Tatyana Deryugina (Twitter: @TDeryugina)

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My take on genetic engineering

Posted 17 Jan 17 by arbelos
Let’s talk about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But first, let me ask you a question. Are chainsaws good or bad? That’s a weird question, isn’t it? A chainsaw can be very useful if you need to cut something, but it can also be dangerous if you’re not careful or if you deliberately attack someone with it.

Now let’s go back to talking about GMOs. As I elaborate on below, it’s just as silly to ask whether GMOs are good or bad as it is to ask whether chainsaws are good or bad. Genetic modification is a tool. If used wisely, it can provide a significant advantage over traditional plant-breeding techniques. But it can also be used for evil. So my proposal is that we stop treating all GMOs as being the same (this also goes for people who love GMOs!) and instead think about what exactly is being genetically modified.

Let me demonstrate why this is important. Two very common genetic modifications out there are to (1) make crops herbicide-resistant (e.g., "Roundup ready corn") or (2) make crops produce their own pesticides (e.g., "Bt corn"). What effect would the first modification have? Well, it’s likely to increase the amount of herbicide farmers spray on crops because now you don’t have to worry about killing the crops themselves. This may be undesirable to the extent that higher levels of herbicide are more harmful to human health (although there’s no evidence that Roundup is harmful to human health unless you are stupid enough to swallow it in high doses) and to the extent that it contributes to the creation of weeds resistant to Roundup ("superweeds"). But making crops produce their own pesticides will likely decrease the amount of pesticide farmers spray on crops because the crops are making their own (oh, and for the record, organic farmers use Bt as a pesticide all the time). That could be a significant improvement for the environment, for crop productivity and (because less pesticides are used) for human health.

Fine, but these are only the intended consequences of genetic engineering. What about the unintended ones? Well, let’s think about traditional plant breeding where you’re letting the mutations in DNA happen naturally and selecting the offspring with the best traits. We’ve done A TON of that. How else do you think your banana or your “traditional” corn got here? And we really had no idea what was being altered in the plants’ DNA. It was essentially impossible to guarantee that the new variety was different ONLY in the desirable traits. By contrast, because genetic engineering is very targeted, we can be very confident that no other changes are taking place. So it’s pretty hard to claim that genetic engineering will produce unintended consequences (at least on a systematic basis) – I would be much more worried about that traditionally bred apple you’re eating.

But, you say, these traditional varieties have been grown for hundreds or thousands of years so if there were something wrong with the crops that we developed during this time, we would know by now. That’s certainly true if a mutation made a crop poisonous such that eating a bite killed you. But if we accidentally bred something that, say, doubled your chances of developing a certain kind of cancer if eaten for prolonged periods of time, there’s a good chance no one would have noticed because they were too busy dying of other things. And many fruits and vegetables do contain toxins naturally. So enjoy those glycoalkaloids in your "non-genetically modified" potatoes!

In summary, there is absolutely no reason to think that the entire concept of genetically modifying organisms is a bad idea. By all means, we should ask if a specific genetic modification can have adverse health or environmental consequences. But let’s stop being unscientific about this whole GMO thing by saying we shouldn’t do genetic modification at all.

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