How to Talk About Biotechnology

By Keith Kloor | March 25, 2013 5:13 pm

Is this something that GMO-fearing foodies and greens can agree with?

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating that genetic modification is little more than a new tool in the perennial human endeavor to modify the biology that surrounds us – a project that exploded with the advent of agriculture and the development of crop-breeding techniques now centuries old. The real issue, then, is that genetic modification – like old-school breeding tactics – is an instrument, as equally suited for prudent application as it is dangerous implementation.

It’s from a Robert Gonzalez post at i09 that offers a very constructive perspective on the GMO debate. He quotes from some of my writing on the subject, but uses a Boing Boing essay by Maggie Koerth-Baker to highlight larger points about the similarities between conventional breeding and genetic modification techniques, the important one being that we should recognize both as tools,

each with their inherent risks and benefits. Failing to do so can lead to misinformation and confusion; and it can just as easily inspire unnecessary fear.

Go and read the full piece.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

    It’s a start but this definition is far from perfect for my tastes.

    1) increased levels of solanine are visually recognizable by the green discoloration of the potato. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1597169/?page=2

    2) the effects of solanine have been discussed widely and known for a very long time

    3) the effects are acute rather than chronic and thus easily traced

    4) most importantly — solanine is not anticipated to be new to the species of potatoes or to the food supply, unlike stacked varieties of crops carrying multiple novel traits from distant species of unrelated organisms, genetically engineered via Agrobacterium transformation and ballistics. –which could produce unpredictable adverse effects, the most feared of which would be subtle and chronic/ rather than of acute presentations.

    • Karl Haro von Mogel

      1) Increased levels of Solanine in different varieties are not detectable by looking for green skin. Increased levels in an individual potato are. Different varieties of potatoes have different levels of solanine, and yes, when you leave them out and they begin to turn green, those levels go up. But you cannot a priori take any potato variety and automatically assume that if it is not green that it does not have toxic levels of solanine and other glycoalkaloids. This statement is false.
      2) To some extent, we know how it works, but the same can be said about well-studied genes that have been engineered into crops.
      3) Little research has been done on the long-term safety of glycoalkaloids (including solanine), and some papers, such as this one, suggest that they could accumulate in tissues, and persist for a day or more. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230004001345 If you are consuming potatoes regularly, you could have problems that we do not know about.
      4) But new chunks of chromosomes introgressed (bred in) from wild species may be new to the cultivated potato, and lead to interactions that are not predictable. In fact, you can make a stronger argument for new genes from closely related species having interactions than for new genes from distantly-related species, because of the similarity of biochemical pathways. Wild potatoes would be more likely to affect the glycoalkaloid pathway than, say, fruit flies.

      • http://twitter.com/Itr0ll Pat Patterson

        solution > STOP EATING POTATOES! WHEAT! BREAD! CORN! RICE! SOY! PROCESSED FOODS! REFINED SUGAR! ALCOHOL! TOBACCO! and MEAT!!!!!!!!!!!

        Filter your tapwater with something more advanced than a Brita (they are useless and only add BPA and plastic to your cup)

        I guarantee in less than 2 weeks you will forget about these poisons and feel unbelieavbly better. People think “oh how will I ever eat!”. It takes a bit of planning, some research, and buy a weeks worth of groceries.

        Then go hiking with a friend, or camping and get back to your roots as beings co-existing in a beautiful natural environment free from stress, and anger.

        Try it for a week. You will add 10-15 years on your life if you start before you are 40. Goodluck all, hopefully you get out of our crappy 9-5 before its too late.

        And for god sakes dont feed your kids this crap! it harms them 100x more than you.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

        Hi Karl. Nice to see you.

        I am not worried about chronic effects of cholinesterase inhibitors, as I am about chronic inflammatory, epigenetic or endocrine agents.

        As far as the Lenape, it might not look green but I am guessing it tasted pretty awful and quite bitter. :)

        Solanine Levels and Burning Sensation

        More bitter varieties contain excess solanine and other SGA’s and are more toxic as well……Solanine levels above 14mg/100g are bitter in taste. Cultivar with greater than 20mg/100g cause a burning sensation in the throat and mouth. ….

        One variety of potato with significantly high solanine levels is Lenape. The level in these potatoes is approximately 30mg/100g. http://www.safespectrum.com/articles/potato-toxicity-solanine.php

  • Kevin Bonham

    I’ve been trying to make this argument for a while – like any technology, genetic modification can be used for good or ill, and the business practices of the companies using the technology can be good or bad. My favorite annology is rocketry – if all you’ve ever heard about was missiles and ICBM’s, you’d say rocketry was a terrible technology, but it also allows GPS and weather prediction and putting rovers on Mars etc etc.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

      Your analogy is all well and good, until you get down to the brass tacks and start looking at specifics.

      Can you please show me safety studies of the Enlist stacked corn currently in the regulatory pipeline, which will be sprayed with 2,4-D, glyphosate and quizalafop ? http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/aphisdocs/09_23301p_dea.pdf

      Thanks very much.

      It presents challenges to public health of more concern than green and bitter potatoes.

      • Martin

        Can you please show me the safety studies of the various dogs bred from wolf-like creatures? The safety of corn bred for use in the Nile valley?

        Public health is about understanding outcomes and control. We have more of both with deliberately engineered crops, rather than tentatively trialled speculative interbreeding. Do we not?

        • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

          I expected the answer in the dialect of scientific citations, not rhetoric. Thanks anyways.

          • http://www.facebook.com/ena.valikov Ena Valikov

            Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and occupational exposure to 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic

            Michal FreedmanDivision of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute

            Editor

            Burns et al.[1] report a significant excess of deaths due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in a cohort of Dow employees potentially exposed to the herbicide 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4-D), but then argue against theMore… http://oem.bmj.com/content/58/1/24.abstract/reply#oemed_el_14 etc. etc. etc. etc.

      • Kevin Bonham

        Sorry for the delay in responding to this – it’s been a busy week.

        What you’re asking me misses the point entirely. I have no idea what the risks are for this one particular instance of GM technology.

        I do know that in the last 40 years, there’s been no conclusive evidence of harm from eating GMO food (http://goo.gl/ypM1y), but let’s ignore that entirely.

        Let’s say that this particular crop that you mentioned, or any other for that matter, was proven beyond any doubt to cause harm. Let’s say I grant you that eating this variety of corn caused sterility or your skin to fall off [accidentally hit enter]… not quite done

  • RogerSweeny

    God, I mean the Universe, made each species according to its own kind. Moving genes between species is contrary to the will of God, I mean the Universe.

  • http://twitter.com/Itr0ll Pat Patterson

    “GMO-fearing”?

    Have you not heard that glsysophate is in EVERYONE’s body now in North America – and is JUST ONE of them tested for among dozens and dozens of KNOWN carcinogenic herbicides used especially for GMO? Pesticide DESIGNED for GMO crops. Have you not heard of the cancer rats of lab rice fed GMO corn and soy varities?

    Oh right, get “bill gates” to talk vaccines and ending world hunger, force this untested technological experiement onto defenceless populations and then pretend those that are scared or worried are just being stupid, silly, cautious and then label them as ‘outsiers’.

    GMO is KNOWN to cause genetic defects. It is KNOWN to require MORE and MORE and MORE pesticides to kill GMO-created WEEDS that are resisitant. It is KNOWN to be completely untested.

    Why do all the companies with all their ingredients and additives LOVE GMO so much then if their research teams all know this? Same reasons that govt still allow processed foods to be created when we know they create cancer, diabetes and are destroying lives… same reason sugar and salt are still added to everything… Everything is OK, close your windows, spray your febreeze which also contains know carginogens…

    Its just so ridiculous that knowing all of this, we are still at the mercy of these absolutely devil-like corps and people who would never in a million years consume, eat or be near anyone like us or products we are forced to buy.

    • Howard

      Almost everybody uses roundup at their home to kill weeds, so if it’s in everybody, home use is the route of exposure. Korporations are Killing us so good that western life expectancies are at an all time high. You are not at the mercy of devil-like corporations, rather, it’s your own ignorant belief in superstition..

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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