Knee jerks and collateral damage


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.


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  1. Note that there’s a difference between cross breeding and/or genetic selection for “desirable” traits and what’s commonly known these days as genetic engineering.

    Traditional breeding of populations is done with more or less like animals or plants, simply selecting for certain traits. The author is correct that humans have been successfully doing this for thousands of years.

    What’s new is taking genetic strands from entirely different species — sometimes entirely different kingdoms, such as crossing a plant with a jellyfish protein.

    I’m not saying this is either bad or good. It can be one, the other, or both.

    There are a couple of troubling aspects to what we know as modern biotech. First is that by crossing entirely different species, there can be unintended consequences; there can be unpredictable interactions which should inspire caution.

    Second, when these biotechnical marvels are created, they are patented, which means that the company which created them has a considerable amount of control of the use of them. For instance, farmers may be restricted from saving seed from one year to another, making them entirely dependent on the biotech conglomerate which owns the patent. This is a significant break with traditional methods. Good or bad? You be the judge.

    I’m involved with the sciences and have seen a lot of good things come out of genetic engineering but the simple fact that this is a rather new and relatively unproven technology indicates to me that we should be cautious about what we introduce into the food supply and how we do it, since we may not be able to back out if things go wrong.

  2. Excellent points, Steve. Thanks for the comments.

    Your observation that biotechnology is an extremely proprietary field is dead on. In fact, the transgenic Flavor-Savor tomato (may be the only biotechnology-derived product that has been ruled as safe by FDA) was retired by the parent company after a takeover. And ask any farmer about paying Monsanto for seed fees.

    My hope would be that policy/safety regs keep pace with the science, or even out in front.


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