I’ve long promised friends to write up my views on genetic engineering. This is the CliffsNotes version. I’ll write something more detailed over summer.
I support the shit out of genetic engineering, and the consumption of genetically modified foods. I dabble in it and I love it where it’s going. I love that today, genetic engineering techniques are orders of magnitude more precise than accepted plant breeding and various mutagenesis techniques.
It’s obviously quite safe. Most food isn’t tested in clinical trials, but genetically modified organisms are tested extensively before being released into the market. Even industry testing is a huge leap from no testing at all. According to various respected independent scientific organisations: in 20 years of testing, by over 500 independent groups, not fucking once in well designed studies has genetically modified food currently on the market been associated with human illness.
I don’t love Monsanto. I don’t love the regulatory environment that ensures that only rich multinationals like Monsanto get to dominate the biotechnology sector. The draconian bureaucracy that chokes biotechnology, largely influenced by manufactured public opposition courtesy of scientifically illiterate moonbat cults like Greenpeace, sets a financially insurmountable hurdle that prevents small, low budget startups (like what I’d love to do to fund my neuroscience education), humanitarian efforts and open source-friendly independent researchers from competing with Big Biotech.
Another obvious problem is the broken patent system. I’m in two minds about it: first, there clearly needs to be restrictions on patenting open source genomes minimally altered with open access sequences available from websites like the Standard Registry of Biological Parts (henceforth just “Parts Registry”); and second, in the case of novel or sophisticated genomes, patenting is probably OK. But patenting should not restrict independent testing. Perhaps firms should be required to donate batches of seeds to registered labs for analysis.
That said, I’m not sure if I believe in compulsory large-scale testing. Very few “synthetic” foods not derived from GMOs are tested at all if they contain no known toxic or illegal compounds. I don’t see much difference between worrying about any unknown chemical reactions between various compounds and those of various sequences of genes. The mere existence of Parts Registry speaks to the precision offered by genetic engineering.
Even the gene gun, criticised for its relative inaccuracy, has been consigned to near-obsolescence due to various high-precision competing technologies (at least, in agricultural biotechnology, it’s still used in human gene therapy with great success).
Such precision for inserting sequences isn’t always necessary to achieve predictable outcomes: recombinant methods offered by viral vectors for gene therapy and even “cruder” methods such as electroporation get the job done.
What people often fail to realise when they go after Monsanto by parroting made up bullshit about genetically modified organisms is that a more open market (though, not totally “free”) conducive to open source and small companies is profoundly anti-corporate. Forget Monsanto, DIY biohacking even has the power to take on Big Pharma, and, by extension, Big Quacka.
It’s taken for granted that conventional agriculture isn’t going to feed 9 billion people. The organic vs. GMO debate, perpetuated by Big Quacka, is fucking stupid. Organic food, generally, offers lower yields for obscene land use. Economical land use is very important, because any land used by humans encroaches on fragile ecosystems. This is why it makes no sense to inadvertently expand farming and explicitly decry cities as taking us away from nature. We need to take up less space if we want to allow ecosystems to thrive.
Organic food may very well play a role in feeding the world, but the ever-advancing field of genetic engineering offers a much better shot. Crops can be tailored for climates, even to withstand levels of city pollution (though I expect that to drop dramatically, if we survive) and to thrive and usher in a revolution of indoor vertical farming. This will combat projected rising food prices (due to global warming and other factors) and make it possible to grow crops where it’s not feasible to do so using other methods. Such efforts are being spearheaded by not-for-profit organisations such as the Mexican International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
I hope it’s clear why I frequently call out so-called environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering. Not only do they slow progress in a field that offers novel, powerful solutions to climate change, land use, and so on, but they also work against humanitarian efforts aimed at ameliorating poverty. The most stark, recent example of this is the backlash against golden rice, a theoretically sound and repeatedly proven solution to rampant vitamin A deficiency in third world and developing countries. One can’t help but wonder how many children have died from malnutrition while golden rice, nutrient-enriched cassava and other publicly developed crops remain under lock and key, thanks again to elitist middle class Westerners who really have no excuse for such scientific illiteracy.
Those who have been taken in by denialist literature such as the non-peer-reviewed report/Gish Gallop by EarthOpenSource (Google it, you’ll find it) are invited to read this better document by the European Commission. People concerned with data from long-term animal feeding studies should read this paper (without shooting the messenger, which is too often a convenient excuse for intellectual laziness). And people who thought that Gilles-Eric Séralini found evidence that GMOs cause enormous tumours in rats should look at this (heavy lifting) and/or this. Spoiler alert: his study looks an awful lot like scientific fraud.
(Originally posted as “On genetically engineered food” on my tumblr blog Just Defiance.)