Genetically Modifying Crops the Old-Fashioned Way

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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.

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  1. Chapter 34 in Ronald Bailey’s odd quest to prove to us that the Law of Unintended Consequences simply does not apply to messing around with animal and plant genes.

  2. Given that this relatively crude method of genetic improvement which has been in use for over 70 years 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.

    I agree. Damn good point: If a shotgun approach (involving radiation of all things!) has stood the safety test of time, how could a more precise approach, with far more limited scope (one gene at a time), and with more knowledge and control of what’s going on, be less safe?

  3. HoI: Do you have any evidence that the law of unintended consequences is somehow hyperactive with regard genetically improved crop and animal varieties? If said law was likely to bite us on the ass with regard to modern GM crops, it seems likely that it would have shown up in crudely mutated varieties already, don’t you think?

  4. thoreau, to borrow the disclaimer from ads for stocks and mutual funds: past performance does not guarantee future results.

  5. Ron, I’m not by any means in the camp that’s against GM foods, and I understand that most of the stuff we eat has been modified in one way or another (albeit somewhat more naturally).

    But you seem way too sure that nothing could possibly go wrong with GM crops and animals.

    In my opinion, as knowledge and technical skill allow us to do make more drastic modifications to living things, more caution should be exercised, not less. That’s all.

  6. Nothing is guaranteed, HOI. Since perfect information is impossible, and evaluation requires time and money (finite resources) you have to apply the closest examination to the matters that present the most plausible concerns, and accept that you won’t always catch every single problem under the sun.

  7. But you seem way too sure that nothing could possibly go wrong with GM crops and animals.

    Given enough time, and enough different GM products, my guess is that at some point there will be some sort of problem with one of them. However, GM also offers the potential to increase agricultural yields and reduce reliance on pesticides. It may be that a few bad products over a long time frame will be the price that we have to pay for the greater long term and worldwide good that GM offers.

    Now, I have nothing against trying to catch those few bad products before the problem snowballs, but you have to have some reasonable threshold here. How much testing? For how long? It may be that some problems can only be detected after a lot of people have consumed them for a long time (i.e. small but cumulative harms). It’s unfortunate, but I don’t see any way to guarantee against those harms, short of shutting down all progress on GM.

    You have to set your threshold, test up to that threshold, and accept the fact that even the highest threshold will miss the occasional problem, and also accept the fact that too high of a threshold will deny us huge potential benefits.

  8. I think we should set a very high threshold for feeding trolls on this site.

  9. What thoreau said.

    As I have previously reported, a reasonable and science-based biotech regulatory system would be along the lines suggested by…Drew Kershen, a professor of law at University of Oklahoma, [who] offers a three point plan for wending our way out of the current international biotech regulatory morass.

    First, GM crops and non-GM crops should be regulated in the same manner for similar or identical risks. If a regulatory system would cover a specific trait were it in a conventionally bred crop, then it should also regulate that same trait in a GM crop. If not, then it should not be regulated in a GM crop either.

    Second, once a trait has been approved, it should be approved for all varieties and all crops. There is no need to make a trait go through the regulatory system again and again and again. This would clearly apply to the Liberty Link case.

    And third, comparable science-based regulatory systems should mutually recognize one another’s approvals of the same traits by either direct recognition or by means of a short, fast-track recognition process. Obviously, just how much confidence to repose in European, Chinese or Indian regulatory systems is subject to debate, but the principle is sound.

  10. But we have GM trolls that have been engineered with flame-resistance!

    That’s what we get for supporting frankencrops. Frankentrolls.

  11. Ron Bailey,

    If said law was likely to bite us on the ass with regard to modern GM crops, it seems likely that it would have shown up in crudely mutated varieties already, don’t you think?

    Hasn’t it?

    Consider the case of pellagra in Europe following the introduction of a cultivated crop – that is corn or maize.

  12. Did this make anyone else think “man in the moon marigolds”? Or just me.

  13. And third, comparable science-based regulatory systems should mutually recognize one another’s approvals of the same traits by either direct recognition or by means of a short, fast-track recognition process. Obviously, just how much confidence to repose in European, Chinese or Indian regulatory systems is subject to debate, but the principle is sound.

    Given that European regulators are likely to be even stricter than Americans in regard to GM crops, I don’t see any problem with approving whatever they approve, and reserving the right to approve other things as well.

    Jim Henley proposed something similar for medicine: If it clears the regulatory hurdles in a country on a list (i.e. a list of countries with high standards and good processes), then it automatically gets approved here. Or, perhaps if it clear the hurdle in any two countries on the list then it’s approved here. Whatever. Some variation on that theme. And, of course, under Jim’s plan we reserve the right to approve things above and beyond whatever the others approve.

    He called it a “free rider FDA.” Other countries free-ride on our pharma research, why not free-ride on their regulations?

  14. Ron Bailey,

    Of course, maybe that isn’t the sort of “unintended consequence” you were thinking of.

  15. Jim Henley proposed something similar for medicine: If it clears the regulatory hurdles in a country on a list (i.e. a list of countries with high standards and good processes), then it automatically gets approved here. Or, perhaps if it clear the hurdle in any two countries on the list then it’s approved here. Whatever. Some variation on that theme. And, of course, under Jim’s plan we reserve the right to approve things above and beyond whatever the others approve.

    It’s a good idea, but don’t phrase it as a form of “one world government” or people will object.

  16. And how does Mr. Bailey go about explaining this?

    (BTW, Boris Yeltsin has died.)

  17. thoreau,

    One has to ask why the government should determine what I imbibe or eat? Particularly outside of the context of say anti-biotics.

  18. Grotius-

    You’ll get no arguments from me on that point. The thrust of Jim’s proposal (and the one that Ron outlined) is that if such matters are regulated, let’s at least eliminate some redundancy in this process.

  19. thoreau,

    Alright.

    Ron Bailey,

    Putting my devil’s advocate hat on, I’ll ask whether precision in where genes are placed means an increased level of safety. If so, why?

  20. One has to ask why the government should determine what I imbibe or eat? Particularly outside of the context of say anti-biotics.

    One answer might be because the government tests and studies foods and drugs and therefore has a better idea of how they affect people than most people do.

  21. Mr. Bailey, until you can prove that using GMO will not create ice-nine, I demand that all members of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization only eat food grown using time tested methods. Safe things like using large quantities of pesticides or fertilizing with animal feces.

  22. But you seem way too sure that nothing could possibly go wrong with GM crops and animals.

    Way back before GM was a term (1971) there was a novel called No Blade of Grass. (John Christopher) A plant disease naturally mutates, spreads worldwide, and kills all grass, including wheat, rice, corn, et al. End of the world.

    You can’t be absolutely sure that disasters won’t happen even without GM. On the other hand, the techniques developed for GM could give us a better chance of handling such a natural disaster.

    You see, the law of unintended consequences is just as valid whether we refuse to develop a technology, or go ahead with it.

  23. Hooked on Innuendo,

    Would the government be a more competent party in that effort than say business?

  24. But I’m certainly not saying we should refuse to develop GM technology, only that we should proceed with caution.

    Not to mention that if we figure out how to make foods safer it probably will mean that similar techniques will be developed to make food less safe as well (for purposes of war, conquest, terrorism, etc.)

  25. Irradiation is a good way to fix retarded genomic programs that fuck up the collective consciousness. See the forum topic at ‘alexgrey.com “Irradiate All Faith Based Programs

  26. I can’t wait until tros grows up and has to get a job.

  27. What if we irradiated people and preserved the mutations that we like? Particularly those involving super powers?

  28. “I can’t wait until tros grows up and has to get a job.”

    No doubt he’ll be the guy who screws up my sandwich at Subway.

    “No, asshole, I told you I didn’t want any friggin’ mayonaise!”

  29. Also:
    Does this story remind anyone else of the “Tomacco” episode of The Simpsons?

  30. mediageek,

    One of my favorites. 🙂

  31. Ron, I’m not by any means in the camp that’s against GM foods, and I understand that most of the stuff we eat has been modified in one way or another (albeit somewhat more naturally).

    Man is a wild animal living in the wild and his actions are no less natural then a crow sitting on a tree limb or a rock falling into Earth’s gravity well.

    That said lets take your absurd notion on its face that human influence is unnatural. How is 10,000 years of selective breeding by the hands and minds of man somehow more natural then modifying plants and animals in the lab?

  32. joshua corning,

    Though I’m not saying that just because something is old that makes it “right,” I will note that the division of the world into things done by man and that done by nature is as old as at least the pre-socratics.

    It is also pretty clear that we don’t really live in the “wild” anymore. After all, uch of the world around us was created by, well, us.

  33. I, for one, welcome our GM modified, tomacco addicted overlords.

  34. joshua corning,

    Indeed, such a division between man and nature as a concept seems to be a necessary component in the development of, for example, technology.

  35. Now, I have nothing against trying to catch those few bad products before the problem snowballs, but you have to have some reasonable threshold here. How much testing? For how long?

    Liability and labeling seem like a better approach than mandatory testing. If something does go wrong, there should be no “we didn’t see that one coming” defense when the sick people (or whoever) sue. If GM foodmakers are clear up front that they will have to pay to fix any problems and compensate any damages, then they are much likelier to act responsibly.

    I imagine that what a lot of GM boosters want is a system whether the gm’ers make profits, but have no legal responsibility for problems. Bad system. Will lead to trouble as the number and intensity of induced genetic changes increase.

  36. . . . they are much likelier to act responsibly . . .

    Further thought: some of this idea of acting responsibly may involve pre-market internal testing, but, as T. points out, it is hard to know what tests to even do or how long.

    Probably the most responsible thing is for the GM foodmaker to track potential problems (eg, agricultural problems, health problems) after the food goes on the market, and to take allegations that a gm food is causing a problem seriously and quickly. Another responsible thing may be to roll out new varieties slowly.

    But whatever the “responsible” approach is, the gm foodmakers will only choose the responsible way if potential liability motivates them to do so. If they think they can buy their way out of liability with tort lawyers, then they will throw caution to the wind.

  37. 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.

    This doesn’t make any sense. The risk depends upon how radically genetic structure is altered. If you irradiate crops to such a degree that only minor modifications are made, then risk remains low.

    On the other hand, if you make major modifications to a plant or animal’s genetic structure, in a purposeful way, then risk is higher.

    I think the enhanced concern with “newstyle” gm is that major changes can be made while still preserving (or even enhancing) the replication abilities of the organism. With radiation you are just going to get a dead plant or animal if you crank the mutation-inducing machine too high.

    The precision is good from the standpoint of intended outcomes, but bad from the standpoint of unintended outcomes.

  38. Indeed, such a division between man and nature as a concept seems to be a necessary component in the development of, for example, technology.

    There are two worlds Grotius…the actual world and the world we describe. The actual world does not care if you describe man outside of it…man is still in it.

    Ants live in tunnels they created themselves does that mean they are unnatural?

    How about bacteria that live in peoples stomachs that put out antacids to survive. Are they unnatural.

    Are forests not made by trees?

    Your argument is a joke.

  39. joshua corning,

    It may be a joke, but you really didn’t address it.

  40. “I think the enhanced concern with “newstyle” gm is that major changes can be made while still preserving (or even enhancing) the replication abilities of the organism. With radiation you are just going to get a dead plant or animal if you crank the mutation-inducing machine too high.”

    Suicide genes. Cutting down on the ability of GM crops to reproduce is how you ensure that you make money off the seeds. In fact it is a safety/profit feature that is often cited by GM opponents as a method of exploiting poor 3rd world farmers and yet another reason why we shouldnt grow them.

  41. joshua corning,

    The actual world does not care if you describe man outside of it…man is still in it.

    That doesn’t matter though. The concept of man standing outside of nature is central to the development human society.

  42. That doesn’t matter though. The concept of man standing outside of nature is central to the development human society.

    yeah because as we all know human society did not exist pre-pre-Socratics…and native Americans did not have “Human Society” until white people with guns brought it to them.

    The joke has stopped being funny.

    The Judao-Christian Genesis myth you elude to is interesting and has had a profound (not divine) influence on many societies. You gripping onto to is not interesting and about as profound as a crying 13 year old whose parents just took away her baby blanket.

    And as a moral justification for the State to stop genetic research; sickening.

  43. joshua corning,

    I know you think you’re being extremely clever, but, um, no.

    Man is a wild animal living in the wild and his actions are no less natural then a crow sitting on a tree limb or a rock falling into Earth’s gravity well.

    If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the words “wild” or “natural” at all.

    To take it further, let’s get rid of the distinction between “real” and “imaginary”. If I imagine something, real events are happening in my brain. So it’s all real!

    There are two worlds Grotius…the actual world and the world we describe.

    No there aren’t! The describing of the world is happening in the actual world, therefore it’s all the same! By your logic, anyway.

    Sadly necessary disclaimer: I’m not remotely opposed to GM foods.

  44. joshua corning,

    *shrug*

    Have a good one.

  45. I have never understood the hysteria about GM crops or animals. It’s as if people think that eating cloned or GM products will cause them to mutate into mole-men or something.

    We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years. Where do we think pigs or corn come from? Either something is safe to eat, or it’s not. The only thing we need to worry about, IMO, is GM varieties edging out wild varieties and causing a drop in biodiversity. But to deny the benefits of GM to mankind, on a planet where untold millions starve, is criminal.

  46. Seeing,

    We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years.

    Sometimes the results were beneficial and sometimes they weren’t; oft times they were mixed. For example, quite a lot of the diseases that have traditionally plagued human societies arose from the close contact created by the domestication of animals (said domestication being beneficial in numerous ways).

  47. Genetically Modifying Crops the Old-Fashioned Way

    There’s a joke about Scotsmen and sheep in this. I just know it!

  48. I know you think you’re being extremely clever, but, um, no.

    No there aren’t! The describing of the world is happening in the actual world, therefore it’s all the same! By your logic, anyway.

    Umm yeah…

    The concept of man being apart from nature is fundamentally flawed and arises from quasi-religious belief.

    No attempts at cleverness here.

  49. crap…close italisized test

  50. In response to Ron Bailey’s three-point program, I have a three-point program of my own:

    1) eliminate all biotech patents, along with all other patents;
    2) eliminate all government funding of R&D; and
    3) eliminate all food libel laws, all regulatory restrictions on the labelling of GM-free foods, along with all other restrictions on free commercial speech.

    The whole issue of GM crops would become moot. The biotech industry is as big a welfare deadbeat as McDonnell-Douglas.

  51. Basically, researchers blast plants with radiation and see what comes up.

    This was an episode of Gilligan’s Island. A crate full of radioactive seeds washed up on the island, and the unwitting castaways used them to grow vegetable gardens. Unintended consequences: Each castaway acquired superpowers. Gilligan became super-strong from eating the irradiated spinach; Mary Ann acquired super-acute vision from eating the carrots; Mrs. Howell moved at highly accelerated speed due to the sugar in the irradiated beets she ate; and I forget the rest.

    These powers were only temporary; they eventually wore off. But as this demonstrates, you really can’t be too careful.

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