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Commentary

The Angel is in the Details
Henry I. Miller, TCS Daily, 4-25-07

Miller argues that misunderstandings and downright ignorance surrounding biotechnology are critically slowing the dissemination of badly needed new technologies.

Many people who use the terms "biotechnology," "genetic engineering," and "genetically modified" don't know what they're talking about. Literally. Confusion about the terminology has led to the stigmatization of superior techniques by unscrupulous NGOs and some government officials, worthless conferences and reports, and poorly conceived experiments performed in the name of "biotechnology risk assessment."

Worst of all has been the unscientific, inconsistent and excessive regulation of the newest, most precise and predictable techniques. Although there is substantial and growing acreage of gene-spliced crops cultivated worldwide each year—252 million acres in 2006—more than 90 per cent of it is four large-scale commodity crops; largely because of the huge costs of meeting regulatory requirements, the application of the technology to fruits, vegetables and subsistence crops has been minimal, and disappointing.

Those who are ignorant of the history of plant breeding might be leery of messing with Mother Nature, but that does not alter the fact that we have been doing it for thousands of years. Currently, dozens of genetically improved varieties that are produced through hybridization, irradiation and other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace and food supply each year without any governmental review or special labeling. A technique in use since the 1950s, induced-mutation breeding, involves exposing crop plants to ionizing radiation or toxic chemicals to induce random genetic mutations. These treatments most often kill the plants (or seeds) or cause detrimental genetic changes, but on rare occasions the result is a desirable mutation. For example, a mutation might produce a new trait in the plant that is agronomically useful, such as altered height, more seeds, larger fruit or enhanced resistance to pests.

One anti-biotech group even managed to bamboozle some seed companies that cater to home gardeners into signing on to something called the Safe Seed Pledge: "We pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants." This is fascinating because, with the sole exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, all the fruits, vegetables and grains in North American and European diets have been genetically modified or engineered by one technique or another. This even includes 'heirloom' varieties of fruits and vegetables. Often, this genetic modification has involved radical changes at the level of DNA, including the movement of genes or even entire chromosomes across natural breeding barriers.

Regulators have exploited the confusion over terminology to create unneeded and discriminatory rules, regulations and bureaucracies. During the past decade, delegates to the UN-based Convention on Biological Diversity have negotiated and implemented a regressive biosafety protocol to regulate the international movement of gene–spliced organisms. Its basis is the bogus "precautionary principle," which dictates that every new product or technology must be proven completely safe before it can be used–a travesty that, by ignoring proven benefits of a new product or technology, flies in the face of sound regulatory practices.



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