NOTE: This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating genetically modified foods and the controversy surrounding them.
Where do you begin the story of genetically modified food?
At a modern beginning, with Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, arguably the father of genetics as we know it today? Perhaps it’s best to turn the clock forward 40 years or so to 1901. That’s the year an American businessman borrowed money to get into the artificial sugar business. He christened his start-up after his wife’s maiden name: Monsanto. A third option: Dive head-first into the “GM food must be bad” controversy replete with fear-mongering. (And fear assuaging as talented science writers debunk headline-grabbers.)
The beginning may come later. For now, I’d like to look at some main “arms” within the GM food controversy: definitions, logic, money. As I go forward on my journey to understand why the public struggles to accept GM food as safe, I will refer back to these main areas. (This tiny-sized and really incomparable quest is inspired by what Seth Mnookin set out to do with his book The Panic Virus — see sub-heading ‘Who Decides Which Facts Are True?’).
Definition of “genetically modified”
I have selected four definitions and classify them as “close-to-mutual” sources. All definitions were accessed from the included website links on March 20, 2013:
“Genetically engineered foods have had foreign genes (genes from other plants or animals) inserted into their genetic codes.” – University of Maryland Medical Center online encyclopedia
“Genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) are foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically, genetically modified crops. GMOs have had specific changes introduced into their DNA by genetic engineering techniques. These techniques are much more precise than mutagenesis (mutation breeding) where an organism is exposed to radiation or chemicals to create a non-specific but stable change. Other techniques by which humans modify food organisms include selective breeding and somaclonal variation.” – Wikipedia
“Genetically modified food: food from crops whose genes have been scientifically changed.” – Cambridge Dictionaries Online
“Genetically modified organism: An organism whose genetic characteristics have been altered by the insertion of a modified gene or a gene from another organism using the techniques of genetic engineering.” – The Free Medical Dictionary
Logical fallacies plague GM food arguments. For now, here’s a quick look at three popular ones:
The only certain thing about GM food is its uncertainty.
This is a contradiction in adjecto (self-contradiction) argument. Read more about this type of logically fallacy here.
GM foods are harmful until someone proves they are not harmful.
This is the burden of proof fallacy. Read more here.
If human genetic modifications are dangerous, then genetically modified plants are dangerous. Genetically modified plants are dangerous. Therefore, human genetic modifications are dangerous.
This is a formal fallacy that can be expressed “If A then B. B. Therefore, A.” From this website.
Before moving on, I’d be remiss to leave out one of my favorite blog posts relating to this sub-topic. In 2012, Brian Dunning posted his own “argumentum ad monsantium” on Skeptic Blog.
Always about the money
One of the tenets of journalism is: Follow the money. Of course, this path is never paved with freshly minted dimes and nickels. In my cursory research, I could only find two figures. A New York Times article quotes the GM seed market at $6.9 billion in 2007, based on research from the consulting firm Cropnosis. According to Rob Carlson, author of the book Biology is Technology, the total worth of modified crops themselves – and this includes cotton – was about $65 billion in 2008. One of my research goals will be to independently verify these numbers and update them if possible.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .