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What’s the story on genetically engineered foods?

Dear Cecil:

What's the deal with genetically engineered food? I read that vast quantities of food crops are being genetically engineered to withstand the effects of herbicides better so that farmers can dump more herbicides in their fields without worrying about crop loss. Jeez. Other crops manufacture their own pesticides so they kill bugs having the temerity to take a bite of them. Doesn't exactly ring my come-to-dinner bell, ya know?

So what are the potential effects of eating genetically engineered food, what could this ultimately do to the food chain, and why are so many of our food crops being monkeyed with, with barely a peep from the press?

Lory, via AOL

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Barely a peep? Inkwise I admit genetic engineering hasn’t ranked up there with Leonardo DiCaprio, but an archive search for the past decade turned up over 500 articles in everything from Time to the Whole Earth Review. True, the subject hasn’t been front-page news, but that’s because little front-page news (e.g., environmental disasters) has occurred. The concern is over what might.

There are two basic arguments against genetic engineering: the Frankenstein’s monster argument and the “frigging Monsanto” argument. (Monsanto, a big supplier of engineered seed, has been a lightning rod for criticism, but it’s got company.)

The Frankenstein argument — maybe I should call it the Jurassic Park argument — is that genetic engineers are messing with a process they only dimly understand and by combining pieces of DNA in unnatural ways they’re taking the chance that something will go horribly wrong. This exaggerates the complexity of what genetic engineers do. Gene splicing is ingenious, but the result in most cases is that you cause cells to produce, or fail to produce, a single protein. This is like turning a single bolt in a car. Sure, loosen it too much and an important part of the car might fall off. But generally it’s possible to anticipate, and make allowances for, the things that might go wrong.

For example, Monsanto makes a genetically engineered soybean seed that’s highly resistant to a weed killer Monsanto conveniently also happens to make. You plant the soybeans and douse the field with the weed killer, which kills everything but the beans. No tillage to eliminate weeds, no soil erosion — happy day! But, say the critics, suppose this weed-killer-resistant soybean cross-pollinates with the weeds; then you’d have weed-killer-resistant superweeds! Sure, say the scientists, but this is an obvious problem, easily prevented. (In principle at least. There may be a little problem with canola, but that’s a story for another day.) Similarly, one variety of engineered corn produces its own pesticide. Will the stuff hurt people too? Obvious problem, obvious solution: test and find out. Answer: no.

The point isn’t that nothing can ever go wrong with genetically engineered crops. But due to the nature of the process, the risks are usually modest and controllable in relation to the benefits. Contrast that with the wildly risky agricultural practices of the past, in which entire organisms, not just genes, were transplanted into foreign habitats — e.g., kudzu, which was introduced to the southeastern U.S. from Japan and spread rapidly, covering trees and denying them sunlight. Those were the real environmental fiascoes.

That brings us to the frigging-Monsanto argument. Genetically engineered seed is developed and sold by huge corporations whose first concern is their own profit. Monsanto’s seed, after all, is designed for use with Monsanto’s herbicide. Plus you’re locked into the whole capital-intensive, high-input agribusiness rat race. Frigging Monsanto! But the culprit is industrial capitalism, not genetic engineering per se.

Still, the big-business aspect of genetic engineering does give one pause. Consider the crop you mentioned that makes its own pesticide. The toxin is the same one produced by a naturally occurring organism called Bt, which organic farmers use to control bugs. If, due to genetic engineering, the toxin is found in every leaf and branch of a crop, Bt-resistant pests may soon evolve. The big agribusiness companies will move on to some other pesticide, but organic farmers will be screwed. I’m not worried about genetic engineering in itself but rather the ends to which it’ll be put.

Cecil Adams

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