nature will haunt your supermarket and terrorize your neighborhood!
It sounds heinous. It sounds disgusting. It sounds sensationally inaccurate, in fact one could write a whole book on how mythical this label is when it comes to describing genetic engineering. Actually, one has!
Splicing together DNA and inserting it into a plant to achieve a desired trait is nothing akin to reanimating a dead person during an electrical storm. Nevertheless, the word continues to be used merely because it conjures reviling images of human eyeball sandwiches, and carnivorous killer tomatoes on the loose.
(It also has a cute alliterative rhyme to it. “Island of Dr. Moreau Food” just isn’t as catchy.)
No passion so effectually robs the mind
of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. – Edmund Burke
And so the propaganda takes the place of rational discourse on this issue. If GE foods are to be feared like a slowly advancing zombie, how are you supposed to evaluate the risks and benefits? Gee, should I keep Frankenstein’s Monster around a little while and get to know him before alerting the townspeople? Shall we just follow Gaston and kill the Beast before Beauty can introduce you to him? In such mythical situations we can easily see as outside observers that it is best to calm down and go through the details. But the mythical situation is what they would probably rather have everyone think they’re in.
Besides mythical fears, there are legitimate concerns with GE crops. What about introducing allergens into foods that weren’t there before? Or how about whether the Bt protein introduced to kill insects will affect our health? Will the intellectual property issues turn the world into a few kingdoms ruled by today’s seed companies?
Fear, it seems, breeds in the absence of knowledge. By leaving out factual information and rational comparisons of risk, they can cultivate fear more than if they accurately described it. “You should be scared of biotech foods because transferring a gene between species is risky, well, not nearly as risky as generating new variation through mutagenesis which we’ve been doing for a long time…” – That doesn’t quite make you afraid enough to write to your congressperson about banning GE crops, does it?
So I think there is a substantial amount of good that can be done through educating the public about the details of genetic engineering, and explaining why a great many geneticists are not afraid of the changes brought about through genetic engineering. Indeed, many of the changes being made in newer experiments with GE crops involve adding things that you want in your food – like vitamins and antioxidants. So the patchwork Frankenfood of secret poisons injected into your food is even farther from the truth than it was in the last decade. Instead of a monster, maybe there’s a more fitting way to depict GE foods?
Okay, maybe that’s over the top, too!
(By the way, I’ve got a huge collection of anti-GE ads, some of them border on the bizarre, and others are downright immoral. I’ll be posting them from time to time so we can all see what passes as constructive discourse in some circles.)
There are a few things that scares me about GE food: Uninformed activists and an uninformed public. The first is problematic in many ways. If you take the time to advocate for a particular issue, shouldn’t it be necessary to know a lot about the issue in question? For instance, why would a book author make obviously wrong statements in a written interview, while purporting to be an expert on genetic engineering? Did they not do their homework, or do they believe, cynically, that they can convince an unwary audience with falsehoods? Both options are scary if you think about it.
An uninformed public is also particularly troubling. Citizens are being asked to vote on laws concerning genetically engineered crops – and most do not know anything about them. When media coverage is either scant or ill informed, what is left for you to influence your decision making? (Fear) This is where scientists need to step in and reach out to the public to help them understand these issues.
Another thing that scares me about GE crops is what our lives might be like if we didn’t pursue genetic engineering. I’m not talking about doomsday scenarios of a world without food or crackers made from people, but instead the very real and present risks of malnutrition, lack of resources to control pests, uncontrollable crop diseases, and more. Anyone got a non-GE solution to Papaya Ringspot Virus?