Mutant Whiskey Anyone? Or Yet Another Reason Why You Shouldn't Worry About Biotech Crops.


Anti-biotech ideologues are constantly peddling fantasies about the alleged dangers of transferring a few well-characterized genes between organisms aimed at protecting crops from pests, diseases and allowing for weed control. As I noted recently, two U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization economists state in the current issue of Scientific American:

Yet to date no verifiable toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of transgenic foods have been discovered anywhere in the world. (emphasis mine)

Or as I have put it elsewhere, there is no scientific evidence that anyone has ever suffered so much as a cough, sniffle or bellyache from eating foods made with ingredients from currently commercialized varieties of biotech crops.

Anti-biotechies worry about a few genes inserted here and there in crops, but completely ignore the wholesale reshuffling of genes that takes place through mutation breeding. The New York Times is running an excellent article on mutation breeding today. The article explains that there are currently thousands of crop varieties that have been created over the past eight decades by blasting seeds and buds with gamma radiation. Breeders plant the irradiated seeds and wait to see what (if anything) comes up. If breeders find an interesting characteristic they begin the process of commercializing it. Keep in mind that no regulatory authority oversees this process of wholesale genetic mutation. And given its history of safety, there is no need for such regulation.

For a list of crop varieties produced by mutation breeding, see the FAO's Officially Released Mutant Varieties Database here.

As the New York Times reports:

Though poorly known, radiation breeding has produced thousands of useful mutants and a sizable fraction of the world's crops, Dr. [Pierre] Lagoda [the head of plant breeding and genetics at the International Atomic Energy Agency,] said, including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum. The mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta and the mutant barley for beer and fine whiskey.

Lagoda who irradiates plants to produce mutants is being somewhat disingenuous when he says, "I'm not doing anything different from what nature does." True, mutations occur in nature all of the time, but it seems somewhat doubtful that plants out in a field experience anywhere near the number of uncharacterized mutations produced in a lab by gamma rays.

If anti-biotechies are so afraid of genetic changes in their foods, why aren't they out protesting varieties produced by means of mutation breeding? After all, most biotech crops merely change agronomic characteristics, whereas many irradiated varieties have different nutritional profiles.

The point here is NOT that mutation breeding is inherently dangerous. Given a 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 and should therefore be subject to even less regulation than crops produced by mutation breeding.

Whole New York Times article here.

Being a single malt drinker, I quickly checked to see which whiskey uses mutant "Golden Promise" barley-it's Macallan. I'm going out to buy a bottle of "mutant" whiskey today.