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

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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.

NEXT: Is Matt Drudge a Libertarian?

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  1. Yet to date no verifiable toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from…transgenic foods have been discovered anywhere in the world.

    Good god Man! Didn’t you see the South Park re-run last night?

  2. I do avoid buying products that contain ingredients from producers who would likely just shrug their shoulders if you asked them what was in them. But I guess I’m just funny that way.

    I do definitely support gene splicing, and I would like to see reasonable, thorough testing of the resulting strains. That way we can know what’s in them. I would happily eat plants that were competently handled and tested, no matter how the seed was generated.

    Way I see it, the current “bombarding with radiation” method is about as crude as an icepick lobotomy, next to the skilled microsurgery methods of gene splicing.

  3. 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…given its history of safety, there is no need for such regulation.

    Bruce Banner would beg to differ.

    I’m sorry, Ron: You can blast barley with gamma, delta, kappa, even epsilon radiation — nothing will change the fact that I find the taste of whiskey absolutely disgusting.

  4. There is a difference between radiation-induced mutation and transgenic changes. There are strong arguments for transgenic foods, but creating a false equality with radiative mutation is not one of htem.

  5. df: I’m not saying they are equal at all. Mutation breeding is much cruder than modern gene-splicing.

  6. I think where the Anti-biotechies get freaked out is at the outlier stories where iridescent plankton genes get inserted into mice and they end up glowing in the dark or somesuch.

    It’s not a rational response, but an emotional one that some folks can’t get past.

    For a lot of people, once they get locked into a position on a hotly debated scientific topic, new factual evidence is ignored or argued away and it takes Heaven and Earth to move their opinion. They’ll grasp at the finest of straws to support their skepticism.

  7. What if the argument against genetic modification is simply that evolution is a natural process, it happens for a reason, and shouldn’t be tampered with? Is that argument entirely irrational?

  8. BAILEY BARKER FOR BIG BOOZE

    heh, couldn’t resist.

  9. What if the argument against genetic modification is simply that evolution is a natural process, it happens for a reason, and shouldn’t be tampered with? Is that argument entirely irrational?

    Semantically equivalent to “If God wanted man to fly, he’d have given us wings.”

  10. I think what freaks a lot of folks is chimeras — often enough this is reported as putting a gene from the butt of a moose into a tomato plant.

  11. Aresen,

    Ah, good point. However, what man did was build a machine that could fly for him. He didn’t attempt to shove wings into his shoulder blades.

  12. Are you suggesting that terrestrial gamma radiation is not natural?

  13. I’m going out to buy a bottle of “mutant” whiskey today.

    I’ll take an Islay malt any day over Macallan.

  14. “Mr. Ronald Bailey, reason contributor, reporting on ways of artificially inducing genetic mutation in crops. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation interacts with his unique body chemistry. And now, when Ronald Bailey grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphasis occurs.”

    RON BAILEY SMASH!

    I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I just hope one day, you can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within you.

  15. Glow in the dark mice is a great idea. It would make them easier to catch at night. We must pass legislation to introduce the glow-gene into all the wild mice populations.

    My cat loves batting around a glow in the dark ball. I’m sure she’d like glow in the dark mice even better.

  16. MP: I’ve been drinking Lagavulin for years. But I recently tried Caol Ila and I may have found a new favorite. Macallan is OK when you don’t have access to an Islay.

  17. Ron,

    I prefer a shot of Jim Beam and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. In Philly bars that’s a $3 special and for one Andrew Jackson you can get yourself stinking drunk, with enough left over to tip the bartender.

    I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

  18. Being a Scotch, Macallan is a whisky, not a whiskey.

    There.

  19. There is a difference between radiation-induced mutation and transgenic changes. There are strong arguments for transgenic foods, but creating a false equality with radiative mutation is not one of htem.

    The difference is that mutation breeding is far far more dangerous and unpredictable, and yet totally unregulated!

    But, the danger isn’t the real reason why people oppose GM food. The opposition to GM food is funded by highly subsidized Euro-Farmers as a protectionist measure against foreign imports.

  20. Rex,

    And there you’ve discovered the true nature of the anti-GM argument. In the end it’s always about economics.

  21. I’ve been drinking Lagavulin for years. But I recently tried Caol Ila and I may have found a new favorite. Macallan is OK when you don’t have access to an Islay.

    Thanks for the tip. Unfortunately, it’s not stocked in NH. I’ll keep a lookout for it. In the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for my 17-Yr Bowmore.

    Here’s my tip of the day…stay away from Loch Dhu. It looks like charcoal in a bottle, and it tastes like charcoal in a bottle.

  22. As soon as the GM scientists create a wheat that can give me laser-beam eyes and fully functioning gills, sign me up. If all they can do is make the food supply healthier and more productive – BOORRRRINNG.

  23. Pedant Sot: I hear you. But according to dictionary.com, the preferred spelling is whiskey, although drinkers of Scotch and Canadian spirits prefer “whisky.”

  24. SPD

    He didn’t attempt to shove wings into his shoulder blades.

    Aside from the fact I’d need about an 80 foot wingspan to generate sufficient lift, sounds like a good idea to me. Just think – never getting stuck in traffic again! :)))

  25. radiation genetics is robustly developed, and it is well known that exposing plant cells to Co60 as described in Broad’s piece results in massive changes of many sorts. most conspicuously, large numbers of structural rearrangements are created as high energy radiation breaks (shatters) chromosomes which then re-anneal in novel ways. You get inversions (para- and peri-centric), translocations (reciprocal and otherwise), loops, acentric/dicentric/polycentric fragments, deletions, duplications, and a whole potpourri that is completely unpredictable. You want to see a train wreck bombed into a disaster, look at stained chromosome preps of irradiated cells — Chaos unleashed. The majority of descendents from cells with genetic material so scrambled die because of the — there are no better words for it — massive trauma and injuries sustained. There are in addition a host of point mutations that can take place in which a nucleotide of one sort winds up being swapped for a different one (transitions and transversion they are called), with often far reaching genetic consequences. These tend to be more survivable/less lethal, than the massive structural re-arrangements but can result also in significant genetic novelty.

    radiation genetics is akin to putting all the DNA of an organism in a blender, hitting “pulse” a few times, and seeing what pops out. Completely unpredictable, and largely safe. Contrast that with recombinant DNA manipulations (which are far more similar to what one actually finds in nature, with transposons/jumping genes, horizontal transfer of viral elements etc.) which are by comparison infinitely more gentle, precise, and predictable — and therefore safer than the admittedly safe use of radiation genetics in plant and animal breeding, and one can see that the green whacktivists and their fellow travelers in the journalism community (apologies to Ron Bailey, Mat Ridley, Bill Broad, and too few more) truly have their knickers in a (counterclockwise) twist.

    Pierre Lagoda is not just cheeky in trying to advance radiation genetics at the expense of “gmos” (what a vacuous and misleading term) — he’s dissembling to the point of dishonesty.

  26. radiation genetics is akin to putting all the DNA of an organism in a blender, hitting “pulse” a few times, and seeing what pops out.

    I can think of a few people I’d like to try that on.

  27. For Scotch drinkers on a budget, I recommend Speyburn. Tastes quite a bit like the Glenlivet, but at about half the price ($20 a fifth here in Knoxville). I get the 1750 ml bottle for $40, which is just excellent.

    Of course, I’m sure that the Glenlivet is too . . . insipid for most of the Scotch drinkers here. 🙂

  28. I am with pedant sot…the spelling difference is important…

    http://whiskynews.blogspot.com/2005/05/whisky-or-whiskey-which-spelling-is.html

    Not that it is always followed…but for Single Malts from Scotland, no “e” EVER.

    Those not from Scotland that leave out the e are just pretenders.

    😉

  29. the spelling difference is important…

    I figure the guy buying the round can spell the drink anyway he wants, and the people drinking shouldn’t complain.

  30. Speedwell —

    You’re in luck. GM crops in the U.S. are subject to regulatory review by the USDA, FDA, and EPA. They’re the most-tested crops in human history.

    SPD —

    If the principle is that evolution shouldn’t be messed with, then artificial selection and crossbreeding of natural mutants is itself objectionable, which rules out better than 99.99% of all crops and domestic animals. Nature never made a cow or an ear of sweet corn; both are creations of centuries of deliberate work by men, and are incapable of survival in the wild.

  31. I’ve been drinking Lagavulin for years. But I recently tried Caol Ila and I may have found a new favorite. Macallan is OK when you don’t have access to an Islay.

    Anyone who is a fan of Islay malt gets their cred back for going wobbly on climate change.

    And nothing is better than the older Laphroaig. I forget if its 16 or 18 years old, but it is divine.

  32. Politics should never be tied to alcohol preference, RC. I like to think of it as the great uniter.

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