GE Alfalfa – A Very Poor Decision

February 4th, 2011 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on GE Alfalfa – A Very Poor Decision

On January 27, the Obama Administration made the damaging decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa. This means GE alfalfa can be planted without any federal requirements to prevent contamination of organic and non-GE crops. It also means that GE alfalfa does not have to be labeled, making it difficult for consumers to identify and avoid. This decision, to support big business at the expense of individual choice, sets a precedent for future deregulation of GE crops although genetic engineering has not been conclusively proven safe. Many thanks to the Organic Trade Association (OTA) for posting this on their website as well as getting the word out through their email alerts. I have written extensively about Genetically Modified Food on this blog as well as in other articles, but nothing comes close to being as beautifully said and as powerfully stated as these words below from David Suzuki, a geneticist and one of the leading scientists in Canada. Great work by Jeremy Bloom for assembling these quotes on his excellent website, Red, Green and Blue:

Because we aren’t certain about the effects of GMOs, we must consider one of the guiding principles in science, the precautionary principle. Under this principle, if a policy or action could harm human health or the environment, we must not proceed until we know for sure what the impact will be. And it is up to those proposing the action or policy to prove that it is not harmful.”

I’m a geneticist. What bothers me is we have governments that are supposed to be looking out for our health, for the safety of our environment, and they’re acting like cheerleaders for this technology, which… is in its infancy and we have no idea what the technology is going to do.

At the cutting edge of scientific research, most of our ideas are far from the mark – wrong, in need of revision, or irrelevant. That’s not a derogation of science; it’s the way science advances. We take a set of observations or data, set up a hypothesis that makes sense of them, and then we test the hypothesis. The new insights and techniques we gain from this process are interpreted tentatively and liable to change, so any rush to apply them strikes me as downright dangerous.

History informs us that though we love technology, there are always costs, and since our knowledge of how nature works is so limited, we can’t anticipate how those costs will manifest. We only have to reflect on DDT, nuclear power, and CFCs, which were hailed as wonderful creations but whose long-term detrimental effects were only found decades after their widespread use.

As we learned from experience with DDT, nuclear power and CFCs, we only discover the costs of new technologies after they are extensively used. We should apply the Precautionary Principle with any new technology, asking whether it is needed and then demanding proof that it is not harmful. Nowhere is this more important than in biotechnology because it enables us to tamper with the very blueprint of life.

The difference with GM food is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult or impossible to stuff it back. If we stop using DDT and CFCs, nature may be able to undo most of the damage – even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our surroundings, they can replicate, change, and spread; there may be no turning back. Many ecologists are concerned about what this means to the balance of life on Earth that has evolved over millions of years through the natural reproduction of species.

If you want to share your voice on this issue, the OTA has made it very easy (with some helpful talking points) to send a letter to the Obama administration by clicking here. We encourage you to get involved. What could be more important than how our food is grown?