Science and ‘naturalism’ meet in biotech debate

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URBANA, Ill. – The possibility of unintended effects occurring in plants produced using biotechnology has generated fear, doubts and opposition.

And even though biotechnology has been around for years, its use in crops, particularly those that will ultimately become food on our table, is suspect to some.

Ancient practice. But biotechnology isn’t new.

Our ancestors learned to put living organisms to work more than 10,000 years ago to make wine, beer, cheese, and bread and in breeding wheat, rice and other crops from wild ancestors, says food microbiologist Bruce Chassy, at the University of Illinois.

For more than 20 years genetically engineered bacteria and yeasts have been used to produce pharmaceuticals, vaccines, vitamins and nutritional supplements. And, since 1995, biotech crops have been grown commercially.

Is it natural? “There is a sense of spirituality that relates to the natural universe that prompts some to question the wisdom of engineering transgenic plants,” said Chassy, who is also associate director of the university’s Biotechnology Center.

“Their concern is based on a belief that taking a gene from one organism and placing it in another can have greater negative effects than conventional plant breeding,” he explained. “But there is no data or evidence that this is true.”

Speed things up. Chassy explained that the same processes occur in nature and in conventional breeding, but they occur more slowly.

Natural cross-breeding can create undesirable characteristics in plants. Hearty weeds and poisonous plants are good examples.

“In conventional plant breeding, there is actually more potential for unintended effects,” Chassy said.

Can help genetic diversity. Conventional breeding often crosses wild plants with commercial varieties in order to bring in genetic diversity.

One example Chassy related was when scientists were trying to develop a tomato that would be resistant to virus. “Wild tomatoes have toxic compounds so plant breeders needed to be careful that the new varieties were not toxic,” he said.

Unintended effects. Chassy recently testified before the National Academy of Science Task Force on Unintended Effects of Biotechnology.

Can there be unintended effects?

“Absolutely, that’s a possibility. There can be unintended effects even with the best science available, but this is true for all forms of plant breeding,” said Chassy.

“But when scientists are working on a new pest resistant plant, they think a lot about the consequences,” he added. “They create thousands of candidates for new plants – called events – many of which may have been altered in unintended ways, but only those plants that are normal in all respects are selected for further research.

“The same selection process is applied in conventional plant breeding.”

Information gap. Some of the lack of acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Chassy believes is the result of a lack of good information about the risks.

In a list of what we should be worried about when it comes to the safety of our food, Chassy puts food borne diseases at the top and GMOs at the bottom.

“There are many pathogens that can contaminate the foods we eat and cause illness or death,” said Chassy. “But GMOs are evaluated and tested every step of the way. The risks are much lower.”

Clash of titans. Although it appears that the majority of people have a positive view of the potential benefits of biotechnology, opposition is still strong and growing according to Chassy.

“It’s almost like two locomotives heading at one another on the same track. It’s not clear who will survive,” Chassy said.

“One thing’s for sure, with the world’s growing population and pressing environmental problems, humankind will need to develop some way to produce more food in a more sustainable way. Hopefully it won’t take us another 10,000 years to figure it out.”

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