FDA sez "Frankenfoods don't need labeling".
January 21, 2001 7:36 PM   Subscribe

FDA sez "Frankenfoods don't need labeling". Even though 86% of Americans want mandatory labels.
posted by Mr. skullhead (41 comments total)
I have a very simple question. Don't we have the right to know what's in our food?
posted by hijinx at 8:51 PM on January 21, 2001

I have a different question. Didn't this already get discussed?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:53 PM on January 21, 2001

Oh, that's a good question, Steven. Beats my pair of jacks.
posted by hijinx at 9:42 PM on January 21, 2001

Natural food co-ops will get a boost from this. I cannot shop anywhere else without doubt now. (I trust my co-op to keep track of GM foods.)
posted by fleener at 10:30 PM on January 21, 2001

Why is everyone so afraid of genetically altered foods? Looks like a very good technology to me. Our food can taste better, last better, everything. It may not be "all natural" but what does that really mean? If technology has helped to improve on nature, why shut it out? It seems like everyone is getting scared over nothing.
posted by swank6 at 11:07 PM on January 21, 2001

It is good technology. As far as I'm concerned, the only reason we need to be wary of genetically engineered foods is that we may be losing natural biodiversity by making a genetically identical crop. Less biodiversity means less natural resistance to pests and blight and the potential for mass crop failure. We need to find ways to preserve the gene pool. Other than that, we really have nothing to fear from these products.

With all the confusion and outrage about food additives and chemicals and hormones, I can understand where the concern about yet another unknown food process comes from. To be honest the techniques used to create frankenfoods are probably the most benign things that are being done to the food supply.

Not all new technology is bad. Not everything that is manmade is harmful. Before you work yourself into a panic about it, take the time to read about the science behind it.

posted by ritualdevice at 11:54 PM on January 21, 2001

Swank6 - You want to buy GE food because it tastes better,lasts better and is cheaper (due to the fact that it's mostly designed to kill pests). More power to you. I think you should do so.

I want to buy food that isn't designed to contain poison (in order to kill pests). "Lasts better" is not a goal of the industries we're discussing. Therefore, I think the food should be labelled for each of us to make that decision for ourselves. I do not want to "shut it out". I want the label there to allow me to do so.

The industry is arguing that they can't label because they can't prove what they're selling is harmless. I'm arguing that they should label because they can't prove what they're selling isn't harmful.

posted by swell at 12:34 AM on January 22, 2001

Swell, it's impossible to prove a negative. With regards to safety, all that can be demonstrated is that any risk is below a certain threshold. It's not possible to reduce that threshold to zero.

To get approval to begin to use crops like that they have to prove now that any risk is below a very low threshold, because the FDA requires it.

But they can't prove "what they're selling isn't harmful" in any absolute sense. It can't be done.

What the industry is afraid of is ignorance on the part of consumers. In this case, it's primarily an issue of fear of the unknown coupled with a misunderstanding of orders of magnitude. If there is any risk, it's so small that excess deaths expected to be caused by it are lower than statistical noise in the normal death rate. That's good enough -- except that most people don't understand risk analysis enough to realize it.

Let's put it this way: if a given new food is less likely to kill you if you ate it for a lifetime than you are to be killed by driving a car for one week in a typical city, then that food is "safe enough". They definitely can demonstrate that. But absolute safety? Nothing is absolutely safe, not even laying in bed. (A lot of people die while laying in bed.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:36 AM on January 22, 2001

OK, it's impossible to prove a negative. That's no reason why foods shouldn't carry clear labels stating what they contain. If the companies are anxious about consumer ignorance, why don't they do more to counter it? An increase in the amount of information on the effects of genetic engineering in foodstuffs might well get rid of some of the more hysterical attitudes towards GE produce, and would leave people feeling that they weren't being kept in the dark about something which affects us at a very fundamental level. The old dictum that 'you are what you eat' has such resonance that it's going to take more than obfuscation to reassure many people. Me included.
posted by Caffa at 6:21 AM on January 22, 2001

Caffa, education about the foods isn't the point. The point is that most people don't have an elementary understanding of mathematics, especially of statistics, probability and logic.

There's been a lot of interesting tests done to see if humans have an intuitive mathematical knowledge, and it turns out they do. They also have an intuitive physical knowledge and an intuitive knowledge of logic. More interesting is that it's been conclusively proven that all of them are wrong.

Stephen J. Gould talks about this in one of his essays, in the context of a description of his reaction when he was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of abdominal cancer. He asked his doctor what the literature said about it, and the doctor said "Oh, that stuff's useless." But Gould wasn't sure, and since he had access to Harvard's library, he did some research and found that the median time to death after diagnosis of that particular form of cancer was 10 months. And he says his heart kind of did a bumpety-bump.

Most of us would wail and abandon hope at that point. But Gould is trained in statistics, and after a moment rationality set in and he said, OK, what's my chances of being one of the ones who survives longer than that? (Because "median" in this case means that at 10 months half the patients have died. But those who have lived might live a lot longer than that.) And when he looked at it, he discovered that it was, in his words, "Damned good."

And indeed that turned out to be true. His treatment was successful and he's been in remission for more than ten years. Generally, a 5 year remission in any cancer is considered a cure.

People who've taken a science curriculum at college get taught about this; it's why we have to take a reasonable amount of mathematics and get a good basic grounding in physics or chemistry, no matter what actual field we specialize in. (I had to, even though my major was Computer Science.)

But you can't teach statistics and logic to the public through a series of 30 second ads, let alone principles such as the scientific method, or what "double blind studies" are, probability theory (especially concentrating on coincidences), the placebo effect, or a large number of other things needed to really understand these issues rationally.

The GE product community isn't the only one facing this problem. The current hysteria about cell phones is another example. There are many others.

One of those intuitive knowledges which is wrong is the fact that an untrained person will nearly always perceive a risk which is not understood by that person to be more important than a risk which is well understood, and perceive a new risk as being more important than one they've lived with for a long time. Driving a car is a very dangerous operation, but it's one people understand and have lived with their whole lives and thus one people are willing to accept. The chance of being harmed by a cell phone or by genetically modified food is much, much lower, but it's strange and new and confusing, and intuitive incorrect mathematics makes the person more fearful of it. A trained person knows that the absolute magnitude of the danger is the critical feature, and that driving a car is a lot more dangerous than using a cell phone or eating genetically modified food which has passed testing protocols. The fact that a car is familiar and a cell phone is new and strange is not important.

Another example is DPT vaccine, which when given to a child makes it so that child can't get Diptheria, Polio or Tetanus. Those are three really serious diseases which have killed millions of people. They're almost unknown in the industrialized world now because the vaccines are so effective. But about one child in ten million given the DPT vaccine suffers a serious reaction to it which can result in brain damage. Without the vaccine, tens of thousands of those children would have been crippled or killed by the diseases it prevents. On the face of it, it should be clear that the risks associated with not using the vaccine are much higher than the risks of using it. But that's not how people see it. When this does happen, albeit extremely rarely, the parents see their own child hurt (but don't see the millions of children elsewhere who were saved) and their incorrect intuitive mathematics assigns a perceived risk to the vaccine which is much higher than it should be. So does every other parent who hears about it. And so do the juries who hear the lawsuit.

DPT vaccine is generic and the profit margin is not high, and every time this happens the drug companies get sued, and nearly always they lose. That wipes out more than the profits they were making on the vaccine. So most drug companies stopped making it; it just wasn't worth it. There was actually a shortage of the vaccine a few years ago for that reason because only one company was still making it. It became extremely critical, and the only way to solve the problem was to set up a fund to compensate victims and to explicitly legally grant the drug companies exemption against lawsuits. Once that was in place, a couple of the drug companies started making it again and the shortage eased.

Which is a good thing. DPT vaccine has saved millions of lives, but it's not perfectly safe; there's an extremely small risk associated with using it. However, there's a much bigger risk associated with not using it -- but people don't see it that way because they don't understand statistics. To most people now, Diptheria is just a word. To my grandparents it was a scourge, something to be greatly feared as a killer of children. Parents now don't fear Diptheria -- after all, it doesn't happen anymore, does it? -- but they do fear adverse reaction to the vaccine.

It doesn't make sense, and that's the point. The fundamental problem is that people don't evaluate these things correctly. No ad campaign is going to change that; it takes years of study to learn the correct way of thinking about these things.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:46 AM on January 22, 2001

Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds is an excellent book about just the kind of faulty risk analysis and statistical errors commonly made by laypeople and even, occasionally, by trained professionals. Similar to optical illusions, our brain has what author Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini calls cognitive illusions or "tunnels" that direct us into erroneous paths of thinking. Well worth a read.
posted by kindall at 8:30 AM on January 22, 2001

I'm sure you don't mean it quite like this, but it sounds as if what you're saying, Steven, is that 'people inherently misunderstand statistics, probability and logic - because we interpret things as having a deleterious effect on us when they are statistically unlikely to - therefore it's pointless putting information in the public domain.' Or, to be more blunt: 'people are a bit dim and don't really understand this sort of thing'. I just don't see it like that. The more information that is provided, and the more lucidly it is presented, the less likely it is to provoke over-reactions.
Unless I have hopelessly over-estimated the capacity of the human being to think and to process information. I hope I haven't.
posted by Caffa at 9:21 AM on January 22, 2001

Caffa, I'm saying exactly that. It's a truism, but nonetheless true: "A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." Telling something that they don't understand misleads them. Labelling products without the consumers understanding the ramifications is less than useless; it's actually positively harmful.

Genetically modified foods have the potential to save many lives. Even though great progress has already been made, it is still true that millions of people starve to death every year. Why should we forgo that benefit just because people are being misled by propaganda, including terms like "frankenfood"?

One of the problems in farming now in many areas is shortage of fresh water. There exist plant species who can get their moisture from salt water (quite a few, in fact). What if we could teach rice to grow in salt water instead of fresh? Or corn, or wheat, or barley? Many places on earth that can't be farmed now might be arable, increasing the food supply. And even where fresh water is available, modified versions may be able to produce more food per acre due both to greater yields and fewer losses to vermin.

Go back to my example of DPT vaccine: it saves tens of thousands of lives at the expense of harm to one child in ten million. That's a good trade, isn't it? DPT is not perfectly safe, but it's still a good thing.

If GE foods can save millions of lives per year, isn't that a good trade for the possibility that one or two people per million migh be harmed by the new versions? I think so.

But the "frankenfood" freaks don't. They don't care about the greater good; they just care about their own hysterical paranoia. They have enough to eat, and it apparently doesn't matter to them whether others do.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:10 AM on January 22, 2001

I think you're a bit over-optimistic about GE crops there. There are a welter of other problems that contribute to famine - bad environmental management which causes erosion of fertile but thin topsoil in sub-desert areas, or loosens topsoil on mountainsides - thereby increasing the danger of landslides; not to mention human causes such as war. But, I don't disagree that there's a great deal of potential for good there, and that that outweighs the potential risks.
However, I still believe that information should be available to people. I think that it is basically wrong to conceal information from people, even if we do have a tendency to process it incorrectly in terms of logic and probability. I take on board your point about the DPT vaccine lawsuits , but would hope that the precedent would serve to protect companies that were improving the general lot of mankind.
posted by Caffa at 10:32 AM on January 22, 2001

The truly amusing thing is that some of the very same people that fear GM foods will be driving a gigantic SUV to work today.

Just check out the parking lot of Whole Foods, and then tell me that the anti-GM populace (not the actual leaders, mind you) are really concerned about the Safety Of The Planet.
posted by aramaic at 11:09 AM on January 22, 2001

Genetically modified foods have the potential to save many lives. Even though great progress has already been made, it is still true that millions of people starve to death every year. Why should we forgo that benefit just because people are being misled by propaganda, including terms like "frankenfood"?

Why exactly do we want to "save many lives"? Yes, custom-hacked foods may allow us to squeeze the planet's agricultural land even harder, producing even more food for even more people; but wait twenty years or so, and we'll be back in the same position when all their children need food. What then? Even more creatively engineered food, on even more marginal land, straining the local ecosystems even harder? It has to stop sometime, and the sooner we stop the better off we'll be. The problem is not a lack of food - the problem is a surplus of people. Adding more food will not solve the basic problem, which is that the planet's population is expanding.

I fail to see the benefit provided by enabling the continued expansion of the human population on a planet whose resources are already being depleted faster than they can be replaced.

I want labels on genetically modified food so I can avoid it. This is partly because it is new and thus unproven and thus an unknown risk, but there are better reasons. By purchasing GM food you enable the continued increase of the human population; furthermore, you assist in the conversion of the planet's agriculture from small farming to big business (gene patents, license fees, plants whose seeds cannot be used to generate next year's crop...). I do not want to be a party to this. That I may be forced to participate without even knowing when or how is frustrating.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:20 PM on January 22, 2001

I'll agree with Steven that humans in general overestimate risk with respect to the unknown. I'm not personally prone to that tendency, however, and I don't want information to be kept from me simply because some may overreact. Is GM food good or evil? I don't know - and without proper labelling, I'm not given enough information to make that judgement, at least from a price/quality standpoint.
posted by Vetinari at 12:57 PM on January 22, 2001

Mars, I don't think you'd feel that way if you were the one starving.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:24 PM on January 22, 2001

Mars, I don't think you'd feel that way if you were the one starving.

In what way are my personal circumstances relevant to this discussion?

If you see a problem with my argument, I'd like to hear what it is.

posted by Mars Saxman at 4:56 PM on January 22, 2001

I think that saying "I have enough food, so it's OK for someone else to starve as long as I don't know them and don't have to watch" is pretty damned cold hearted. If you're worried about population problems, then the thing to do is to start feeding them today and to teach them about birth control tomorrow.

I learned a lesson about hypocrisy once. During the late 70's when all the people were fleeing from VietNam in leaky boats, to various places, my reaction to all the nameless faceless people fleeing from a horrible place was "Send 'em back."

Years later I worked with a truly marvelous man, friendly and kind, bright as hell and hard working, just a pleasure to be around. He was happily married and they'd just had their first child. I worked with him a long time, and only after I got to know him well did I find out that he had been one of the boat people. His family had raised all the money it could and bought one place on one of those boats, so they sent their 12 year old son out of the country. He made it to Thailand, and managed to get accepted by the US as a political refugee. He'd grown up here in foster care, got himself a college education, became a citizen, and began to make a major contribution. As an adult he'd been back to VietNam twice to visit his parents, after things loosened up again. Once I put a face and name and story on just one of the boat people, I felt ashamed of myself. He's a good person; he's turned out well considering what he's been through, and he's an asset to this country.

I won't make that mistake again. The mere fact that I don't know somebody doesn't mean I can accept condemning them to hell.

Mars, the reason we want to save lives is because the death they face by starvation is slow, painful and horrible; and their pain is just as important as yours or mine is.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 5:50 PM on January 22, 2001

Once again, there is an easier solution to all this: murder one-third to one-half of the global population, and grind the bodies into fertilizer for nice wholesome all-natural food with no genes added (but maybe with extra iron, so our Precious Soccer Children grow up big and strong enough to join the Murder Cadres).

See? Everyone *can* be happy! People won't starve any longer, genetically-modified foods won't be sneaking into your croissants, and nobody is straining the ecosystem. Plus, with some creative use of random murder techniques, there's no unseemly racism involved.

It's a golden future out there; you just need to commit unspeakable slaughter to get it.
posted by aramaic at 6:16 PM on January 22, 2001

Steven, all that hoo-ha about how GM foods can save a lot of lives is sci-fi. It may come to be true - and in theory of course it's totally possible. But you know better than most, I'm sure, that almost all GM food now is of the "roundup ready" variety. They've used the utopian promise of GM to sell us all a bill of goods. It's not done to save lives, it's done to cement monopoly power in agribusiness. Follow the money - and you can follow it directly to Monsanto, Sanofi, ADM, etc.

And when I want labeling, it's that side of it that I'm interested in knowing. No one serious who wants labeling is saying simply that it's always bad for you. They're making a much broader argument - a political, economic, and philosophical argument. So to say that humans don't have the equipment or the background to make scientifically-reasonable risk analyses based on labelling completely misses the point.

It's not just about the science or about risk-analysis or false misperception. It's about more than that, it's bigger than that. And it's incumbent upon the companies, to my mind, to really take the whole of the issue in hand and take the time it takes to sell it to the public - and label in the meantime. As it is, they're just doing a nifty sell-job using science, immutable science, as their smokescreen.
posted by mikel at 6:37 PM on January 22, 2001

Mike, they're only just getting started. For the moment they're working on relatively easy modifications and targeting them at the most lucrative markets. But the companies involved in that kind of thing have been targeting the third world, too. The "Green Revolution" wasn't accidental, it was the result of a lot of really hard work and it primarily benefitted developing countries. The new strains of grain they're growing now mostly were developed in the US and Europe. Those were created using the old fashioned slowpoke methods: backbreeding to native stock, radiation or chemical mutagens to create random variety, careful cross breeding to conserve and combine valuable characteristics, and so on; and when they got done they'd performed miracles. The rice they created is vastly more productive than the old kind, and can feed more people per acre. Had that not happened, starvation would be a far bigger problem than it is now.

The GE companies won't be neglecting the developing world, as demonstrated by the fact that they already have been working on products for them.

It isn't science fiction; you'll see it in less than ten years. What they've accomplished so far is nothing compared to what they can do with the new tools -- unless some hysterical nitwits manage to sour everything.

And I don't think you're correct about people wanting labelling to find out who the moneybags belong to. Remember the recall of corn chips because maybe, just maybe, a little bit of genetically modified corn might have sneaked into the mix by accident? Never mind that corn is already one of the most heavily modified grains in existence (and was before 1492); it bears virtually no resemblance whatever to its native ancestor, a Central American grass called Teosinte. They look so vastly different, in fact, that for a long time there were serious doubts about the relationship between the two (until the issue was settled with genetic testing).

[From that link, I really like this: groups opposed to genetically engineered crops accused the government of violating the Endangered Species Act in considering whether to renew licenses for gene-altered crops that are toxic to insects. Oh dear. All those poor insects who consume or spoil a large portion of the food we grow; shed a tear. Grumble.]

I don't think we're being sold a bill of goods, except by the groups opposed to. What's happening is that in order for this science to become a full-blown field of engineering, it has to start turning out products which sell, so as to inspire more investment in it. That means starting with relatively easy modifications and targeting them at markets where they'll sell for a good price.

Once they've gained more experience and done a bit more work on their tools, and have begun to learn reasonable design methodologies, and have some solid successes behind them, they'll be ready to take on the really large problems like figuring out how to move genes from Mangroves to Corn so that Corn will thrive on saltwater, or moving genes from Soy or some other legume to Corn so that Corn will fix its own nitrogen and thus need less fertilizer. These are things that are completely plausible, and they will happen. It's just a matter of time.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:39 PM on January 22, 2001

Postscript: The GE companies are not making the mistake of the dot bombs. They know they have to become profitable sooner rather than later, and they're making concrete plans to do that. Once they are, they'll have more resources to apply to more difficult problems. I see the current work by them as a Good Thing because it will establish them as successful businesses. This is a necessary first step. Despite what you may have heard, "profit" is not a dirty word.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:45 PM on January 22, 2001

But starvation - it's a red herring! The famine problems of the world are entirely political/economic in nature. I don't have any cites, but I have been covering this material for 15 years in various forms, and I don't know of a single case of famine that existed due to an objective lack of food in the world. It's the distribution that's the real problem. This (GE foods), on the other hand, is an untested, though doubtless interesting and full of potential, way of avoiding the really difficult issues.

And your postscript, Steven, just agrees with my position. They are trying to be profitable, so they are aggressively lobbying the governments to ensure that they might - possibly against what the current will of the public would demand of governments. It's not a question of an objective panel of scientists and others sitting back and making a reasoned, long-view assessment of the best ways to deal with the potential food supply issues.

It's lobbying, no different than lobbying for interstate highways, nukes, the dismantling of public transit systems (which in fact may or may not have happened now that the record is becoming clearer). All of those things have been sold to the public by corporations with specific commercial gains in mind - but using techno-utopian language that promises nothing but sweetness and light.

Profit isn't evil, and it isn't a dirty word. But it shouldn't be acquired through shortcutting the system cause they think it's too slow.
posted by mikel at 8:08 PM on January 22, 2001

"it's distribution that's the problem".

Damn straight, and it's gonna stay that way. Shipping a few thousand metric tons of raw foodstuff across the planet can cost more than the value of the food itself (when dealing with things like bulk grain, not finished product that costs extra, and *especially* when dealing with the nasty corners of the world where the infrastructure has been ruined and warlords have to be bought off). Now ask a Soccer Mom to give her kid a few hundred extra bucks LESS over the lifetime of that Soccer Kid, in order to subsidize the food shipments, and try to convince her that an SUV is a bad purchasing decision. Not going to happen.

Contrary to popular opinion, human life is very nearly worthless. In the right situation, a person costs a few hundred bucks (max). The right to murder someone costs even less, if you're willing to accept committing an illegal act that has no real consequence. The right to commit murder as a LEGAL act costs somewhat more....

I could kill over a dozen people for the cost of a new car. The starving masses didn't destroy their own infrastructure, but they're still gonna die.
posted by aramaic at 9:07 PM on January 22, 2001

Mike, the reason starvation has been reduced is because of the advances which have already been made in improving basic grain plants. But it isn't gone.

There's starvation in a lot of places in the world, and not just for political reasons. And the population is still rising. That's a problem and it has to be dealt with, but it will take a long time to fix. In the mean time, more food will be needed, and barring a change in climate the only way that can happen is if even more improvements are made in basic grains. We need to increase yields even further, and if possible reduce the need for fertilizers and insecticides.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:59 PM on January 22, 2001

Thank you Steven, for so very well articulating everything I think. :)
posted by swank6 at 1:14 AM on January 23, 2001

Well, Steven, you may say that starvation occurs "not just for political reasons," but the data may not support your statement. The 1998 Nobel prize in economics was awarded to Amartya Sen for his work indicating that problems of starvation worldwide are primarily based in issues of entitlement -- that is, as the far from welfare-friendly Economist put it, "Exactly 200 years after Thomas Malthus predicted starvation is caused by overpopulation and scarce food, Amartya Sen has won a Nobel Prize for economics partly for proving that Malthus was wrong" (17 Oct. 1998). Sen's best-known work on the subject is a 1981 paper titled "Poverty and Famine: An Essay in Entitlement and Deprivation," in which he reviews empirical evidence across many famines, with special attention to the famines in Bengal in 1943, Ethiopia in 1973, and Bangladesh in 1974. His conclusion "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat." (Sorry I can't give page numbers or links for the Sen paper, but I'm reading it from an online database only accessible from my university.) Some economists may dispute this conclusion, of course, but it's currently extremely well-accepted theory.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:30 AM on January 23, 2001

It doesn't matter whether starvation is a problem now or not. Population is continuing to rise and it's going to be a problem in 20 years unless we start working on solving the problem now. Part of that solution is to educate people about birth control, but part of that solution is to increase the food supply, and that will require new more productive crops.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:44 AM on January 23, 2001

Another potential problem that hasn't even been touched on is the sheer space that's necessary for growing crops.

Sure, there's lots of space now for crops, but let's say we manage to stumble upon Utopia. The population drops to a sustainable level (whatever that is), the Internet is fast, free, and accessible from literally everywhere, and telepresence comes with the latest WebTV box (oh baby!).

Anyway, this Utopiac future is, of course, environmentally friendly. Growing crops is not environmentally friendly. Farm land gets abused constantly. Most of us here can agree that we want humanity to leave as small a footstep on the planet as possible.

So genetically engineered, super-high yielding crops can produce the amount of food we'd need with severely smaller environmental ramifications. Also, I get my meat vats of genetically engineered beef so I can eat steak 8 times a day and not get any bad cholesterol or fats, and not have to worry about the poor cow who's juicy flank I'm eating, because it didn't come from a cow.

Mmm... steak...
posted by cCranium at 9:16 AM on January 23, 2001

I guess I'm just not convinced that a) increasing the total food supply (as opposed to increasing the supply of food to the people, a separate issue) is going to be a primary requirement in 20 years, or b) if it is, that new crops, rather than new farming techniques or schemes to make better use of the farmland and its products in countries that are already in surplus and/or would be in even greater surplus if all the available farmland were used to its potential. Many industrialized nations deliberately restrict their agricultural productivity through subsidy schemes and the like.

My own concern about genetically modified crops tends toward questions of environmental impact, rather than consumer safety. The potential environmental hazard of GM crops seems more worrisome than that of hybrids, if for no other reason than because the features of new crops will be more extreme. Also, getting back to social forces that can interfere with feeding the masses, the privatization of genetic resources that have been engineered and patented accelerates the trend toward monocultural cropping. Biodiversity is a good thing, and monocultural farming vastly increases the risk of food and/or economic shortages on the local level. (For an example of the dangers of putting all your eggs in a single-crop basket, see the history of the boll weevil and its impact on the economy of the American South.)
posted by redfoxtail at 9:25 AM on January 23, 2001

Um, I'd like to add that I don't think genetically modified crops are evil. I just don't think that they're urgently necessary in the same way that some people seem to feel that they are; therefore, the industry doesn't need to be protected from the possibly alarmist reaction of consumers to labels distinguishing non-GM products. And now I know I've gone on more than long enough.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:36 AM on January 23, 2001

Fox, what's important is that the companies doing this work be able to produce profitable products in the short term, so that they become viable businesses, so that they can grow, so that they can eventually have the resources and knowledge needed to do good deeds with genetic engineering. They need to get started now so that they're established by the time the serious need arises.

Otherwise they will be a replay of the .com companies, bleeding money and dying.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:32 AM on January 23, 2001

So Steven you are explicitly saying that it is right to give companies an open, artificial road to profitability even though they haven't done the work necessary to gain public acceptance? That if something's potentially important enough, though unproven and generally, at the moment, used to extend pesticide patents rather than yield new breakthoughs in crop development etc. the government is right to roll over the public's clear wishes?

That boggles the mind! And it's the opposite position from saying that "well, people don't understand the science so we should protect them from their misperceptions" like you said (more or less) earlier.

Yes, it would be great if genetic modification of seeds and other GE stuff led to a breakthrough of the proportions I take it you believe to be possible. But I don't think it's right to do that over the objections of the public - whether right or wrong.

This isn't about the science alone - it's about the science in society. Just cause the companies aren't willing to or can't do the work necessary to gain acceptance in society doesn't mean the gov't should force it down our throats (quite literally).
posted by mikel at 11:24 AM on January 23, 2001

Mike, I'd rather speak for myself. I would appreciate it if you wouldn't speak for me.

I'm saying I think companies should be given an open natural road to profitability which isn't impeded by the hysterical ravings of the uneducated and fearful. I don't think the genetic engineering companies should be given carte blanche; but I think that what they're doing should be scrutinized by people who understand the issues and make their decisions based on reason rather than emotion. I'm quite certain that the FDA will fulfill that role more than adequately in the US -- because they've been doing it for decades already.

I also think that anyone who cites the endangered species act in defense of insects because someone has engineered a pest-resistant plant has forfeited their right to be taken seriously.

Mike, what you don't seem to understand is that there is no qualitative difference between what you seem to be objecting to, and what the agribusinesses have been doing already for 75 years -- or for that matter what human farmers have been doing for 6,000 years. Only the means is different. You're already eating genetically modified food; you have been your whole life. Almost nothing that Americans and Europeans eat which comes from a farm is the way it was in the wild. Humans have been altering agricultural plants and animals for millenia, often beyond recognition.

The difference is quantitative, not qualitative. The result will be faster progress, but there is nothing that they'll do with direct genetic manipulation which couldn't be done using the old fashioned techniques; it would just longer.

New versions of agricultural plants already have to go through an approval process. I can see no reason why the new ones would require any different procedure.

And as to labelling, I can see no justification in it, because there isn't going to be anything about the new foods which are that different from the old ones which would justify such labelling. The only justification for labelling is pandering to the irrational fears of those who don't know anything about genetics. The people who are most in favor of it want it precisely because they think people will boycott the stuff, thus making it economically unfeasible.

The only thing you ever eat from a store or at a restaurant which isn't genetically modified already is fish. That's the only remaining "gathered" foodstuff in the diets of the industrialized world. (Except for people who eat venison.) Everything else is farmed, and everything which is farmed has been modified.

You have to consider the source: this is Jeremy Rifkin doing this; he's been in the forefront of the fight against nearly every major technological advance for the last 25 years. I have nothing but contempt for the man.

Here's something cool: they found the genetic activator for milk production in sheep. They know what it is. That means that they can create genes for useful drugs, attach that activator to it, modify a sheep's egg with it, and if they successfully grow a female, it will create that drug in its milk -- and nowhere else. It's very specific. This is really exciting; it's an alternative to using E. Coli (which they're already doing industrially) for things which are just a little too much for a bacterium. With this approach, they may be able to cheaply produce huge quantities of things which may be treatments for cancer and a large number of other diseases which now are not easily treated. The potential for good here is immense. Equivalent approaches are possible with goats and cattle.

Jeremy Rifkin has been trying to prevent it since the initial discovery took place. He doesn't care anything about the potential for good. It just offends his sensibilities. I've never seen an argument from him that made sense, but he has a positive genius for getting the attention of the press.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:39 PM on January 23, 2001

Steven Den Beste said:
The only justification for labelling is pandering to the irrational fears of those who don't know anything about genetics.

This comment is simply untrue. As has already been pointed out in this thread, there are a variety of reasons to oppose genetically modified food based on everything from nutrition to geopolitics.

Bioengineered food may cause some health problems. It is quite likely to cause environmental problems. It is probable that it will assist in worsened overpopulation and environmental pressure in "developing" nations. It is absolutely certain that it will assist in the conversion of global agriculture from small holdings to large commercial enterprises, and increase the power of large agricultural & chemical companies.

All this and we don't even NEED the stuff.

Mike, what you don't seem to understand is that there is no qualitative difference between what you seem to be objecting to, and what the agribusinesses have been doing already for 75 years -- or for that matter what human farmers have been doing for 6,000 years. Only the means is different.

A computer is nothing but a very fast calculator. There is nothing a computer can do that a human being with a pencil and a huge stack of paper can't do. Computers are just doing what humans have been doing for thousands of years.

But we are doing all kinds of things with computers that we could never do before. Somehow, the ability to do vast amounts of arithmetic very quickly has moved us on to a new set of problems - it's just a natural extension of the adding machine, but its effects have rippled out to change the very substructure of our civilisation.

Your assertion that genetic engineering of crops is really just a new way of doing the same thing we've been doing all along is true, but it also misses the entire point. This new technique is so much more powerful than the old one that it might as well be considered a completely different thing. It will allow engineers to do things never before possible - that is the reason it was developed.

posted by Mars Saxman at 4:36 PM on January 23, 2001

Mars, you still don't get it. We're already eating "bioengineered" food. Except for fish and wild game and Mother's milk and mushrooms, you've probably never eaten anything else.

The reason the new approach was developed is that it will permit engineers to do things faster and cheaper than before. In some cases the degree of difficulty has changed enough so that things which were impractical before will now become practical, and in that sense it opens new doors. I, for one, am extremely excited about that, perhaps because I know some of the things they have in mind to do.

Dangers are possible. But before any of these companies can release a new breed of food crop commercially, they have to go through an approval process which is not unlike the one that new drugs have to go through; it's very restrictive and a great deal of test data has to be given to the approving agency, the FDA. And the FDA has never been in a hurry to grant approval; the delays involved in getting new drugs on the market in the US are legendary. (In fact, it got so bad that Congress had to pass a law shortcutting the procedure in some cases, because people were dying while waiting for drugs to get approval which could have saved them.) Those processes are already in place, because Monsanto and other companies like it have been developing new bioengineered crops for more than half a century.

Perhaps the reason I have a different attitude about this is that I've been following the advances in genetics for 20 years and I have as good a knowledge of the industry as a layman can probably have. (I happen to find the whole subject fascinating, and I always read about the latest advances when I have an opportunity to do so.) Because I understand what they're doing on a detailed level, I think I'm capable of evaluating it rationally, and I'm not even slightly afraid of it. I see some risks which I think can be managed with reasonable prudence, and I see lots of exciting opportunities. I see people getting more healthy diets and fewer people starving. I see children growing up more healthy. I see the opportunity to develop new ways of treating really tragic diseases, possibly even of curing them.

And I see a bunch of people who are doing their damndest to make sure that none of it happens. And that makes me angry, because I think that what they're doing is morally wrong. They are attempting to suppress something which can improve the lives of a billion people.

Here's an example of "science fiction". It's not food; in a sense what they're doing might be considered even worse to the uninitiated. (More on that later.) Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder in which sufferers are missing one protein because both genes they inherit to describe that protein are damaged. All mammals have secretions in their lungs; it's normal and in fact it's necessary for proper operation of the lungs. But with CF, the secretions are created wrong because of that missing protein. Instead of being thin, it's thick and sticky and there's more of it and it builds up. Absent treatment, it makes those lungs very susceptible to bacterial pneumonia and other fun diseases which can be quite serious. CF has other bad effects, too. In 1940, almost every child born with it died before their first birthday. By 1970, the majority of children who had it didn't survive to be adults. Even now, median life expectancy is 32 years (compared to something like 70 for most of us).

It affects other parts of the body as well, but the effects on the lungs are the most serious and what kills most of them. The other things can mostly be managed with drug therapy.

Consider this: what if we could put the genetic information for that protein into the cells of the lungs of a person with CF? Then the cells would operate properly, and their lung disease would be suppressed.

It's been done already. It's in clinical trials, and so far it looks extremely promising. What they did is to modify the virus which causes the common cold, so that it doesn't have all the disease-causing payload from before, but does have the gene to replace that protein (specifically, "the CF transmembrane conductance regulator"). A CF sufferer is hooked up to a breathing machine, and inhales an aerosol containing that virus. It "infects" cells in the lungs and injects the proper DNA into them. After such a treatment, symptoms abate for about 6 months (because it only affects the surface layer, and eventually those cells die and are sloughed off). But there doesn't appear to be any problem with repeating the procedure. We're talking "miracle" here for people with the disease.

Now if I were one of the hysterical nogoodnicks, my reaction would be "You're modifying an infectious disease? How long before you stumble on the next plague?" And indeed that question makes sense as long as you don't really know what they've done.

But when you do know what they've done, it's not scary at all. The adenovirus they're working with is very well understood. All its genes have been sequenced and they know what every one of them does. They know exactly how it reproduces and they know exactly which genes are involved. They deleted all the ones which make the virus reproduce before they added in the one for the magic protein to treat CF. (As a result, it's actually quite difficult to create enough of the virus for a treatment. The process is very involved, because this virus can't reproduce itself.) The virus retains its ability to invade lung cells, but once inside it doesn't have the ability to hijack the mechanisms of that cell to reproduce. Instead, it unloads the gene for the CF protein, and does nothing else whatever. There's no reason at all to believe that it represents any kind of danger to anybody.

Fortunately, not even Jeremy Rifkin is willing to try to suppress the best available treatment for a whole lot of sick children.

All of this work was done in the last 5 years or so, using the new techniques. This is an example of what kind of things we may be able to do with genetic engineering -- if only Jeremy Rifkin would get an embolism and die suddenly. (I'm not sure I can express how much I despise that man for fanning the flames of fear about this stuff.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:06 PM on January 23, 2001

Steven, I'm not sure if your insistence on discussing a point which many people who disagree with you are willing to grant -- that genetic engineering has the capacity to improve the lives of many people -- is a rhetorical strategy. If it's not, let me say again that there are quite a few reasons one might be concerned about GMOs entirely distinct from the knee-jerk Luddism you assign to we "hysterical nogoodnicks" who are dubious about the implementation and implications of the technology.

Genetic engineering is likely to bring about cures for a number of diseases over the next twenty years. I look forward to it. Curing disease and feeding the hungry are good things, and if Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred and Merck can make billions of dollars doing them, more power to them. But you just don't seem to be listening when people mention any objections other than the straw man you've constructed. I won't reiterate Mars, Mike, or Redfox's posts or concerns, but I'm personally disturbed by some of the intellectual property ramifications of GMOs, in which third-world efforts to genetically modify plant species through breeding are in effect annexed by first-world chemical and agriculture corporations. And pardon me for saying so, but I'm frankly insulted by what seems to be the underlying theme of your posts on this thread: that anyone who looks upon the future of biotech with anything other than gormless joy is a scientifically illiterate technophobe.
posted by snarkout at 8:45 PM on January 23, 2001

As my final note on this thread, the application for genetic engineering I've read about that interested me the most is using genetically-engineered E. coli to turn corn into plastic.
posted by snarkout at 9:11 PM on January 23, 2001

Well, Steven, we disagree profoundly on this, that's for sure. In case it hasn't been clear by the wording I've used - I haven't taken any personal offense at your posts and I really hope I haven't posted in such a way as to offend you.

I agree that my wording ("you are explicitly saying") wasn't the fairest choice of words, and I should have written it quite differently. That would have driven me nuts had the shoe been on the other foot. Sorry about that.
posted by mikel at 10:22 PM on January 23, 2001

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