Nina Fedoroff makes a lot of sense.
If you lambaste genetic engineering, stop eating those red grapefruits. Or anything with wheat in it.
Since the first humans planted the first seeds, people have been selectively breeding plants with genetic mutations that make better foods. Wheat is a prime example, because it carries the genes of different plant species.
“There is almost no food that isn’t genetically modified,” Nina Fedoroff said in an interview with the New York Times last August. “Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.
“Things change because our planet is subjected to a lot of radiation, which causes DNA damage, which gets repaired, but results in mutations, which create a ready mixture of plants that people can choose from to improve agriculture.”
But, added the Penn State molecular biologist and science adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “the paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.”
The phrase “genetic engineering” is colored with a negative connotations and knee-jerk reactions: Frankenfood, playing God, evil manipulation.
But it can feed the world, save lives, protect the environment, and improve human and animal health and welfare.
There are more than two dozen products under development derived from genetically engineered animals that could improve human health. Animals can produce proteins and tissues in their milk, eggs and blood that can be used to treat cancer, heart attacks, rheumatoid arthritis, malaria and small pox.
For example, it may be possible to produce much cheaper malaria vaccines using genetically engineered animals. A herd of three goats could supply enough antigens in their milk to vaccinate 20 million African children each year. Just three goats.
Early research is developing animals resistant to such organisms as E. coli, clostridium and campylobacter, the leading causes of foodborne diseases. And research is also working to block an animal’s susceptibility to mastitis, for example, which would greatly reduce the need for antibiotic use and other treatments.
“… we’d like to go back to what we think is a more natural way,” the New York Times quotes Fedoroff as saying. “But I’m afraid we can’t, in part, because there are just too many of us in this world.
“If everybody switched to organic farming, we couldn’t support the earth’s current population — maybe half.”
“… Europe, North America, Australia, Japan — we’ve been extremely successful in applying science to agriculture and we can afford to say, ‘let’s go natural.’ But there’s collateral damage.”
Collateral damage being more acres required to produce food with lower yields, which leads to deforestation, soil erosion, and burdens on already too few resources.
There needs to be, as the 2008 report Genetically Engineered Animals and Public Health emphasizes, a “rigorous, science-based regulatory pathway” if this technology will be able to deliver practical benefits.
But the agricultural and medical applications are too compelling, and the needs for public health and food security are too urgent, for us to ignore the science.