I have often marveled at the hypocrisy of anti-biotech crop activists who ignored hundreds of crop varieties produced using the relatively crude method of chemical or radiation mutagenesis. As I pointed out back in 2007:
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.
But I couldn't just shut up—I had to ask:
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?
Now French anti-biotech activists, filled with pent up antinomian fury over something or other, have now heeded my question. They are now destroying "hidden GMOs"—that is crop varieties produced by mutation breeding. French biologist Marcel Kuntz reports:
Having no GM crops or trials to destroy in France (since there are almost no GMO culture any longer in this country, apart from two small field trials), anti-GMO activists have found a new enemy: on Saturday July 24 2010 at Sorigny and St. Branchs (Indre-et-Loire, France), they vandalized plots of sunflowers they termed as « mutated » and herbicide tolerant. They are not GM, but opponents call them "hidden-GMOs" to continue to use the arguments successfully developed against GMOs and to mobilize their supporters.
What the anti-GMO activists are targeting now is mutagenesis use in plant breeding and, in particular, to produce herbicide resistance, such as those of Clearfield or Express Sun sunflower varieties (the former having actually been originally obtained by a spontaneous mutation).
Actually, the destruction at Sorigny concerned a high-oleic variety of sunflower. Oleic varieties do result from mutagenesis, and some are also used in organic farming. Therefore, if one follows the anti-GMO opponents' rhetoric, it is ironic that organic farmers are using « hidden-GMOs »!
In requesting that "the regulation on 'transgenic GMOs' also applies to 'GMOs' obtained by mutagenesis, cell fusion or other manipulations of life", opponents who are basically radical anti-capitalists hope to achieve for the entire plant breeding industry, and consequently for all major agricultural crops, the same economic sabotage as the one which has been so successful against GMOs in Europe.
The argument is the same: « against the new seed privatization thatagain represents a strategy for corporate confiscation of life ». Despite being wrong, this rhetoric is highly efficient in mobilizing anti-capitalist protesters.
Similarly, claims of « unintended effects that can cause serious damage to health … » are without factual basis, but aims to frighten consumers (who do not realize they have always eaten « mutants »…).
The stark beauty of this outbreak of lunacy will become fully refulgent when the protesters realize that hundreds of crop varieties grown by organic farmers were created using chemical and radiation mutagenesis. Eventually, the internal logic of their anti-scientific worldview must lead them to burn wheat fields because it came to be when three grasses unnaturally combined their whole genomes. And surely they will want to rip out corn plants as the misbegottn mutants of natural teosinte. Madness, I say. Complete madness!