Genetically Modifying Crops the Old-Fashioned Way


The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a press release last month that praised genetically modifying crops by means of nuclear radiation. To wit:

…scientists use a method called irradiation to create crop varieties that are more disease-resistant and grow better in poor soils, a massive benefit to countries across drought-prone Africa, where the poorest farmers try to survive on the most marginal lands.

Basically, researchers blast plants with radiation and see what comes up. If they find a trait they like, they breed it back into conventional crops. Please note that plant breeders do not have detailed knowledge of how the genomes of the irradiated plants are reshuffled by radiation–what genes were globally turned off, turned on, boosted or retarded.

The FAO is quite right that this relatively crude method of genetically modifying crop plants has been very beneficial and no health or environmental problems have been identified from using mutated crop varieties. The FAO's Mutant Variety Database lists over 2,252 varieties that are currently planted by farmers around the world, including mutated varieties of wheat, rice, soybeans, barley, olives, potatoes, beans, sugarcane, tomatoes, onions, peanuts and more. Many of these mutant varieties are grown by organic farmers.

Given that this relatively crude method of genetic improvement–in use for over 70 years now–has proven itself safe, it is ridiculous to assert that the far more precise technique of inserting specific well-defined genes into crop varieties is somehow less safe.