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?
Sadly again, these fears are trumped up as well. For example, we know that large protein molecules that are slow to digest can cause allergies. Some of the more potent allergic proteins are gigantic seed storage proteins such as in the Peanut. The only function of these molecules is to pack in as many amino acids as they can to store up the building blocks for the developing seed. Most proteins degrade in our digestive system pretty rapidly, but some of these larger ones stick around a while longer – enough time for our immune systems to come in contact with them – and are fooled into thinking they are pathogens. The swelling, nausea, and pain that follows is an allergic reaction. So are allergens secretly hiding in your corn chips?
No, because in order to get approval for a GE crop, they have to go through several regulatory hurdles. One of these steps is to determine if a protein is an allergen. By finding out the size of the added protein, regulators can determine if the protein is large enough to be a potential allergen. If it is, the next step is to test samples of the protein with pin-prick tests, or go for a full-blown digestion simulation. The risk of introducing an allergen in this process is exceedingly low, probably lower than the risk of accidentally making a crop allergenic through conventional breeding – where no such tests are required. Who knows what could be lurking in some wild tomato relative?
Hold on! Before you get the idea that I’m trying to make you afraid of conventional breeding – I want to to know that the risks of unintended consequences regardless of the method used are very low! But you should know that no method, whether ancient or modern, is without risk.
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. – Marie Curie
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?
Amy here is scarier than the Tomato Guy!
And finally, I’m afraid that our collective food awareness energy will be wasted on empty fears, when they should be directed toward more real threats to our agriculture and health. Infectious disease, animal health, environmental degradation – there are many constant and pressing dangers in our food supply. Two years ago, some spinach was a tainted with E. coli on a farm in the Salinas Valley, where there have been numerous E.coli outbreaks for the last decade. In the same time period, not one person has ever been confirmed to have gotten sick from eating a GE crop. Now that 205 people got sick and 3 died from eating contaminated spinach, public attention has focused more on this issue. But if the public focus was directed more at this demonstrated threat, could disasters such as this have been avoided?
Now I’d like to turn it to you. What scares you about genetic engineering?
Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication.