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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Genetically Modified Foods: Agriculture's Bright Future or Dark Nightmare?
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John W. Finley

The automobile was invented around the turn of the century and, a short time later, was involved in the first fatal accident. I wasn't there, but I imagine that immediately following the news of that fatal crash were newspaper editorials and town meetings all denouncing the existence of this "unnatural and dangerous menace" to society. Jump ahead a few years to the invention of the airplane. After the first fatal airplane crash I'm sure the reaction was: "If God wanted man to fly, He would have given him wings".

The reaction has been the same to new technology throughout history. It is a basic one in our nature—fear of the unknown. When man's world was a campfire on a lonely plain the darkness outside held predators and snakes and myriad other deadly surprises. One did not venture outside the known and secure world of the campfire because to do so invited terrible consequences.

Today, the same reaction is occurring with genetically modified foods, or GMFs. Well meaning and intelligent people are protesting any food that has originated from genetically altered seed stock, and the reasons are familiar: "It's unnatural." "It's playing God." "It's dangerous." In fact, what is being protested is fear of the unknown.

This time science faces an even greater challenge than with the automobile or the airplane. The airplane was new, but people had seen birds fly, and so the concept of flight was understandable. The automobile was new, but the steam locomotive had been around for years, and people understood, or at least were aware of, the basic technology.

But genetic manipulation is something so very different. No one has seen a "gene", and the best teaching by the brightest minds cannot adequately convey the ideas of the uniqueness of the genome and how we can read this uniqueness. In short, very few people understand the science behind genetic manipulation, and this is the reason for the irrational fear.

Does this mean that genetic manipulation is risk-free and should proceed without regulation? Are the automobile or the airplane risk-free? Certainly not. The question we should ask is: "Will the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks?" Every year people die in airplane crashes, yet the number of passengers increases because people have assessed the risks and decided that they are less that the potential benefits.

Early fatal automobile crashes were an incentive for laws and regulations for motorized vehicles. The purpose of these laws was not to eliminate the automobile but to decrease the potential risks involved. Likewise production and use of GMFs need to be regulated, but the purpose of the regulation must be to maximize potential benefits and decrease risks. Regulation should not become a thinly-veiled attempt to eliminate the new technology.

We are now at the point where the automobile and airplane were at the beginning of the twentieth century. We have just begun to understand the incredible potential of this new technology—one that could lead to nutritionally balanced foods, insect and drought resistant plants, super varieties that will grow in and feed developing nations. But this is just a technology—in and of itself neither good nor bad. Regulate and police the technology, but do not, out fear of the unknown, eliminate it. The potential good can far outweigh the potential bad.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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