On Thursday, I had a post published on Scientific American's guest Blog about claims that genetically modified food crops could contain allergens. In it, I am critical of the Union of Concerned Scientists (a science advocacy and policy organization), for what I read as misplaced opposition to genetic engineering:
The UCS’s concern about the dire state of our food system is well-founded, and I applaud their efforts to get out in front of the policy debate. There’s just one problem: they oppose using all of our technology to help combat this problem. Specifically, I’m talking about genetic engineering (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMO)
Via e-mail and on twitter, some folks from UCS made it clear that they believe I've mischaracterized their position. They haven't given me permission to publish the e-mails, so I won't, but I'll try to paraphrase. I was told that UCS does not oppose all uses of GMOs, but they believe that current policy does not do enough to regulate new GE varieties, that GMO companies have too much power to push past the regulation that does exist, and that there are alternatives to GE that should be pursued more aggressively. You should check out their website to read their position for yourself.
I largely agree with their position on agricultural issues - there isn't adequate regulation of new crops, large industrial farms have too much influence, and we're too reliant on monoculture (growing a single variety of a single crop year after year). However, none of these problems are unique to genetically engineered crops, and I think the fact that UCS has singled out GE as a problem confuses these issues. If GE crops were banned tomorrow, all of these same problems would remain.
I should be clear that I support UCS generally, and their work on agriculture specifically. Their roadmap for healthy farm policy is a wonderful and succinct explanation for what's wrong with the way we currently grow food, and policy proposals to make it better. But GE is a technology (among others) that can help us make it better. Yes, they should be regulated, but so should new varieties produced by techniques like mutation breeding. Yes, we need to move away from monoculture and industrial farming practices, but that's true of GE and organic farming alike.
Genetic engineering, like any other technology can be used for good and for ill. It can be helpful and it can be dangerous. New regulations and policies should be technology-neutral, and focus on outcomes.
This post was also published at my new blogging venture, Red Wine and Lariam