Planting the seeds of misinformation

Published February 1, 2000

The Food and Drug Administration has been holding hearings across the country on the safety of genetically engineered plants as food for humans. The outcome of those hearings will be of vital importance to farmers, consumers, and the nation’s trade and agribusiness companies.

In the past, the regulatory agency has agreed with reputable scientists that genetically engineered plants were safe.

But in Europe, the public has become obsessed with the idea that genetically engineered foods are too risky for general consumption. This uncertainty has been fueled by the distortion and misinformation spread by anti-biotechnology activists.

It is easy to mislead the public on the subject of genetic engineering, because most people are unsure of what genetic engineering is and why scientists consider it so important.

Biotechnology companies have contributed to the public confusion by touting genetic engineering as something radically new. Such statements, good for biotech stock prices, evoke fears of the unknown.

In fact, genetic engineering is nothing more than a refinement of the techniques used for a long time to breed plants with desirable traits, such as resistance to insects or resistance to drought. If anything, genetically engineered plants should be safer than traditionally bred ones.

Traditional breeding: More luck than science

Traditional breeding practices cross two breeds of plant in the hopes of creating progeny that have more desirable traits. For example, a highly productive breed of corn might be crossed with a wild relative that is more resistant to insects, in the hope of introducing insect resistance into the highly productive breed.

Traditional breeding, however, cannot control what other traits come along with the desired ones. Traditional crosses are a roll of the genetic dice with a possibly adverse outcome.

Genetic engineering: Simpler is better

Genetic engineering removes most of the uncertainty involved in traditional breeding practices by producing one or a few highly specific changes in the plant. It applies to plant breeding a principle that is well established in vaccine development: to reduce toxic side effects, avoid complex vaccines of uncertain composition and use simple well-characterized preparations instead.

But isn’t genetic engineering unnatural and therefore suspect?

This is one of the pieces of misinformation that has been circulated widely.

Introducing bacterial DNA into plants is nothing new. There would be no plants if at some point in evolution a bacterium had not been incorporated into a plant cell to become a chloroplast, the organelle that makes it possible for plants to convert light energy into biomass.

Humans were not the first genetic engineers. Nature was.

Now consider that genetically engineered plants have been grown year after year for more than 10 years, and none of the disasters predicted by the opponents has materialized.

The Monarch butterfly population has increased. There is no evidence of movement of genes from genetically engineered plants to their weedy relatives.

Although no casualties have been tied to genetically engineered plants, there have been some serious casualties in the campaign to stop genetic engineering. Foremost is Midwest agriculture.

Already battered by low prices, farmers who embraced the new breeds as a means of improving yields are now being penalized for behavior that normally would be rewarded.

The second casualty has been human health. The amount of attention devoted to the entirely theoretical risks associated with consumption of genetically engineered plants has deflected attention from some very real problems, such as the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A third casualty could well be the developing world. Genetic engineering represents the brightest hope for making it possible for Africa and Asia to feed their growing populations.

Oddly enough, while Greenpeace and the other anti-biotechnology groups portray themselves as eager to prevent any possible risk to citizens in the West–however minuscule–they have been silent on the disastrous impact their activities are likely to have on countries desperately in need of advances in crop production.


Abigail Salyers is professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This essay first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.