X Crops

Mutants for biotech


No one has ever suffered so much as a cough, sniffle, or stomach ache from eating foods made with ingredients from currently commercialized varieties of biotech crops. Yet anti-biotech activists continue to fret about the possible dangers of such foods. Curiously, they ignore the much less controlled reshuffling of genes that takes place through the more widespread and longstanding practice of mutation breeding.

Mutation breeding involves blasting seeds and buds with gamma radiation. Breeders then plant the irradiated seeds and wait to see what (if anything) comes up. If an interesting characteristic emerges, they begin the process of commercializing it. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization lists thousands of crop varieties that have been created this way during the last eight decades, including various kinds of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava, and sorghum.

No regulatory authority oversees this process of wholesale genetic mutation. If anti-biotech activists are so afraid of genetic changes in their foods, why aren't they out protesting varieties produced by means of random mutation breeding? After all, most new biotech crops merely have different agronomic characteristics, whereas many irradiated varieties have different nutritional profiles.

One possible factor: Mutation breeding has a solid record of 80 years of safety. But that leaves the question of why the more precise methods of modern gene splicing should give them pause.