Science and ‘naturalism’ meet in the biotech debate

Science and ‘naturalism’ meet in the biotech debate

By Debra Levey Larson, U of I College of ACES Media/Communications Specialist

URBANA—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 some 10,000 years, its use in crops, particularly those that will ultimately become food on our table, is suspect to some.

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. 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.

“There is a sense of spirituality that relates to the natural universe that prompts some to question the wisdom of engineering transgenic plants,” said Bruce Chassy, professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois and associate director of the 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. But there is no data or evidence that this is true.”

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.”

Conventional breeding often crosses wild plants with commercial varieties 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.

Biotechnology’s skeptics say we need higher regulatory and safety standards, said Chassy, who 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. They look at the mature plant to see if it is sturdy, if it is growing properly, if it’s normal. And those are the ones they pick to continue propagating—not the abnormal ones. The same selection process is applied in conventional plant breeding.”

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.”

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. 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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