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3. Genetic Engineering Creates Dangerous Side Effects
The Institute for Responsible Technology’s list simply fearmongers on this one, claiming, “By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects.” Not really.
All types of plant breeding—conventional, mutagenic, and biotech—can, on rare occasions, produce crops with unintended consequences. The 2004 NAS report that I alluded to above includes a section comparing the unintended consequences of each approach; it concludes that biotech is “not inherently hazardous.” Conventional breeding transfers thousands of unknown genes with unknown functions along with desired genes, and mutation breeding induces thousands of random mutations via chemicals or radiation. In contrast, the NAS report notes, biotech is arguably “more precise than conventional breeding methods because only known and precisely characterized genes are transferred.”
The case of mutation breeding is particularly interesting. In that method, researchers basically blast crop seeds with gamma radiation or bathe them in harsh chemicals to produce thousands of uncharacterized mutations, then plant them to see what comes up. The most interesting new mutants are then crossed with commercial varieties, which are then released to farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Mutant Varieties Database offers more 3,000 different mutated crop varieties to farmers. Many of these mutated varieties are planted as organic crops. Among of the more recent new mutant offerings are two corn varieties, Kneja 546 and Kneja 627. Whatever genetic changes wrought in these corn varieties by induced mutagenesis, they must be far less known to researchers than any changes made to standard-issue biotech crops, yet these mutants get practically no regulatory scrutiny or activist censure.
The point here is not that mutation breeding is inherently dangerous. Given its solid record of 80 years of safety, it's not. The point is that the more precise methods of modern gene-splicing are even safer than that.
The Institute for Responsible Technology warns that producing biotech crops can produce “new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.” There is no evidence for any of this. Consider the panic back in 2000 over Starlink corn, in which a biotech variety approved by the EPA as feed corn got into two brands of taco shells. Some 28 people claimed that they had experienced allergic reactions to eating “contaminated” tacos. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested their blood and found that none reacted in a way that suggested an allergic response to Starlink. As far as cancer goes, it is worth noting that even as Americans have chowed down on billions of biotech meals, the age-adjusted cancer incidence rate has been going down. In fact, research shows that biotech corn engineered to resist insects is much lower in potent cancer-causing mycotoxins.