Dr. Strangelunch

What a curious story Ronald Bailey's "Dr. Strangelunch" (January) is for a magazine of "free minds and free markets" to print. Let me count the ways.

First: What's so wrong with wanting to know what is in my food? We always argue that if people have all the information they will make the best decision, and market forces will prevail for the general good. I'd say biotech promoters are afraid I'll make the "wrong" decision if I have this information. Wrong for them, that is.

Second: History is replete with good science gone bad. With Thalidomide, radiation poisoning, introduced animal and plant diseases, introduced invasive species, and more, we've seen the law of unintended consequences at work. Research into biotech is surely a good idea. But research for only a handful of years is risky considering some biotech crosses species and animal/plant boundaries never before seen in nature. This is not your father's breeding program. It is entirely new science. We should take extra precautions to protect our biosphere from mistakes now unforeseen.

Third: Just because we question bio-tech doesn't mean we want people to starve or go without vitamins. I'm so offended by this argument. Mr. Bailey is basically saying either agree with me (i.e., with biotech) or you are a bad person. Rubbish. We need an open, honest discussion about this subject. We should be allowed to know what is in our food. We shouldn't have to buy "organic" because we aren't allowed to know if the regular food is transgenic or not.

Last: I am a horticulturist, so I know some science. Science is a way of looking at the world, of questioning what we see and learning from it. Biotech surely has promise, but let's take it slowly. Hopefully biotech will be a safe technology and not a disaster. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I want to know what I am feeding my kids.

William Keith
Olympia, WA

I'll stop worrying and love genetically engineered food when its producers start labeling all the ingredients in it, as they do with all other food. As a vegan (for health reasons) who also has food allergies and other dietary limitations, I read every ingredient and avoid like the plague any food that could do me, personally, more harm than good.

The biotechies need to learn to stop worrying that labeling would kill sales. Why should anyone avoid tomatoes with flounder genes if they eat fish anyway? On the contrary, the failure to label makes folks stay away in droves, trying to avoid anything that might contain genes that could harm them.

Lynn Herrick
Austin, TX

Genetically modified food will never be the solution to the problem of an ever-increasing human population trying to survive on diminishing resources. Per Pinstrup-Andersen of the International Food Policy Research Institute, who is quoted in the article, misses the big picture when he talks about giving GM food to low-income single mothers trying to feed five children on an acre of land in West Africa. "Access to all the options" must include education and birth control choices so she can opt not to get herself into that situation in the first place.

Sandy Coobac
Kewadin, MI

Ronald Bailey replies: First, Mr. Keith and Ms. Herrick, there's nothing wrong with wanting to know what's in your food. However, the rest of us shouldn't have to pay for that curiosity. The problem here is not the market, but regulation. The imposition of expensive labeling requirements would lead inexorably to the duplication of all sorts of food handling facilities, grain elevators, mills, shipping containers, railroad cars, and more. Instead of paying extra to buy organic, you would prefer that we all pay higher prices. The good news for you is that the FDA is devising a labeling scheme for producers who want consumers to know that their foods are not genetically improved. Of course, those non-biotech foods are likely to cost more.

As for unintended consequences, Mr. Keith is right: someday something will go wrong, as it has for electricity, cars, computers, etc. But we shouldn't deny ourselves the benefits of a new technology just because we cannot foresee every consequence. We should proceed by trial and error and ameliorate problems as they arise. Thalidomide is a particularly telling example. The sedative maimed thousands of children but now is widely used to treat some 130 diseases. And when would Mr. Keith ever agree that biotech crops were safe? Already, seven national academies of science have declared them safe. The American Medical Association has also backed biotech's safety -- and stated that it opposed labels.

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