GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
UNWARRANTED FEAR OF GENETICALLY ALTERED PLANTS HARMS US ALL
By Paul Boyer
Paul Boyer, professor of chemistry at UCLA, was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1997.
Among the scientific advances that can help attain a sustainable and beautiful planet Earth, one of the most important is the ability to add or remove genes from the DNA that governs the inheritance of organisms. This is commonly known as genetic engineering. Even though the promises are considerable, a scientifically unwarranted view has arisen, especially among environmental groups, that genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) are inherently dangerous.
Through genetic engineering, plants can be obtained that give increased yields; that have greater resistance to insects, diseases and poor soil conditions; that carry needed nutrients; that decrease the use of questionable chemical insecticides; that have undesirable antigens removed; that store better; and that produce wanted drugs or other products. Such genetic engineering can greatly help feed an expanding population with reduced cost and environmental damage.
Unfortunately, the view that GMOs are dangerous has led to restrictive regulatory actions that block or hamper the production of useful products.
By and large, environmentalists and environmental organizations have had a welcome impact on our society, resulting in legislative accomplishments that underlie the cleaning of our air and waters. It is sharply disappointing, however, to have a number of otherwise productive environmental organizations misled by proponents of the dangers of genetic engineering. Fine people waste their efforts and hamper progress.
The underlying mistake in the rejection of genetically engineered foods is based on condemning the process when it is the product that should be judged. There need to be assessments of whether a plant resistant to commercial insecticide may on balance be useful, or whether farmers should buy plants with sterile seeds. But this does not mean that genetically engineered plants should be blocked altogether.
The recent furor over corn modified to contain a bacterial insecticide illustrates the problem. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of scientists trained in molecular biology would readily consume a product containing such corn, particularly if it were less expensive. Yet, regulatory concerns have led to the view that genetically engineered plants must be shown to be demonstrably free of any deleterious effect for any person if consumed in large amounts -- an almost impossible standard to attain even for a harmless product.
Plants with new traits introduced by conventional plant-breeding methods face no such requirement. It only needs to be reasonably sure that they are safe, even though it is quite possible to produce toxic products through conventional plant breeding, as is the case with potato species that have been produced to resist molds. When eaten they make people ill. In this case the process does not involve any genetic changes, but the product is toxic. It is the product, not the process, that needs evaluation.
For more than 60 years plant breeders have performed
''wide crosses'' that transfer many genes for use in consumer as well
as agricultural products. A recent example is a cross with bread wheat
and quack grass. Breeders have also used random mutation by radiation
to produce hundreds of genetically modified plants. But plants produced
by these means are free from the regulatory handicaps of those produced
by genetic engineering. Again, look at the product, not the process.