Monday, March 8, 2010

I Never Saw a Purple Cow: The Precautionary Principle and Transgenic GMO Foods

I am leery of genetically modified foods. Yes, I realize that GMO foods may have properties that allow them to resist diseases, thereby reducing the use of pesticides. I also realize that some of them may be engineered to survive during drought, heat, or other severe weather. Perhaps they deter pests. Yet they also deter me. I think that the attributes that are inherent in genetically-modified crops are also present in heritage breeds of seeds. These heritage seeds are adaptive to their environment, and long after those who discovered the heritage seed stain are gone, these seeds will continue to adapt or perish.

Not so with genetically-modified seeds. These seeds are designed to be a commodity, and they are designed to have constant human improvements, input, and modifications. People are meddling, adding, and subtracting. Without those people, will genetically-modified crops be vigorous and adaptive? I think not.

However, the thing that concerns me the most about genetic modification of our crops is not the creation of a need for intervention. It’s cross-species genetic modification. I’m quite please to let my beans meet other beans, get along, and make new beans that are both a little similar to and a little different from their parents. But how about a bean that falls in love with a potato or a strawberry in the lab and is engineered to make little bean babies, with a little gene of potato or strawberry added?

Some argue that genetic modification is just changing the way plants grow and thrive, just like creating a new plant or animal variety through breeding. These transgenic organisms are something that could never be achieved in nature or through selective breeding of plants. Yes, people have created new varieties of plants for many years by breeding for desired characteristics. And yes, some of these plants are weird: think of all of the oddball squash plants that you can create simply by cross-pollination. They’re still squash, though.

Transgenic crops have the potential for changing the landscape of plants and animals, and quickly. When it comes to environmental change, I am all in favor of the precautionary principle. Do we know how these crops and animals might change ecosystems? Do we know how the human body will respond to these plants and animals over time? No.

Would I be in favor of a transgenic crop that could replenish deserts, grow easily-accessible non-carbon fuel, or cure cancer? Perhaps. But I would also be cautious. The conditions that created the climate and health crises today were ones of uncontrolled enthusiasm for technologies and chemicals. While change can be transformative, it can transform in ways that we do not foresee. At every juncture, we must pause and consider: caution is required.

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