Uncertain Peril in the 631’s

April 13, 2012 non-fiction, Science 1

2210231Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds is a manifesto strongly opposing our current use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  As someone pursuing a PhD in bioinformatics and generally comfortable with the idea of genetic engineering, I expected to be entirely unconvinced by the author’s arguments.  In fact, I almost didn’t pick this book up at all, because I wasn’t sure I could read it objectively enough.  However, I think avoiding reading books by author’s with viewpoints opposed to my own would seriously limit the amount I learn from this project.  Surprisingly, I ended up agreeing with a lot of the author’s points, even though I was sometimes shocked by her completely one-sided rhetoric.

Before we get into her arguments, here is a brief description of GMO’s as the author defines them: a GMO is an organism into which humans have introduced either a gene from another species or a man-made gene.  For example, a strain of corn might be created which contains a gene causing it to produce an insecticide or a plant may be engineered to be more drought resistant.  The author is strongly opposed to the use of such organisms and makes several very good arguments against their use as we currently use them.  One of the most shocking facts she presented was the way GMO’s have entered public use with very little regulation or testing.  The USDA does no testing of their own, instead relying on companies to provide their own information.  The EPA can only regulate plants which produce pesticides and ignores the fact that a plant constantly producing a pesticide may be different then a plant sometimes sprayed with a pesticide.  And worst of all, the FDA made the frankly insane decision to treat GMO’s as essentially equivalent to non-GMO’s.  As a result, GMO-containing foods are un-labeled and their is no way for consumers to avoid them.  This is particularly worrying given studies presented by the author which suggest GMO’s can contribute to cancer and other diseases.

Additionally, there is the issue of genes spreading from GMO’s to their natural neighbors.  The most obvious method for this transfer is through sexual reproduction (eg pollen from GMO corn spreads to naturl corn and the offspring have the introduced gene from the GMO parent).  I’ve always believed that simply creating a sterile version of a GMO would solve this problem.  Unfortunately, there is also a phenomenon know as “horizontal gene transfer” which is when DNA from one organism is transferred to another by any method other than reproduction.  The author provides some evidence that this happens much more frequently than is commonly believed.  She also follows that argument to the logical and terrifying conclusion that a sterility gene could spread and wipe out a species by knocking out it’s ability to reproduce.  Transfer of even other, more benign genes could also be damaging, as a population in which all members have the same identical gene could all be susceptible to the same illness and be wiped out that way.

These arguments alone are enough for me to support more caution and more tests before GMO’s are released into the wild as casually as is done today.  Unfortunately, the author doesn’t stop there.  The rest of the book includes a lot of unfounded, anti-science propaganda.  She claims both that agribusinesses developed GMO’s as part of a “larger business strategy to gain and maintain control over the agricultural sector” and that biotechnology was “not a scientific discovery” but was “devised by a small group of people to manipulate life according to their own designs and for their own purposes”.  As a scientist, I was completely offended by this view.  Gene manipulation may hold the promise of a cure for many diseases and is definitely what I would classify as a great scientific discovery.

Finally, while the author manages to present some very convincing facts, I had to work hard to separate the facts from her over-the-top rhetoric.  Despite the possible use of gene manipulation to cure diseases, she compares the idea to the Nazi’s use of eugenics and never mentions the potential benefits if the technology is not misused.  She also describes our current condition as living in a “Frankenstate” and describes stopping the use of GMO’s as “searching for ways to restore meaning and morality to our lives” although she never even tries to make the philosophical argument that GMO’s are amoral.  As I mentioned earlier, I did approach this book as a supporter of GMO’s and as a scientist, so I was probably more sensitive to the hype than most other readers – an observation which makes this rhetoric even more frightening, as others may simply accept it as part of the facts.  Although compelling facts were provided by the author, I think the book would have been better if she had left her own preconceptions out of it.

Summary

Uncertain Peril – ★★☆☆☆ – Although it’s very impressive that the author managed to bring me around to her way of thinking, despite my preconceptions, what convinced me were the facts she presented – facts which had to be selected carefully from her biased and alarmist rhetoric.

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