Poison or Progress?

Readers enter the debate over Genetically Modified crops
When we explored the controversy over genetically modified crops on July 5th, we knew the issue was contentious. But we had no idea how sharply--and evenly--it would divide our readership. From the U.S. and abroad, you weighed in pro and con at length, and with record speed. A day after posting the story, we had received roughly 30 reactions. Although the responses arrived rapid-fire, they were no less thoughtful than we have come to look forward to. Readers on both sides brought fresh insight--and frequently literary flare--to the topic.

Monarch butterfly
EVIDENCE that pollen from genetically-modified corn sickened the larvae of the Monarch butterfly raised conceren among some readers.

The camp supporting genetically modified crops echoed several themes. Many emphasized that manipulating crops to enhance certain traits is nothing new, and that traditional farming itself comes with some "unnatural" trade-offs. Another contingency simply blamed the current backlash against genetically modified crops on general ignorance and science-bashing within the population at large. Others argued that the only future alternative to farming with genetically modified crops is an unacceptable one--namely, world starvation.

Readers opposed to genetically modified crops sounded their own concerns. Some likened the act of genetically altering crops to opening Pandora's box and predicted inevitable catastrophe. Similar arguments recalled earlier scientific accomplishments gone wrong: DDT, Agent Orange, dioxin and so forth. And a few voiced fears over kill-genes, which render the seeds of an altered plant infertile, as an attempt on the part of agribusinesses to, in effect, enslave farmers. Others simply noted that they would want genetically altered foodstuff labeled so that they could avoid them.

Safety concerns aside, a third group raised additional issues. One reader commented that there is as yet not enough data to decide either way for or against genetically modified crops. Another, that the technology is a bad idea because it discourages genetic diversity, encourages an economically stratified society and promotes a consumption-oriented system of values, among other things. Here is a selection of the responses.

In Favor of Genetically Modified Crops

I truly believe that with extensive testing and careful monitoring genetically engineered foodstuffs are the way to solve the world's hunger and food problems. Not only do I believe in engineered resistance, but also in engineering plants to grow in areas in which they would not normally thrive. In this case, careful monitoring is required in order to prevent environmental catastrophes resulting from alien plants invading local habitats.

I am an 18 year-old, college-bound student and admittedly hyper-optimistic about all science that can benefit society; in my opinion this technology can. Wars have been fought over land, sometimes because of a lack of farming area. I hope that increased-yield plants will lead to a more peaceful future. I truly hope that there are more people out there to counter the vocal and perhaps narrow-minded opponents of this technology. This opinion comes not only from a young adult (don't know how many of those you'll get) but also from a Novartis Crop Protection employee, where I work everyday to improve the crops of the world.

High Point, N.C.

Regarding genetically altered plants, stasis is the least natural thing we could try to impose on nature. Plants genetically modify themselves to changing conditions. That is the history of evolution for all species.

Protecting all living creatures, while trying to improve and increase the diets of the starving world, is the balance that plant research must achieve. We must feed the hungry world. And we must find resources and dedication to do so without endangering other species. That is the challenge to science and humankind.

Margaret A. Paulson
Rosemount, Minn.

The Case for Genetically Modified Crops
Endorsement by a World Bank panel
Pending approvals at USDA
Bt gene approvals at EPA
Product reviews by the FDA

The Case Against Genetically Modified Crops:
Friends of the Earth on genetically nodified crops
Position of family farmers
Report on genetically modified soybeans from Greenpeace
Safety issues of genetically modified crops
Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Foods
Analysis of Roundup Ready products from Genetically Manipulated Food News
Religious opposition

The Butterfly Effect, Scientific American, August 1999

I would like detractors to consider the process of "accelerated evolution." Nature is constantly experimenting with the activation of nascent genes and the development of new genes due to unexpected genetic damage. Many plants have developed potent insecticides as adaptations to insect predation. Introducing a gene purposefully is an evolutionary experiment: if the plant survives, the adaptation is good. This is the only morality that biology (ours and that of our cultivated crops) understands, and we should embrace and accept it as "natural." To do otherwise is to disbelieve our very "natural" and accidental origins. That a gene can be introduced and expressed is evidence of its plausibility in nature. Plants can't make biochemicals that they don't have the machinery to produce.

There are a great many potent, biologically active chemicals that we consume in cultivated plants daily, many of which probably arose as accidents of evolution and which are poorly understood. For example, "edible" mushrooms have many toxins, some of which are suspected carcinogens and teratogens. The argument that "natural" food is safe is spurious; what is safe is a matter of cultural norms, and generally includes food that survives pests but does not overtly kill the human mammals who cultivate it. Are we not all evolutionary experimentalists in this regard?

Greg George
Cincinnatti, Ohio

Genetically "engineering" crops is nothing new: humans have been doing it for millenia already through hybridization and selective breeding. It's amazing how much we've modified corn, for example, over the last thousand years. It's changed from being a plant that had small ears and didn't produce much into a plant with large, sweet ears and many kernels. Without our genetically modified food plants, we would not have civilization; the food foundation wouldn't be there.

Genetic engineering allows us to improve our crops much faster than ever before. Instead of taking generations to produce a corn plant that is resistant to a particular parasite, it can be done in 10 years, or two.

The benefits of engineering are enormous: massively reduced need for the spraying of toxic pesticides (remember DDT?); increased yields; increased nutrition; possibly drought-resistant varieties, which can prevent famine; and reduction of soil erosion. The risks of engineering are insignificant when compared to the possible gains, or to the much larger and popularly ignored risks: the continued burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, overfishing, destruction of arable land due to poor agricultural techniques and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, to name only a few.

Peter Mardahl
Berkeley, Calif.

The Dutch, French, Swiss and British are not hungry countries and perhaps can afford an embargo (on Bt crops), although "Indian Corn" might be a little hard to swallow. Anything that gives the U.S. an edge is automatically BAD.

The media is so attuned to scares that one unprofessional report (on Monarchs) outweighs reams of good data, and when the Naders, NIMBYS and BANANAS get a hold of it, all hell breaks loose. Example: BGH milk in Wisconsin.

My hope is that the U.N. is more far sighted, because until zero population growth is attained, the Green Revolution is the alternative to starvation.

John Fox
Kewaunee, Wis.

As scientists, we have to weigh the threat of spreading worldwide human starvation. I'm sure that most of the opposition force belongs one way or another to any of the multiple New Age associations (I prefer "New Dark Age"), whose only purpose is opposing all that is named scientific progress, perhaps impelled by the universal fear of change.

What would we prefer? Many thousands of hungry children dropping dead because many thousands of voracious caterpillars devoured the food, or healthy children? There can be no argument! We would prefer the last option, wouldn't we? We've heard nothing about how genetically modified food harms human health. All we have heard is that men can improve in days, months or years what nature does in the course of millions of years.

Nasif Nahle
San Nicolas de los Garza, Nuevo Leon

Granted, scientific progress can sometimes be painful due to mankind's equal capacities for good, evil and ignorance. But to shy from the promise of the future based on fear is immature. We as a race (the human one) should continue to explore new technologies and applications with as much wisdom as is available. An infant must risk many a scrape and bruise while learning to walk, but walk they must before becoming an adult. In a nutshell, engineered crops have much potential benefit, and it isn't like we're talking Gattaca here.

Dana Durand
Everett, Wash.

For centuries, man has been modifying livestock and food crops in the cause of improving yields, size, taste, texture, crop quality and just about any other useful or pleasing attribute. Whether by direct manipulation or by artificial selection, agriculture has had the ability to design the crops it grows and the farm animals it husbands.

When science provides a faster method of producing insect resistant crops via genetic engineering, what difference is there between breeding a crop, hybridizing a crop or genetically altering a crop? All of these routes can produce the same desired result. True, pollen from a Bt crop could harm local insects. So could crop spraying and field burning. The mere act of farming is destructive to parts of local ecologies. But it is a given that such activities are also vital to sustaining our civilization as we currently know it. So where do we draw the line?

We now have a brave new world facing us. Just one of the many tools that science has presented us is genetic engineering. How we use it will be debated for years. But I urge man not to turn his back on a tool just because it can be misused or abused. Rather, face the responsibilities of using such technologies reasonably.

Is crop genetics a reasonable use? If it is shown that ecologies are not harmed any more than they are by other technologies, then yes, use genetics. But to casually lump such use as being on par with some science fiction horror film is ludicrous. I can just hear my TV spewing the title of some old black and white film: "The Revenge of the Giant Mutant Spud." Perhaps Hollywood would like it!

Bill Bethea
Baton Rouge, La.

Genetically altered crops fall into the same category as irradiated foods. They are buzz words carrying a burden of connotations that serve to frighten people that know nothing of the science behind them. Say "radiation" to the average person and they think of giant, rampaging ants in 1950's B movies or of some frightful apparition from the X-Files. "Genetically altered" brings to mind some horrible mutant, again reinforced by pop culture pseudo-science. Similar irrationality pops up again and again, often fueled by scare tactics geared to sell products. (The ad that touts 99.99 percent of "germs" killed in your wash, although your body teems with bacteria, springs to mind.) As long as the general public remains ignorant of science and is motivated by perceived fears, scientific progress will be questioned and opposed. More must be done to improve peoples' understanding of the world around them, and this should start in our schools, where money should be spent to teach chemistry instead of buying football uniforms.

Matthew Moroney
Fresno, Calif.

The continued attacks on genetically modified agriculture are not merely misinformed, they are symptomatic of widespread "science bashing," which seems to be increasing in all sectors of society. Here we have one of humanity's greatest triumphs--the creation of crops perfectly suited to dependable, high-yield, dense farming techniques (which will become a necessity to feed the world until zero population growth is achieved)--and it is being protested by people whose greatest complaint seems to be the word "genetic." These people can be found across modern culture, raising vast, largely ill-informed cries whenever words such as mutation, genetics, radiation, nuclear and even technology are mentioned. These people display such ignorance that the onus must be on them to become better educated, rather than on the scientific community to answer this sort of rent-a-crowd protestor, who will find faults in all they deem to be of "the establishment."

D. Westin
Vancouver, British Columbia

The use of genetically altered plants is a biologically astounding accomplishment, and the benefits should be used to better humanity. But with this great leap comes consequences far beyond the handling of single men. These responsibilities should be handled by humanity's peers and geniuses to prevent countless disasters. Whether genetics is playing God, as some would say, it is still self-evident that genetics should be used by men to better themselves

Kevin Schmidt
West Keansburg, N.J.

Readers Against Genetically Modified Crops

Regarding genetically modified crops, we are but children poking at the lid to Pandora's box. The companies involved are taking a short-sighted, profit-minded path: "Its a small box; how bad can it be? Let's just open it and see what happens." Despite the rhetoric, it is not possible to predict the effect of genetically modified crops on the natural world.

Companies like Monsanto see oceans of floating dollar signs in the perverse dream of the non-reproducing seed, the plant that will not reproduce itself, putting farmers of the world in permanent indenture to the seed supplier. They picture the end of natural farming and the beginning of worldwide, genetically modified crop farming and themselves as the new gatekeeper. These companies see only dollars in the box they're about to open, but much more--and much worse--awaits inside.

Having grown up in our "post-modern" world, I know that far too many "wonders of man's triumph over nature" were in fact "wonders of man's arrogant stupidity." We threaten our own progeny to forget DDT, leaded gasoline, Agent Orange, in-store fluoroscopes, dioxin and "Africanized" Bees. This off-the-cuff list is a sharp reminder that our understanding falls so very far short of our ability to manipulate our world.

There will most assuredly be a genetically modified crop catastrophe, something copied from a bad science fiction movie. And thanks to these companies, and their push to unleash their creations and their profits, it will unfortunately not be confined to a lab in Poughkeepsie. No, it will take place in Iowa and the Carolinas, Kansas and Ohio--everywhere that genetically modified crops grow; everywhere they're sold and eaten and processed; and in everyone who's been exposed.

We are unable to handle what's inside this box. We must leave the lid on.

Brian Dowtin
Greensboro, N.C.

It is a well known fact that without butterflies and their brethren, plant pollination would not be as successful as it is. Therefore, I find it abhorrent that experiments on genetically altered plants have PROVED them to be a hazard to the health of monarch butterflies (as well as other species we don't know about as yet) and we don't know about it until AFTER the inception of such experiments. I feel that, once again, the American government is using its own people as guinea pigs. At least let the American people, the consumers, be notified as to which agricultural items are being tampered with BEFORE they are consumed.

Gypsy Skylark
Enfield, N.H.

Genetically modifying crops is not the answer to the problems we will be, and are, facing with the future of agriculture. We must turn to nature for help. By that I mean growing our crops in polycultures. The way we are abusing our lands with chemicals upon chemicals just to squeeze out every last bit of nutrient the soil has to offer has got to stop!

Bjorn A. Hallsson
Libertyville, Ill.

The benefits absolutely do not outweigh the risks. The potential for the evolution of insects resistant to the genetically installed insecticides or repellants of such crops is a frightening idea. We would not be able to handle such insects, left without the biochemical means to do so.

More dangerous still is the effect cross-pollination may have on ecological systems. The results of gene permeation through plant populations not intended to contain the new genes would be disastrous and extremely difficult to deal with. Progenic plants with new genes could dramatically begin to dominate environmental niches, killing off the natural inhabitants and upsetting ecowebs in an unpredictable way.

My chief cause for alarm is the fact that if results such as those described above should happen, restoration of the ecology to a stable and sustainable state would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. We cannot trace every chromosome containing new genetic material in order to eliminate it. Also, because I have environmental sentiments, I fear for the safety of the habitats of species alive now. The upsetting of ecological systems could cause extinctions.

Paul Raposo
Toronto, Ontario

As of yet I have not heard of any benefits from eating or producing genetically altered food. I think it is the most ridiculous idea ever conceived, and I know that the only people who will profit from this are pharmaceutical and multi-national companies who, as far as I can tell, have never acted in my best interest. Meanwhile those of us who eat our pig gene altered Frankenstein fruit without ever knowing it will suffer the consequences. I personally think those consequences will rear their ugly heads in the form of nasty and killer diseases. Who will profit from that I wonder? Why, the very same people who created the problem to begin with. They can then create all sorts of Frankenstein Fruit disease-battling drugs. Rather sick actually. I'm no scientist, though, so what do I know!

E. Bell
Toronto, Ontario

I am against genetically adding things to plants or altering them to be resistant to chemicals because I do not think that any scientist can know what the ramifications to this planet will be. For instance, an insect species can, through generations, develop a resistance to insecticides. Do we really know if it will change us as a species and if so, how? Look at what happens by adding antibiotics and growth hormones to our cattle. I think we should study whether this explains why our population is so overweight. And these things are not done at the genetic level. This type of science needs more study before we are eliminated by some genetic mistake.

New York, N.Y.

The aspect of this genetic engineering that frightens me the most is the so-called kill gene, which renders the seeds produced by a crop of, say, corn, infertile. Agribusiness does this to keep farmers from using their designer plants a second year free of charge, sort of a copyright-protection modification. It seems possible that this kill gene could begin turning up in plants with similar genotypes, and eventually in quite dissimilar species. The likelihood of a rampant, species- or even genus-wide dieoff may be slim, but still scares the pants off the average person.

Other concerns worry smaller segments of the population. A vegetarian or someone observing religious dietary restrictions might easily eat a vegetable that has had its genes spliced with those of a pig. That's disturbing. I have also heard of a person allergic to Brazil nuts who had a life-threatening reaction to soy products spliced with those genes. This might be an urban myth, but is well within the realm of possibility.

Although stopping the eventual spread of spliced genes into the natural population would be difficult, fruits and vegetables could be easily labeled "genetically-enhanced" in the grocery store, along with the source of the genes used, for consumers to review. Even if most consumers are willing to eat these fruits and vegetables, others could elect not to do so.

Perhaps farmers committed to growing fruits and vegetables without the genetic tinkering should create a labeling system themselves, "whole fruits" and "whole vegetables" (to distinguish them from organics). I would be willing to pay a few cents more per pound to know exactly what I'm putting into my body.

Paige R. Penland
Oakland, Calif.

I haven't heard of any extensive testing. Additionally, what happens when extra-sensitive individuals or animals partake of genetically modified veggies? Might not they experience a toxic effect, like the contact sensitivity of poison ivy? It seems to me that we risk creating a new level of exposure sensitivity, which may not pop up immediately and will be brushed off by doctors for lack of awareness or concern.

This technology is a double-edged sword: although it may allow farmers to produce more at less expense, if their crop begins to make other plants, animals, insects or humans sick, what's the point? The long-term cost could be much greater to the total population than the short-term gain.

Insects are in this world for a reason; if we upset the balance, then we are creating other problems that we may or may not be aware of until it's too late.

Cris Bronson
Ann Arbor, Mich.

I am not morally against research in this area. I do have grave reservations about unforeseen environmental and socio-economic effects. I fear it is inevitable that the genes will escape into related wild species. The consequences are potentially staggering. Also, there have not been enough long-term studies to determine that foods with added "toxins" are indeed safe. This technology has the potential to further concentrate economic power into the hands of a few large agri-business firms. This may result in even greater stress on the traditional family farm, and loss of choice for the food purchaser. If these altered foods are forced onto the market, they should be labeled as such.

A. Malinen
Rose Bay, Nova Scotia

I think the strongest case against genetically engineered food crops will be simply doing a good job. I actually first saw this argument in a science fiction book: genetically engineered wheat had to be destroyed when scientists discovered that it would take less than six months for the "super-wheat" to take over the world. The implications are obvious and far-reaching. I do like the idea of more nutritious crops that are pest-resistant, easier to grow and more hardy. But each one of these goals, if achieved, could be devastating. Nutritious? For whom? Humans? What about the rest of the insects and animals that we rely on, either directly or indirectly, for our survival? So the question is this: when do we stop? And who keeps watch and decides when to stop?

Karen Watkins
Ponca City, Okla.

We cannot deny that mass production of genetically modified crops will upset the balance of nature. The plants are there to provide us with food, not for us to experiment on. Man should not interfere with the genes in plants because when we do, something is bound to happen and it will not be good. Therefore, let's stop cheating ourselves and let nature take its course instead.

Fiona Lim

We have started to see the negative affects of monoculture agriculture. We will only see more with monogenetic cultures. Too many plants are planted with too similar a genetic make-up already. Genetic alterations will force large growers into an even smaller selection of plants. Heirloom and open-pollinated seeds possess genetic variations that make them much more viable crops. What will be lost in conformity will be gained in better taste and crops that can be bred into the next millennium. If genetic alterations lead to a less genetically varied crop, it is doomed to long-term failure.

Mike Kennedy
Gorham, Maine

The impact of modified corn pollen on Monarch butterflies may not be as serious as it seems at first reading. It does, however, illustrate one very important fact. In years of testing, evidently no one noticed that this damage was occuring. Obviously not every contingency can be covered. That said, do we really want to play Russian Roulette with the environment?

Initially I felt that genetic solutions--such as the changes to corn--were an elegant answer to the dilemma of controlling pests and improving crops. Now I am forced to admit that even though we have been saying that nature is complex, she's much more complex than we had considered. I think no new genetically engineered crops should be approved until the protocols and procedures used to test their viability are thoroughly examined and discussed by the scientific community and the community at large.

Charles Burdine
Austin, Texas

Other Issues

It seems odd that a country as high-tech as ours is bothered by statistics. Statistics cannot prove anything. It can only correlate data. Have we shown a correlation between human disease and genetically engineered plants? Is the lack of correlation any assurance that a correlation will not be found? We seem prepared to do battle, but we have no ammunition.

Perhaps the danger is that, in trying for rapid progress, we will not study the data for a long enough time. Perhaps the problem is that we satisfy human perceptions instead of simply demonstrating that statistics reveal nothing. Statistics cannot do what human perception demands.

Lyndon S. Cox
Chapel Hill, N.C.

I think your article on genetically altered food misses the point. I support organic farming and avoid genetically altered produce, but not primarily out of concern for my health. There are many more compelling reasons to avoid genetically altered crops: the alternative supports genetic diversity; encourages a less economically-stratified society; promotes a less consumption-oriented system of values in society; reduces the individual's sense of anonymity and helplessness; and the organic stuff just tastes better. The list goes on and on. I won't attempt to argue for any of these benefits. Space does not allow it. One should note, however, that most of the benefits in this list are not the sort that can be preserved by the free market.

Articles such as yours, and yours is representative of most articles on the topic in the mainstream press, present strawman arguments. The reasons for avoiding genetically altered crops are much more complex. A simple argument is easier both to present and to absorb, but if such arguments guide public policy, you do the public a disservice by presenting them.

David Houghton
Buffalo, N.Y.

I do not believe that all genetically altered food is necessarily harmful. I do, however, believe that I should not be forced to ingest such food, which is currently the case. There is no excuse for not labelling genetically altered food.

Ufa Paleta, MD
Toronto, Ontario

The current system of campaign financing is a major cause of our food problems, including genetically modified crops. Senator John McCain said the current system is "nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

The giant food producers, like Monsanto, have paid millions to "influence" our Congress. (I fear the better word is "buy.") It is no surprise that we are not allowed to decide if we want to buy "Frankenfood" or not. Agribusinesses don't want us to know and so we don't. They rightfully fear the choices an informed shopper would make.

Do the risks of genetically modified crops outweigh the benefits? Currently, they do.

Donald L. Anderson
Harpswell, Maine

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