There is much being said in the vegan and animal rights community about genetic engineering, most of it is negative and the issue is often clouded by scaremongering, misconceptions, half-truths, and out dated information. September 12-18th is GMO awareness week and considering someone recently made the ridiculous statement to me that “Vegans are at the highest health risks from GMOs. Practically all your primary fare contains GMO ingredients.” I felt it was about time to post an introduction to the topic. There is need for a less sensational and more rational discourse about genetic engineering. For this post I will be addressing mainly the non-animal side of genetic engineering technology, the issue of the use of animal derived genes will be dealt with in a separate post.
Genetic engineering, put simply, is when humans transfer genes between organisms in a controlled manner through a variety of methods in the laboratory. Such technology has been put to use in many ways such as medicine, research, industry, and agriculture. For a basic over-view of what genetic engineering is go here. I will be dealing with just a few of the objections to genetic engineering for now and presenting some potential benefits they may offer. If you don’t see your pet issue or objection addressed here, be patient, it is a complex issue and more post are on the way soon.
A common argument against genetic engineering is that it is too risky to alter organisms at the genetic level since we can not fully predict the consequences. This ignores that genetic engineering only transfers a small, known packet of genes while traditional methods of plant breeding involve transferring or mutating large amounts of genes in an uncontrolled manner. This may be achieved through cross breeding species to create many now common hybrids, another method is induced mutation using radiation or chemical mutagens to alter existing genes rather than transplant known genes, one common example of this process is Mentha piperita, peppermint. Grafting plants can exchange genes in an uncontrolled manner as well. Gene transfer also occurs in nature through bacterial, viral, or fungal routes and even between different trees in a process know as inosculation. All these methods create potentially greater amounts of unpredictable genetic change than controlled gene transfer in the lab. These more traditional methods are actually considered more risky that genetic engineering. Even traditionally bred crops have the potential to introduce new sources of allergens or undesirable changes, yet crops that are altered in such traditional ways are not subject to the same scrutiny as genetically engineered crops. Genetic engineering on the other hand has the potential to create reduced-allergen foods and reduce anti-nutrient content.
People have asked, “Why can’t we stick with traditional plant breeding methods, they seem to have worked fine so far?” The problem is that we face an inevitable short term growth in population and massive environmental problems related to resource usage. Hybrid crops and synthetic inputs helped provide the needed increase in food supply starting in the 1930’s but it is just not cutting it anymore, we need something more. When people say GMOs aren’t natural they are failing to recognize that humans have been manipulating our food supply for thousands of years, now we are just doing it smarter. Without human intervention the barley edible wild ancestors of a large percentage of your local produce market’s stock would be all but unrecognizable to you. Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale are all selectively breed variations of the same wild ancestor. The mighty corn is the descent of the scraggly teosinte and just try comparing a wild banana and Cavendish banana. How many genes had to change to produce such vast differences? We must put GMOs in perspective.
Another common complaint is that GMOs have not been shown to be 100% biologically safe, but such a complaint stems from a misunderstanding of how science works and possibly ignorance of the hundreds of published safety assessments. What is being asked is that we prove a negative, that GMOs are not dangerous in any way, this is not only impractical but logically not possible and unrealistic to ask for. What we can do is show that despite all our research we have little evidence of harm and given our current data and understanding there is little reason to expect harm. This could change in the future, but for now the preponderance of the best research points to GMOs being generally as safe as conventional plant breeding.
GMOs are not only the focus of much public debate but also a major focus for environmental and political activists. Groups such as Greenpeace and the Earth Liberation Front in particular have targeted GMOs by cutting, burning, and otherwise destroying test crops. Wearing ominous looking, but entirely unnecessary, bio-hazard suits while destroying the crop is just a scare tactic that helps to bolster the public’s perceptions that there is something dangerous or infectious about such crops. Such actions are largely futile and distract from actions that are focused on aiding sentient beings. Images of liberated monkeys and puppies gained animal liberationists and direct action much public sentiment while also directly aiding sentient beings in captivity. What does crop destruction do? While I do not agree with GM crop destruction being sensationalized as “terrorism”, a word thrown around a lot these days, I can not in any way support it, it’s just pointlessly destructive and I wish activists would put their energy elsewhere.
In addition to some of the commonly known applications of transgenic technology such as herbicide resistant soy or Bt corn there are other beneficial applications. While fear mongers have made unsupported claims that eating GMOs can cause diabetes, scientists have been hard at work to treat diabetes with that very same technology. Insulin production used to involve killing a lot of pigs, but thanks to genetically modified bacteria this is no longer necessary for most people. Genetic engineering hasn’t stopped there with diabetes, insulin producing lettuce has been produced as well as rice that would cause less of an insulin spike after eating. Others use poor evidence to falsely cite GMOs as causing Crohn’s and IBD while ignoring how genetic engineering may very soon help treat such conditions. Another common but often ignored benefit of genetic engineering is the bacteria that produces the B12 which is used to fortify many foods, vitamin pills, and nutritional yeast, affectionately know as “nooch”. This is important as B12 is one of the few micro-nutrients vegans have to be significantly concerned about. Other benefits vegans have to look forward to include long chain omega-3 fortified plants and plant-derived vaccines such as for the flu and even HPV. Some of the other potential and actual benefits of GMOs include a shift in input profile towards less dangerous substances, reduced tillage, increased yields, better nutrition, disease resistance, and even fighting pollution.
Another common issue that muddles the conversation over genetic engineering is the improper equation of transgenic technology with large corporations like Monsanto. The claims range from reasonable suspicion of corporate misconduct to grand conspiracies to sicken or control the populace. Invoking Monsanto is like the Godwin’s Law of GMOs. We must be careful to separate our political ideologies from the issue of whether genetic engineering actually works and is safe. The same goes for patent issues, which is certainly not unique to the field of GMOs. A lot of research and development goes in to genetic engineering, just as with new inventions or software the manufacture wishes to recoup their investment, and then some. There is a good deal of public dialog over patent law already especially in the medical and computer software fields. Such concerns would mean addressing patent law and other regulations rather than the scientific validly of transgenic technology itself.
Is genetic engineering the answer the all our agricultural problems? No, but it can serve a useful role and also need not be seen as the mortal enemy of organic agriculture as can be attested by Pamela C. Ronald, a plant genetic scientist, and R. W. Adamchak, an organic farmer, authors of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Overall the current level of fear and sensational rhetoric surrounding the issue is scientifically unjustified, as always we must be skeptical not susceptible.
Please read my follow up post Bt Cotton, Farmer Suicides, and Fluffy Thinking
The IRRI – Conducting Genetic Modification We Can All Support by Vegan Skeptic
Alexey Surov and GM Soy – A Recurrent Tale Against GM Foods by Vegan Skeptic
Vegan GMO Redux by Dave D
You Say Tomahto, I Say Flavr Savr by Dave D
Frankenfood– a talk given by Kevin Folta to a joint gathering of Chicago Skeptics & Vegan Chicago
Skeptically Speaking: Episode #71 Genetically Modified Foods
Vegans Who Support GMO’s (Say What?)
WHO: 20 questions on genetically modified foods
Way Too Much Angst About GMO Crops
The Genetically Modified Alfalfa Scare: Don’t Panic
Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela C. Ronald & R. W. Adamchak
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly By James McWilliams