Tuesday, July 25, 2006


According to the European Union, food classified as GM contains genetic material that has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or recombination.

Their premise is that it is not natural to take genes from one organism and implant them in another. What are we talking about when we say 'genes'? Heuristically speaking, genes consist of a specific sequence of DNA base sequences (guanine,cytosine,adenine,and thymine) that lead to the expression of traits.

With traditional plant breeding, we develop plants with superior arrangements of DNA base sequences via the transfer of thousands of genes from one plant to another. These arrangements represent drastic changes in plant characteristics that would not have occurred naturally. (for example, modern corn scantly resembles its ancestor teosinte) Since the 1960's scientists have also been engaged in what is referred to as mutation breeding. In this procedure plant cells are attacked with gamma rays inducing ‘unnatural’ new combinations of DNA base sequences. Much of the pasta consumed in the world today is derived from wheat developed via mutation breeding. These changes to plant DNA are much more extreme than what molecular biologists are doing in the laboratory today.

Unlike traditional plant breeding methods, the laboratory techniques of molecular biology that are used to create ‘transgenic’ or GM plants induce very specific and precise changes in plants. The rearrangement of DNA base sequences is known and controllable. While these combinations would not have occurred naturally, the base sequences are common to all organisms and are as natural as can be. One could argue that the risk associated with these modern techniques is much less than with traditional crop improvement methods.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


The debate over president Bush's possible veto of legislation regarding federal funding of stem cell research has been falsely characterized as a conflict between those who are ‘pro science’ and those who are ‘religious’ and ethics centered.

In this case it is the position of the media and other critics is that we should divorce ethics from science with regards to public policy. Science is a pure and objective standard upon which public policy decisions should be based, while ethics (especially Judao-Christian ethics) are equated with irrational biases and ignorance.

This hypocrisy, inconsistency, and intellectual dishonesty becomes apparent when the debate shifts from stem cell research to genetically modified foods. In this case science is equated with corporate greed and exploitation. It follows that science has been corrupted by the profit motive and is no longer objective, so we must rely on ethics or theories of environmental justice and social justice to guide our decisions.

Scientific solutions to problems always have implications for human welfare. It follows that in every case questions of ethics (often influenced by religious beliefs) arise. An honest media will portray these issues as two separate debates and steer away from the false dichotomy of science vs. ethics. One debate should be framed in terms of empirical facts regarding the soundness of the science involved. The other should encompass ethical considerations whether they involve theories of social justice, religion, or normative economics. It is irresponsible for the media, academia, or politicians to choose sides in a debate and then present it as a contest between enlightened scientists and religious nuts.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


Why are groups like CSPI and Green Peace so opposed to transgenic crops? Perhaps the most egregious perception that they try to perpetuate among the public is that GM crops are unsafe. We have been consuming foods derived from what most people consider to be GM crops(GM referring to gene-spliced or transgenic crops in laymen's terms) for over 10 years without any adverse effects to human health. Currently more than 70% of the products we find on the grocery store shelves are derived from GM crops. 90% of all enzymes used in large scale food processing result from using gene spliced microorganisms. Most people fear the laboratory techniques involved in producing GM foods. What we must remember is that the same free market incentives and regulatory system that has ensured that our water and air have been clean (with improving numbers) over the last 30 years provide no exception with regards to biotechnology.

We have more than a 40 year track record for safety with regards to more drastic crop improvement techniques such as chromosome doubling and mutation breeding. Some believe that we have taken our concern for safety too far, leading to hampered long term advancements in public health.