I think the European position on Frankenfood can be summarized as: "Corporate interests driven only by greed are experimenting with the code of life with unknown consequences. The risks are huge, the benefits are dubious." The American position can be summarized as: "Huh?"
Recently, the US has gone so far as to try to force Europeans to eat Frankenfood.
American arrogance aside, what gives with European reluctance and terror at the concept of genetically modified crops? Or, if you would rather examine the inverse, why are Americans so blase about the issue and seemingly could care less?
On both sides of the aisle, atrocities are visible. Consider Zambia, where hundreds of thousands face starvation, and American GM Crops are rejected on the basis of fanciful European fears about foreign genes and proteins. Additionally, African farmers will not grow GM crops if they cannot be exported to European markets.
Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika is a biochemist at Zambia's National Institute for Science and Technology, holds two degrees from US universities and has specialised in biosafety for five years. He explains that his team rejected the maize largely because of health concerns raised in Europe. His first concern is gene transfer - the idea that the foreign genes could, while in the gut, transfer into the cells of the body or into bacteria in the gut. If the genes become coded for antibiotic resistance, as they sometimes do, bacteria that picked them up could then rampage through human populations.
According to the Zambia Daily Mail, a group called Farming and Livestock Concern UK said that the virus used to create most GM varieties "could form a retrovirus that could produce symptoms similar to HIV", a claim that will raise eyebrows among biologists. Another lobby group, Genetic Food Alert, raised the "unknown and unassessed implications of providing large quantities of food containing resistance genes to a large population in Zambia.
Meanwhile, American companies encode pesticide resistance into GM Crops. Why? So more pesticides can be sprayed without harming the crops! Hardly a likeable outcome, and clearly one cynically aimed at lining chemical company's coffers. It only takes a loose grasp on irony to perceive that the real promise of GM crops is to create disease resistance WITHOUT using pesticides.
Additionally, the propensity to try to claim intellectual property rights over genetic code that is only discovered in the wild, perhaps even garnished originally from cultural wisdom of poor rural third world peoples, raises serious eyebrows on many different levels. How can you copyright life? How can you claim corporate hegemony over traditional cultural knowledge? It's called biopiracy, and it's real. Is there prior art on turmeric, for example?
However, I have a serious beef with European concerns over Frankenfood, no pun intended in light of recent Mad Cow Disease concerns. Which is a very relevant example, actually, as Cloaked User points out, the psychology at work over Frankenfood is much the same as that which played out during the BSE scandal:
You mention the BSE crisis - well, I "lived through" it, and I remember the projected number of deaths. Predictions were up in the millions; you could be forgiven for being left with the distinct impression that the country would be more than decimated by it. So far, iirc, the actual number of deaths from nvCJD is around a hundred. I can't help feeling it was blown out of all proportion...
People, generally speaking, tend to fear the unknown, and anything that they don't understand, especially when it's beyond their control, and people are telling them that they should fear it.
Driving cars is far more dangerous to life and limb than flying airplanes. But people are scared to death of flying, and feel quite comfortable driving. Why? Because in a car, you are in control behind the wheel. While in an airplane, you put your life in the hands of others. Simple human psychology at work. The sense of control greatly outweighs the statisics and truth of the matter of the real safety at work. You don't have control over the other drunks and idiots on the road, but the feel of the steering wheel in your hand has a potent psychological effect.
The psychology of the situation is remarkable. But the sensitivity to the soundness of one's food supply is commendable too. Obviously, it can go overboard.
I think much of Europe's concerns over Frankenfood have easy parallels to European peasant's reactions to the original Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: simple, unfounded fear of the unknown. Fanciful tales of retroviruses hijacking GM genes and spreading dangerous reactions in animal and human guts? Good lord. Can we say false alarmism please?
There is nothing wrong with opposing GM crops on scientific grounds. There is everything wrong with opposing GM crops on science fiction grounds.
Take as an example a crop like golden rice. It offers vitamin A in a plant where vitamin A is not traditionally genetically manufactured. And so golden rice makes a vital nutrient available in the staple diet of the rural poor, many in nations where blindness can result because some diets are low in vitamin A.
So what can possibly be the basis for opposing this crop? What is the downside? Governments and NGOs have already said they will provide the crop free of charge. What, will the gene for making vitamin A wreak havoc on the world because... well you've messed with mother nature, and vitamin A belongs in carrots only, so the great goddess of the Earth will enact her revenge on a human populace that doesn't respect her? Where's the science? Where's the possible threat?
There is nothing wrong with respecting limits. There is nothing wrong with mistrusting corporations tinkering with the code of life and letting the consequences play out in the real world with unknown consequences for us all.
But there is everything wrong with opposing great benefit for the poor of the world out of a simple lack of an education in basic genetics. Careful evaluation of the potential outcome before letting a GM crop into the fields? Certainly. But let the emphasis be on careful evaluation, and not uneducated hysteria.
There is benefit to the world from GM Crops. There really is. A lot of the nightmare scenarios opponents of GM Crops cook up are based on natural processes that go on every day around us anyways. These processes neither add to nor subtract from anything GM crops introduce into the environment. And just looking at something like SARS, it is easy to see that the natural biological threats from natural genetic processes are, were, and will always be the real concern.
Some scientists put jellyfish genes in monkeys a few years ago. Disturbing? Yes. Genetic modification can do more than make crops grow better. They can warp us, they can warp the genetic code of humans. That is frightening.
But some scientists put fish genes in strawberries. Why? So the antifreeze gene from the fish would make the strawberries more resistant to frost. Where is the harm in that? Seriously!
Can we keep our healthy fear in line with our sense of reason? What I am asking from those who are wary of genetic engineering in food is this: fear and fight the jellyfish genes in monkeys, but don't fight the fish genes in strawberries. One is a frightening step towards tinkering with our genes for dubious purposes. The other makes strawberry growing easier for Canadians. Big difference. Keep that perspective and don't let the fear overwhelm your reason.
Human beings have been messing with genetics for years. Look at the variety of dogs we have cooked up from a few wolves we befriended some thousands of years ago. Compare the gigantic corn cobs of today to the ancient pre-Mayan wimps, or ancient tiny Andean potatoes to the Idaho monsters today, or tomatoes, etc.
Of course messing directly with the genetic code carries increased risks and necessitates greater oversight. With great power comes great responsiblity. Can we screw it up? Yes. But the benefits are so huge to the world, GM can not be ignored. The genie can not be put back in the bottle. Such is human nature. We will not ignore GM and discard the technology, nor should we.
Think about the GM crops that can be coaxed to grow in desert environments. Or cold environments. Think about the boon all of this represents for the poor of the world, for putting less strain on the natural environment. You say corporations have no interest in these goals? Fine. Then chastise the corporations, not the tech. And then tell me European concerns over GM foods don't reek of hysteria and a lack of real scientific knowledge.
Like opposing globalization, opposing genetically modified crops is like opposing the inevitable. But just as globalization is known as Americanization in some circles, the debate over Frankenfood gets coated with fear and politics, instead of reason, and we all lose for that.