No GMOs? How About a Helping of Irradiated Mutant Plants and Veggies Instead.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Hey, all you natural food fans. You die-hard anti-Monsanto opponents of genetically modified food, who say it’s dangerous because, well, it’s unnatural. You may want to think twice before you take your next bite of that juicy red grapefruit. Or that banana. Or, for that matter, your rice, wheat, barley, oats, pears, peas, peanuts, lettuce, alfalfa, tomatoes, sunflowers, sesame, cocoa or cassava. You know, all that good healthy natural food. Because if you think genetically modified food is unnatural, you are really chowing down on Frankenfood if you’re eating many of the most common varieties of those fruits and veggies. More than 2,700 species of foods that the most devout locavore organics-only fanatic would be okay with, have been created by blasting their seeds with super high doses of radiation. Mutation-causing, cancer-causing atomic OH MY GOD Fukushima-style nuclear radiation.
And guess what. Your opposition to the precise one-specific-gene-at-a-time process of genetic modification is actually accelerating how much of this literally nuked food is showing up on our plates. To produce plants with more marketable traits, or plants that resist disease, food producers who can’t use biotechnology are turning back to the industrial process they’ve been using to create new plant varieties for decades, the far more crude and less predictable ‘let’s blast the whole seed with high doses of mutagenic radiation and see what sorts of new traits show up when the plant grows’ technique.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, in The Scariest Veggies of Them All, the earnings of the agriculture unit of BASF, a company that licenses the technologies that produce radiation-induced mutant plants, “rose 27% in 2012 from the previous year, partly because of higher demand for mutant seeds in Eastern Europe”. Requests for assistance in creating new radiation-induced mutant plant varieties are rising at the Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture Program of the UN, part of the “Atoms for Peace” program started by Eisenhower back in the 50’s to counter rising fear of atomic bombs. The 31 requests they got last year, for help on everything from sugar beets in Poland to potatoes in Kenya, set a new record.
Now, let’s all take a deep breath. There is absolutely no evidence that these plants pose any kind of risk to humans at all, and after more than half a century of this sort of industrial hybridization, there is no evidence that these new varieties affect the environment any more than any other newly-introduced hybrid, no matter how it’s produced. In fact, all the radiation treatments do is speed up a natural process anyway. Mutations occur naturally as any species breeds. A good stiff shot of Cobalt 60 gamma rays just speeds things up.
Interestingly, one of the facilities that does this, the Institute of Radiation Breeding, is in Ibaraki Japan, just a few kilometers from Fukushima. This is what their research field looks like.
The point here is not to raise alarms about hidden dangers in food produced with unnatural industrial processes. Quite the contrary. The point here is that even though it may instinctively feel that way, unnatural is not automatically unsafe, and those who invoke that simplistic sentiment in their opposition to genetically modified food are, while absolutely well-intentioned, going way more with their feelings than reasonably considering the facts. This is a classic example of how the emotional nature of risk perception can lead to fears that are simply unsupported by the evidence.
The study of risk perception by Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff and others has established what we all know intuitively, that natural risks are less scary than human-made ones. Radiation from the sun, or the soil (radon), scares us less than radiation from nuclear power, even the natural forms that cause far more harm. Herbal remedies scare us less than industrially produced pharmaceutical medicines, even though both are biologically active substances that we ingest to modify our health…and both have occasional harmful side effects. Powerfully estrogenic chemicals in soy don’t freak us out nearly as much as bisphenol A and phthalates and the human-made chemicals suspected as endocrine system disruptors. (Soy is WAY more estrogenic than Bpa!)
So sure, genetic modification of food is understandably spooky. But, shouldn’t we also freak out about radiogenic mutant tomatoes and bananas. That’s pretty unnatural too, right? Well, the risk perception research has also established that risks that we are used to don’t scare us as much as risks that are new and unfamiliar. It probably doesn’t freak you out to learn that many the species of food you’ve been eating your whole life were created by bombarding their seeds with human-made radiation because, well, we’ve been eating that food for generations, during which time life expectancy has been rising and many general measures of public health have been improving. This risk has been on our plates for decades. If it might have felt scary at one time, it doesn’t now. We’re used to it.
Years from now that’s probably how we’ll feel about genetically modified food. GM foods will almost surely make their way to our meals and do us no harm. At least that’s what every senior science panel in the world says. We’ve been eating many foods with GM ingredients for more than a decade, with absolutely no evidence of health harm to humans.
So here’s a suggestion. Why don’t we think a little more carefully about this whole GM food fuss, and get beyond the appealing but simplistic assumption that natural is automatically good and unnatural is automatically bad. That way we can take advantage, sooner, of the potential benefits of biotechnology; to supply more and healthier food to a growing global population, and protect our food from emerging diseases and the challenges of a dramatically changing climate.
Or we can just continue to do risk perception about this issue the way we’re doing it now…the natural way…the emotional and instinctive way…following what feels right, even though those feelings could do us more harm than good.
(For more on radiation mutagenesis - how it's done, it's history, the foods it's helped create - good articles are Atomic Gardens from the Life Sciences Foundation, Strange and Beautiful Seeds from the Atom from the blog Edible Geography, and Useful Mutants, Bred with Radiation from the New York Times.)