Some of my colleagues recently brought to my attention this grossly misinformed, misleading, and error-laden essay by Carolyn Moffa, “Corporatism: Say No to G.M.O!” on the Campaign for Liberty’s website. My first instinct was to ignore it, since this seems to be an aberration for the Campaign for Liberty and its generally principled defenders of freedom. However, the essay’s pro-nanny state, anti-consumer choice, and just plain absurd point of view was too much to ignore.
Ms. Moffa seems to suggest that the federal government isn’t doing enough to protect us from modern technology, and that the Food and Drug Administration ought to force bioengineered foods to be segregated and labeled. Moffa even praises the governments of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, France, and Luxembourg for banning bioengineered foods. “If these frankenfoods aren't good enough for other countries, why are we eating them every day here in America?” If I keep reading, I thought, will she also call for industrial central planning, labor union rioting, and socialized medicine? “If a free market for health care isn’t good enough for other countries, why would we want it here in America?”
Forget about all the factual inaccuracies, I thought – and believe me, there are many, which I’ll address in another post. But, surely this kind of nanny state idiocy would be rejected by the C4L on first principles, and in fairly short order to boot. Seems I was wrong, however.
The piece has gotten a handful of critical comments wondering why the C4L would beg for, or at the very least provide aid and comfort to, more government intervention. A few commenters even corrected some of the most glaring factual errors. But, much to my surprise, most of the comments have been favorable. One commenter even suggests that,
“We as libertarians need to point out the dangers of GMO to conservatives and the fact that government organizations set up by liberals, most of who understand the dangers of GMO but incorrectly attribute the escalating danger to what they mistakenly refer to as ‘the free market,’ are being taken over by the very corporations that the liberals think they are going to control through the proliferation of government bureaucratic power.”
So, let me get this straight: A handful of corporations and other businesses develop a new technology. They sell it to farmers who wish to buy the technology, and who are even willing to pay a hefty premium for the privilege of doing so. And, with only a modest amount of effort, consumers who don’t want the products of that technology, can buy something else instead. If that’s all it takes for a libertarian to believe he or she is being “taken over,” then I suppose it’s not just liberals who are mistaken about the free market.
Now, the article rightly criticizes agricultural subsidies, which certainly ought to be eliminated. It takes some swipes at intellectual property protection – a view I do not share, but which is held by many libertarians for principled reasons. And it decries the too-cozy relationship between corporations like Monsanto and the federal government, which I myself have done on numerous occasions (see here and here for examples). But it mistakenly conflates corporatist governmental practices with the value or safety of a particular technology. You may hate big government. You may even hate Monsanto. But what does either have to do with whether or not products made with biotechnology are safe or useful?
The main thrust of the piece is that so-called Genetically Modified Organisms, by which Ms. Moffa appears to mean crop plants modified with recombinant DNA technology, are unnatural and very probably harmful to humans. The most charitable thing I can say about the essay, then, is that it is narrow-minded and uninformed clap-trap. Worse still, judging by the comments, it appears that a non-trivial number of libertarians shares the almost religious belief that, “If this technology is too complicated for me to understand, well then nobody could possibly understand it.”
I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And, for some libertarians at least, what scientists call recombinant DNA technology must be the blackest of magic indeed.
This kind of fundamentalist rejection of the fruits of science and technology is dangerous. So, in the hope of shedding some light on the subject, I’d like to explain why bioengineered foods, or GMOs in the common idiom, are well understood by those who take the time to learn, and why they pose no threat to consumers or the environment.
Let’s start at the beginning: Ms. Moffa writes, as though we should all be scandalized to learn, that “Genetically Modified Organisms are created through changing the DNA of a plant.” But, since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the whole point of domesticating and breeding plants has been to change their DNA in order to change their traits. One important fallacy embraced by those who don’t understand the basics of genetics or plant and animal breeding is the belief that so-called “natural” genetic modifications (i.e., those that result from selection or simple hybridization) are in some relevant way different (and therefore inherently safer) than those arising from more sophisticated methods. What matters, though, is not how the genetic changes are made, but what traits those changes produce. Indeed, the most dangerous plants that have ever existed are all “wild” – that is, wholly unmodified by human hands, products of good ol’ Mother Nature.
“There is no evidence of the existence of unique hazards either in the use of recombinant DNA techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms. The risks associated with the introduction of recombinant DNA-modified organisms are the same in kind as those associated with the introduction of unmodified organisms and organisms modified by other methods.”
Because most people know very little (if anything) about genetics or plant breeding, why this is so may take a little explaining. So, please bear with me.
DNA and RNA are the most basic bits of hereditary material, present in all living organisms. They act as recipe books that instruct cells how to express various traits. The DNA in every organism (except viruses, which have a few modest but noteworthy differences) is composed of the same six chemical building blocks (the nucleotide bases Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine, held together by a sugar and phosphorous backbone), and it works in exactly the same way regardless of whether it is in plants, animals, fungi, or microbes. Within an organism’s genome, millions of these A, C, G, and T bases are strung together to form chromosomes. And, while most of the bases on each of the chromosomes do nothing at all, short segments of each chromosome, called genes, provide the cellular recipe for building proteins. It is differences in the proteins an organism produces from its DNA that account for different traits or characteristics.
So, when breeders wish to alter the traits of a given plant or animal, they have to change the DNA. Sometimes this is done very subtly, by exploiting a natural mutations. But, even with conventional plant breeding methods, DNA and genes can often be changed quite substantially. For example, the wild progenitors of nearly every fruit and vegetable humans eat contain very potent toxins and carcinogens. Potatoes and tomatoes are in the same taxonomic class as deadly nightshade, and they produce the same class of toxic glycoalkaloids. Only through breeding (i.e. changing the plants’ DNA to eliminate or deactivate the genes that produce those chemicals) were early farmers able to develop plants that are safe to eat. Similarly, rapeseed, which is the progenitor of Canola, naturally contains genes that produce two harmful chemicals: a toxin called erucic acid and a class of antinutrients (which are not toxic per se, but which interfere with the absorption of essential dietary nutrients) called glucosinolates. Again, only by grossly manipulating the DNA of rapeseed were breeders able to produce the modified plant Canola, which produces a safe and nutritious cooking oil.
It’s also worth noting that there is a wide range of more and less sophisticated breeding techniques between basic hybridization and recombinant DNA methods, each of which can alter or suppress existing genes, or add in entirely new genes. For example, various methods of manipulating seeds and young plants in a laboratory environment can be used to produce “wide crosses” between two plants of different species or genera that are otherwise sexually incompatible. Wide crossing is often used, for example, to mate wheat or rye with various wild grasses in order to introduce a natural resistance or more robust growth from the wild plant to the cultivated one. Like narrow crosses, the process randomly combines tens of thousands of genes from the two parent plants and commonly transfers thousands of uncharacterized genes and the proteins they encode from wild plants into food crop varieties. The addition or deletion of any one gene, or combinations of several new and old genes, could introduce a toxin or allergen, reduce the nutritional value of the crop, or add weedy or invasive characteristics to the new variety.
Conventional plant breeders also commonly create entirely new genetic variants by intentionally mutating plants with x-ray or gamma radiation, with mutagenic chemicals, or simply by culturing clumps of cells in a Petri dish and letting spontaneous mutations occur when the cells divide. This “mutation breeding” has been in common use since the 1950s, and more than 2,250 known mutant varieties have been bred in at least 50 countries. In mutation breeding, just as in sexual reproduction, breeders have no knowledge of the exact genetic changes that produce the useful traits or what other mutations may have also occurred – including those that could alter the ability to cause allergic reactions, over-express a natural toxin or antinutrient, or generate other undesirable changes. Ironically, this hugely unpredictable method is considered to be a type of conventional breeding, so its widespread and unregulated use is wholly uncontroversial.
Compared with these largely random, hit-or-miss methods of “conventional” plant breeding, recombinant DNA is far more precise and predictable, and its products are therefore more likely to be safe for consumers and the environment. Although modern biotechnology expands the range of new traits that can be added to crop plants, it also ensures that more will be known about those traits, and that the behavior of the modified plants will be easier to predict.
So, what about adding a gene from one organism into another, such as the movement of a bacterial gene into a crop plant? “Crossing the species barrier” is just wrong … or dangerous … or something. Right? Well, no. Genes are not proprietary. Humans, for example, share about 90 percent of the same genes with rats and mice, and nearly 50 percent of the same genes as the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, which is the “lab rat” of the plant world. So, suggesting that there are “plant” genes on the one hand and “animal” or “bacterial” genes on the other, and that never the twain shall meet, is simply not true. It makes sense, of course, that there would be broad sharing of genes across not just closely related species, but also across taxonomic kingdoms. After all, every living organism evolved from the same single celled life forms that appeared on our planet billions of years ago.
Furthermore, it’s actually pretty common in nature for viruses and bacteria to insert their own genes into plants and animals. Viruses reproduce by inserting their genetic material into a plant or animal host cell and hijacking the host’s cellular machinery to produce more copies of the virus. Much of the non-coding, “junk” DNA in the human genome is actually comprised of bits of viral genetic material that were taken up by and incorporated into our own DNA as humans evolved from lower species.
In plants, the family of Mosaic viruses, which are common in dozens of crop species, reproduce by inserting bits of RNA into plant cells. There too, sometimes the viral RNAs become disabled and are taken up and incorporated into the plant’s genome. A small number of bacteria work in a similar fashion. A bacterium known as Agrobacterium tumefaciens causes crown gall disease in plants by inserting a small segment of its DNA into the plant’s cells, which then become incorporated at a more or less random location in the plant genome. Since neither of these plant diseases is harmful to humans, infected plants often make it into the food supply, and we commonly consume millions of individual genes of viral and bacterial origin in every bite of broccoli, potato, squash, tomato, and very probably every other fruit and vegetable in the human diet.
In fact, plant breeders first discovered how they could use recombinant DNA techniques to introduce genes into plants by piggybacking on the natural process that A. tumefaciens provides. They used natural enzymes to replace the bacterium’s infectious genes with useful ones, and then let the modified A. tumefaciens naturally insert the target genes into plants. Thus, there is nothing inherently novel about these kinds of inter-kingdom genetic transfers, and moving genes between species with rDNA does not pose any unique risks.
Again, as with conventional plant breeding, all that matters is the function of the particular gene that is transferred to the daughter plant. If the novel gene codes for the production of a protein that is safe for humans and the environment, then the modified plant will be safe for humans and the environment. The addition of a gene that codes for a toxic or allergenic protein can pose environmental risks or make food from that plant unsafe to eat. But this is true whether it is done by recombinant DNA or conventional methods. And, because rDNA techniques are more precise and actually aid in the identification of the transferred genetic material and the proteins those genes produce, scientists generally believe them to be safer than most conventional breeding methods. Indeed, the only thing that truly makes recombinant DNA different from conventional breeding is that, with the former, you know exactly what gene or genes are being introduced into the new organism and you know what those genes do. The same cannot be said for any form of conventional breeding.
The National Research Council, which is the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded in a 1989 report that:
“Recombinant DNA methodology makes it possible to introduce pieces of DNA, consisting of either single or multiple genes, that can be defined in function and even in nucleotide sequence. With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the phenotypic expression that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the phenotypic expression.”
Ms. Moffa criticizes Monsanto for using rDNA techniques to breed “Roundup Ready” plant varieties that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto sells under the trade name Roundup. Now, leaving aside the fact that Ms. Moffa incorrectly writes that this produces plants that “will kill any pest that eats the plant” (that’s actually an entirely different type of modification), what’s most telling about her essay is that she has nothing at all to say about herbicide resistant plants that have been developed with one or another conventional breeding method.
For example, readers are supposed to be frightened that the Roundup Ready gene was isolated from the common soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens (not from E. coli, as Ms. Moffa incorrectly claims). But, with the Roundup Ready trait, we know exactly what the nucleotide sequence of the gene is and exactly what protein that gene expresses (C4 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase, or EPSPS). So, what does it matter where the gene was found?
As it turns out, all plants already express an EPSPS protein nearly identical to the one expressed by Roundup Ready varieties. The protein enzyme helps to produce certain amino acids that plants use to produce chlorophyll. And glyphosate (Roundup) works by disrupting the production of those amino acids by the EPSPS protein, thereby inhibiting the accumulation of chlorophyll. Monsanto was able to identify a variant of the EPSPS gene in A. tumefaciens that expresses greater amounts of the EPSPS protein than do plants, which in turn allows Roundup Ready varieties to produce sufficient amounts of chlorophyll even in the presence of glyphosate. Since no animals or invertebrates rely on the EPSPS pathway, glyphosate is non-toxic to nearly everything that doesn’t have chlorophyll. And, since all plants already express an EPSPS protein, there is no reason why the higher levels of the protein in Roundup Ready plants should be harmful to anything or anyone.
Compare that to, say, a line of crop plant varieties developed recently by BASF using “conventional” breeding. Ms. Moffa writes nothing about these varieties, and she may never have even heard of them. But, since they’re the products of conventional breeding, one might imagine that she would think they’re just swell. These varieties, named “Clearfield,” are also herbicide resistant, meaning farmers can spray a particular herbicide on their fields and kill weeds without harming the crop plants.
There’s a difference between Roundup Ready varieties and Clearfield varieties, though. And it’s a big one. Most of the Clearfield varieties were developed using mutation breeding. Clusters of the unmodified plants’ cells were doused with a mutagenic chemical in order to produce random genetic mutations. So, whereas with rDNA modified varieties, we know exactly what genetic changes have been made in the daughter plants, with Clearfield varieties, no one knows what genetic changes account for the herbicide resistance trait. Nor do we know what other changes in the plants’ DNA were made concomitant to the useful mutation.
I am in no way suggesting that Clearfield varieties pose any danger to humans or the environment. On the contrary, over the years, plant breeders have developed a number of common sense methods to test their new varieties for safety. This doesn’t mean that no harm can ever come from a new plant variety. Indeed, there are a handful of documented cases in which conventionally bred plants (including a few simple hybrids resulting from the mating of two plants of the same species) have produced harmful levels of natural toxins (see here and here for two examples). But, there isn't a single recorded example of any rDNA engineered plant put on the market that has caused physical harm to any human being in any way. Because rDNA methods are so much more precise, biotechnology is generally (and appropriately) considered to be much safer than any of the conventional breeding methods that have ever been used.
Ultimately, a passionate belief that bioengineered foods must be dangerous because they are not “natural” cannot be supported by facts or logic. That said, if consumers want to exercise their superstitions by worshipping Gaia, eating local, and buying only non-GM food, they should be free to do so. That is, after all, what markets are for: You can buy the products you like, and I can buy the products I like, assuming there’s someone at the other end of the voluntary exchange who’s willing to offer those goods for sale at a price we’re willing to pay. You want to buy non-bioengineered food? More power to you. There are thousands of purveyors in this country and others who are more than happy to sell you products that they happily label as organic or non-GMO. But, please, don’t presume to impose your narrow-minded, uninformed preferences on the rest of us.