I often agree with Neal deGrasse Tyson, the well-known radio host and promoter of scientific literacy in our country. But on genetic engineering of foods, Mr deGrasse Tyson is totally wrong. He is among a number of public figures who have equated concerns about the safety of GMOs, or their potential for environmental damage with ‘science denial’. In a 2014 video, he ‘explained’ that public concerns about GMOs were part of a “fear factor that exists” when new products of science come to the fore. He then made his case that virtually every food in the supermarket was genetically engineered, stating “There are no ‘wild’ seedless watermelons. There are no ‘wild’ cows.” And he then added the most common refrain one hears, that “We’ve been genetically modifying our foods for thousands of years.”
Because the United States Senate is now considering a bill that would ban mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods, sponsored by Senator Pat Roberts, such assurances of the sameness and safety of GMO foods carry huge political importance.
It’s true that we have been modifying the genetic characteristics of our foods for millennia. But until the advent of genetic engineering (and radiation), all of that ‘modification’ was done utilizing the plants’ sexual organs, that is the male and female parts of the flowers. This is true of the natural evolution that occurs in the wild. It’ true of the ‘open pollination’ practiced by Luther Burbank and thousands of farmers. And it’s true of hybridization, the more controlled version of selecting specific genetic traits, but a process still based entirely on the reproductive parts of the plant (None of these breeding systems, we should also note, ever introduce genes from completely unrelated species, as GMO foods often do).
Genetic engineering, by contrast, totally bypasses the plant’s sexual organs, instead extracting DNA from parts of one plant and then forcefully inserting it into another piece of plant tissue. “Forcefully” is not an overstatement: The two main methods used to insert this material are either employing an invasive bacteria, or using a gun to blast the material from one species into the other. This type of force is needed because in many cases the inserted genes are so foreign that the plant’s defense mechanisms try to destroy or ignore them.
This blasting of the foreign genetic material is but one of several steps in the GE process that are utterly dissimilar from any other prior form of breeding. They also employ what is called a ‘marker gene’ in order to be able to identify the bits of tissue that ultimately accept the foreign genes; they add a virus to make the inserted genes more, well, virulent, more able to penetrate the plant’s defenses and overcome it’s natural inclination to shut down invaders; and then they douse all of the material with antibiotics, and grow the survivors out in a laboratory process called tissue culture. All of this is meticulously documented in Steven M Drucker’s remarkable book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth.
Putting aside for a moment the question of whether or not GMO foods can cause health problems, or whether they’ve provoked environmental harm, the indisputable fact is that genetic engineering is nothing whatsoever like any prior plant breeding method, right up through modern hybrids. To claim that it’s just like what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, is akin to saying that cloning is no different from sexual intercourse; that the splitting of the atom that created atomic bombs was no different from the invention of the arrow head.
If we are going to have an honest discussion about genetic engineering of our foods, people like Mr deGrasse Tyson, and many others, must first stop making this utterly false argument of equivalence. Once we do that, we can begin to probe some very serious questions, like why the FDA’s own senior scientists repeatedly expressed grave concerns to their non-scientist superiors about the increased risks that genetic engineering posed? Or why multiple studies, in peer-reviewed journals have demonstrated a wide range of abnormalities, increased chronic diseases, and various mutations in laboratory animals fed GMO foods for longer periods of time? Or why a 2015 USDA study clearly demonstrated that the ‘Round up ready’ gene in genetically engineered alfalfa had contaminated multiple wild alfalfa, in complete contradiction of their assurances that this would not happen? I’m all for a science-based, fact filled discussion of genetic engineering and GMO foods. I just wish that GE proponents were as well.