Thursday, November 28, 2002

Stever Den Beste has a fine discussion of what we stand to gain from genetically modified crops, and how exactly it will be gained, as well as a rant against the EU ban on genetically modified crops, rather similar to my rant from the other day.

The process that Cornell used on rice shows the wave of the future: it is certain that the agricultural advantages of genetically-modified food crops in terms of yield quantity, and far more importantly in terms of yield consistency, will grow as the scientists learn more about plant genetics and as their techniques and tools continue to advance. They will gain more and more capability of learning how certain kinds of plants do useful things, and learning how to make others do the same. It will eventually be possible to create grains which can survive extremely inconsistent rains, and can be grown in very salty soil, with almost no risk at all of destruction by insects or plant diseases. And the holy grail of genetic modification will be when grains can be given the same ability that legumes have of fixing their own nitrogen, virtually eliminating the need for fertilizer.

This is staggering. This is potentially wonderful beyond words, and yet the European position is to ban it without discussion, and indeed without thought. We are not playing with anthrax here. What we are doing is moving a few genes around from plant species to plant species. It is conceivable that a genetic engineering effort could come up with something unexpected, but no more likely than natural evolution can come up with something unexpected. A modified plant could unexpectedly end up being poisonous, perhaps, but an artificial one is unlikely to get out of the laboratory. (Things going wrong are much more likely to simply lead to evolutionary dead ends like plants that can't reproduce). Even if it did, it wouldn't do any more harm than any of the poisonous plants that are already out there, of which there are many.

Judging by the feelings towards GM foods here in Britain, there is little chance that European policy will change any time soon. Political parties include "We will keep the ban on all GM foods" in their platforms as a matter of course without any thought. People buy huge amounts of organically grown food because "natural is better". Part of this is the scare over mad cow disease: the population feels it was lied to by scientists and the government and thinks this may happen again. Mostly though it is general unease with science and a refusal to think. When he talks about the horror of "Frankenstein foods", Prince Charles has the national mood right.

This is of course intellectually dishonest bullshit. Even if there are risks, it is still necessary to think about the situation, rather than just say GM crops are wrong and dismiss them from your mind. If your child has a bacterial infection and you refuse to let him take antibiotics for religious reasons, and he dies, you are implicated in his death. Not doing something where you could do something to save someone's life is as bad as killing them. If people starve when you could have done something that would help feed them, then you are implicated in this, too. Therefore, you have to think about it. This would be true even if there were potentially great dangers from genetically modified food. However, the fact that there are not makes it much worse.

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