What ever happened to golden rice?

Another thing I don't understand is the massive opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods, such as golden rice, that could greatly help nourish the world's underfed people, and do so more efficiently, with less use of land and less chemical pesticides. In fact, to some, the very words “genetically modified” elicit a fear response. Despite the scare-mongering and catastrophizing that these critics do, there is no credible scientific evidence of anything they claim might happen (see this article about the butterfly/BT pollen issue). Further, their position, I hold, is inconsistent and incoherent: much of our food organisms have already had their genes deliberately modified by human activity, namely through selective breeding.

Let's take corn, for example. The difference between modern maize and it's wild ancestor teosinte is striking. Further, modern maize is entirely dependant on human cultivation for survival: it cannot disperse its own seeds.
In the animal kingdom, we can look at chickens, comparing domestic egg-laying breeds with meat chickens. The former lay over 300 eggs/year on average (compared to 20-30 for wild fowl), and commonly suffer from brittle bones as their skeletons are depleted of calcium by the creation of the shells of all those eggs. Meat chickens grow to full size in about 42 days, and are so massive that they often are lame or suffer leg fractures, as their legs cannot support their weight; about a couple of percent die of heart problems due to weight, and most who are spared slaughter die young.
Wild turkeys can fly for short bursts; domestic ones cannot, and further, can suffer from a genetic neurologic disorder called tetanic torticollar spasms. We can give many examples of how human beings have altered the genomes of other species via selective breeding, particularly those used for food, for pretty much all of recorded history.
Recombinant DNA and other modern genetic engineering techniques are faster and more powerful than selective breeding. They are also more accurate, and avoid some of the major problems of selective breeding. Selective breeding generally requires inbreeding, which can magnify recessive traits, including harmful ones. Various dog breeds, as an example, suffer a number of genetic defects arising from the inbreeding that created them. Further, selective breeding tends to reduce the genetic diversity of the population being engineered, a phenomenon called inbreeding depression. With modern techniques, one can get the desirable trait introduced without magnifying harmful recessives or reducing genetic diversity in other areas of the genome.
So if modern techniques are more powerful and more controlled than those used for millenia, why do so many people categorically oppose them, while accepting the less accurate, less controlled, more error-prone techniques of the past? Is there anything to it besides a fear of science and technology (Faustian view of science)? And why does some of the strongest opposition come not from the comparitively scientifically-illiterate, evolution-rejecting, highly-religious America, but scientifically-literate, secular Europe?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: