I have no major problems with genetically modified organisms. There are, however, very legitimate concerns about their widespread use. Genes for herbicide resistance could spread to weeds related to crop species, making it even harder to control weeds. Genes interact with each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways, and the rapid pace of genetic engineering – as compared with traditional breeding techniques – means it’s more likely that dangerous interactions would be more likely to slip past.
On the other hand, there’s a compelling argument, advanced by Nobel winner Norman Borlaug among others, that genetic engineering is the best path towards a new Green Revolution that would reduce poverty and improve lives throughout the developing world. As Borlaug and others have argued, kneejerk opposition to genetically modified organisms has the potential to prolong human suffering in many areas. These two poles in the debate tend to attract a lot of attention, perhaps to the detriment of actual discussion about how we ought to move forward, instead of just arguing over the foregone conclusion of whether to move forward.
Incidents like rice recalls over gene contamination help clarify the dangers:
The Agriculture Department last night took the unusual step of insisting that U.S. farmers refrain from planting a popular variety of long-grain rice because preliminary tests showed that its seed stock may be contaminated with a variety of gene-altered rice not approved for marketing in the United States.
The announcement marks the third time in six months that U.S. rice has been found to be inexplicably contaminated with engineered traits, and it comes just weeks before the spring planting season.
The rice strain was popular this year because it replaces an earlier strain which got contaminated and recalled.
This comes on the heels of Ventria Bioscience announcing their plans to plant 3,000 acres of genetically modified rice on plots in Kansas. The rice has been modified to express human proteins – lactoferrin, serum albumin and lysozyme – which are then extracted at a factory and packaged into nutritional supplements for use abroad. The rice itself is then discarded.
This particular case embodies the problems of the entire debate. A cheap, renewable source of anti-diarrheal medicines for the developing world could save many, many lives. On the other hand, if the genes transfer to rice produced for human consumption, there are real dangers that the rice could cause dangerous reactions, for instance if the genes mutate to a form that causes an immune response.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is asking for comments about this planting and other outdoor growths of biopharmaceuticals. They’ve documented lax oversight of similar plantings by Ventria in North Carolina. Seeds or pollen from modified rice could be transferred to fields in Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana by migrating birds.
In Ventria’s defense, there’s no rice grown in the area around Junction City right now, and they’ve moved their pharmacrops further and further from existing rice plantings. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a fuller examination of the potential range of effects these crops could have before they are planted outside.
Ventria treats their rice as a “medical food,” rather than as a drug, lessening regulatory thresholds when they sell the product. And the oversight process for the plants is less stringent, and less carefully scrutinized. Even a small error could lead to contamination of our rice crop, which could in turn jeopardize international sales of various agricultural products. This is a low-probability risk, but with larger area planted, and with more time, that risk gets greater and greater. The precautionary principle argues for great scrutiny of this.
That scrutiny has to come from the USDA, and you can tell them what you expect of them by signing the UCS’s petition.