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Is Nature Good?

Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods

by Alan McHughen
(Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $25)

Are genetic engineers creating dangerous new "Frankenfoods"? Many people think so, and are frightened. In their view, it is impossible to predict the effects of adding new genes to plants and other organisms. Perhaps genetically modified products will prove highly toxic to animals and human beings, or will disrupt delicate ecological balances. With these risks in mind, skeptics are now calling for an international moratorium on genetic modification of food; and more cautious critics have started a "campaign" that would require producers to label all genetically modified foods as such, supposedly for the benefit of consumers.

It is important to understand that genetically modified crops are the present, not the future. They already cover millions of acres of farmland, and they have already become commonplace in the diets of many nations. Without knowing it, most Americans regularly consume such foods, which include corn, tomatoes, soybeans, squash, radishes, and much more. Most diabetics use genetically engineered insulin. Still, notwithstanding this catastrophe-free reality, genetically modified products are meeting intense and increasing objections, often from prominent sources, including scientists, governments, even royalty. Prince Charles is quite representative: he asks, at, "But how much evidence do we have? And are we looking at the right things? ... Isn't there at least a possibility that the new crops (particularly those that have been made resistant to antibiotics) will behave in unexpected ways producing toxic or allergic reactions?"

Such questions are being actively raised in legislative and regulatory bodies, too. Most nations in Europe aggressively regulate genetically modified organisms, and efforts are underway to intensify existing regulation, even to impose bans. The European Commission's directive on novel foods requires that products containing genetically modified organisms be so labeled, so that purchasers will know that this is what they are getting. In the United States, objections to genetic engineering have been relatively muted thus far. But they are growing in volume and in intensity, and the government is taking notice. If the nations of Europe are any guide, the fear of genetically modified food is contagious.

The first issue here is the most obvious one. What counts as the genetic modification (also called the genetic engineering) of food? In brief, the term refers to a collection of technologies designed to alter the genetic programming of organisms through changing their DNA, thus producing what are known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Especially common uses involve the creation of new crops, such as soybeans, that are resistant to pests or herbicides. Plants have been altered to promote increased seed yield, and improved resistance to diseases, and better quality (including better taste and appearance).

A recent and highly publicized example is "golden rice"--rice turned yellow as a result of beta-carotene, the nutrient that operates as a building block for vitamin A. To create "golden rice," ordinary rice is modified with DNA from daffodils (a strange thought, but perhaps not an ominous one) and bacteria. Since hundreds of thousands of children die annually from vitamin A deficiency, genetically engineered rice has the potential to save an extraordinary number of lives. And more ambitious plans are underway. Many scientists believe that it will be possible to improve medicines and food supplies for hundreds of millions of people, with enormous benefits in combating death and disease. Science has only started to explore the possibilities, which will include modification of the genetic endowments of animals and even human beings.

Alan Mchughen is a Canadian researcher who has developed genetically modified plants. He is also a terrific writer, and he has produced the best available treatment of the questions raised by genetically modified foods. But in a way that is the least of his accomplishments in his new book. What makes the book distinctive is its exceptionally clear-headed and illuminating treatment of the topic of risk and technological advance in general.

McHughen believes that we should not be concerned with genetic engineering as a process. By itself, he says, the process creates no unique dangers. We should concern ourselves, instead, with particular products of the process. The potential risks of products are two-fold: threats to ecological stability and threats to human health. Ecological damage might occur if products that are harmless in some areas are recklessly transferred to other areas. Some herbicide-tolerant crops "might be acceptable in parts of Australia or the Americas but perhaps not in parts of Europe." Moreover, serious health problems could result if genes with allergenic substances are introduced into common foods. Yet McHughen thinks that these problems are soluble, and indeed pose no unusual reasons for concern: similar risks come from products not involving genetic modification, whether natural or artificial. What is necessary is a rejection of hysteria, diversified and moderate diets, careful attention to scientific reality, and a sensible regulatory strategy, covering not only GMOs but all sources of danger in food and drink.

As McHughen shows, genetic engineering of food is not entirely different from conventional breeding methods--or from what happens in nature itself. For thousands of years, human beings have tried to breed better plants. "Farmers routinely selected `the best' of a crop or litter for continued propagation." Animal "breeds have all been carefully bred and selected for attributes desirable for domestication, meat production, and human consumption." Indeed, human breeding, and not nature, is largely responsible for modern horses and domestic dogs. (Nature produces neither Rhodesian ridgebacks nor German shepherds.) As for plants, breeders have engaged for the last century in "crossing," by which male pollen from a high-quality plant is transferred to a female part of another high-quality plant, "with the expectation that any resulting hybrid offspring will possess the superior traits of both parents." Crossing continues to be the "mainstay of plant breeding activities." Breeders also produce "intergenic crosses," which occur when two unrelated plants of different species are mated.

This process, which is rarely if ever found in nature, yields man-made crops, some of them now fed to both animals and human beings. A more high-tech practice is "mutation breeding," which involves efforts to produce mutations in crop plants by exposing them to radiation. This can alter DNA, and sometimes produce a new trait that counts as an improvement for farmers and consumers. And these are only a few of many technologies used by breeders and researchers.

For a hundred years, McHughen observes, "the breeding process has become more orthodox and directed, with breeders intentionally choosing and mating parents to generate offspring with the right combination of genetic traits." But this does not mean that genetic modification is old hat. As a technology, it is new, even revolutionary, and for one simple reason: "Never before have breeders been able to isolate single useful genes and transfer only them to develop superior varieties." What is most novel is the ability to allow "the single desired gene to be added to the complete genome of a single desirable parent." This is called recombinant DNA technology--RDNA, for short; and it is ultimately capable of producing "a new, genetically elite, population lacking the undesirable genes."

Why, then, is genetic engineering so controversial in Europe and increasingly elsewhere? McHughen believes that this is indeed a puzzle. It "is not a simple matter to dichotomize between rDNA technology and all others. Nor is it wise, if the distinction is based solely on safety concerns. GM varieties undergo far greater scrutiny for safety and environmental risks than, say, varieties developed from mutation breeding." Australian canola oil is developed from conventional techniques, whereas Canadian canola oil is developed using genetic engineering. In both cases, "the potential adverse environmental and health effects are the same--virtually nil." Yet England welcomes Australian canola oil and bans the importation of Canadian canola oil. "Why draw a line between RDNA and `everything else' when the result would have RDNA on one side and the potentially more hazardous mutation breeding, or irradiation, on the other, `safe' side?"

McHughen shows that there are risks on all sides of the equation, and that those who would regulate or avoid genetically engineered projects might increase the overall dangers. Perhaps you seek to avoid GMOs, and decide to eat organic foods instead. Are you better off? This is far from clear. There is nothing innocuous about "natural" products. The Food and Drug Administration says that organic foods have higher rates of contamination, including tuberculosis bacteria. Indeed, about 800 cases, and 80 deaths, appear to have resulted in 1996 from E. coli bacteria from manure used as a fertilizer in producing organic foods. In any event, the most obvious alternatives to GMOs are products that are created through some other humanly devised breeding strategy, such as crossing or mutation breeding. For sensible people, of course, the question is how best to reduce risks; but sensible risk-reduction does not mean that individuals, or regulators, should try to avoid genetically engineered foods.

One of Mchughen's central challenges is to what might be described as the myth of nature's benevolence. Many critics of GMOs, or for that matter of pesticides, think that these are artificial interferences with natural processes and should be presumed dangerous for that reason. On this view, it is literally hazardous to tamper with nature. The concern is not entirely baseless: many ecological systems, having evolved over long periods, have achieved a high degree of stability, but are quite complex and quite delicate. Crops that have been genetically modified to resist pests might proliferate, overwhelming an area. The possibility is real.

And yet it is a large mistake to think that interferences with nature are anything new, or that nature is benevolent. "Even the potato, a basic staple in most diets, is very different today from its natural ancestors," McHughen writes. Traditional potatoes, unaffected by human breeding practices, are both smaller and far less uniform. Milk is pasteurized to kill the bacteria that are drawn to it; and those who prefer unpasteurized "organic" milk are taking real risks. A century ago people argued that ice from mechanical freezers was artificial and far less safe than ice from frozen lakes or rivers; but now we know that "artificial ice" is actually safer. In any case "some of the most toxic substances known to humanity comes from plants. Aflatoxins from microbes growing on nuts, oilseeds, and other food plants are one example. Aflatoxins cause high fever, jaundice, pain, vomiting, and even death." Natural chemicals in our foods include toxins and carcinogens. "Perhaps we might use GM technology to remove these anti-nutritional substances from our foods."

In these reflections McHughen is really following John Stuart Mill in his great essay "Nature," which was written in 1874. "If the artificial is not better than the natural, to what end are all the arts of life?" Mill asked. "To dig, to plough, to build, to wear clothes, are direct infringements of the injunction to follow nature.... In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's everyday performances.... That a thing is unnatural, in any precise meaning which can be attached to the word, is no argument for its being blamable." It is in precisely this spirit that Mill's heir McHughen insists that the "unnaturalness" of genetic engineering cannot count against it.

What about the apparently scary (and widely publicized) stories about such risks? In some of his most amusing passages, McHughen shows that these are mostly myths. Many reports have been disseminated about the implantation of a fish gene in tomatoes (a report that seems more hilarious than frightening); but this never happened. According to numerous accounts, a Brazil nut gene has been placed in soybeans, a potentially irresponsible and dangerous use of the GM technique (because many people are severely allergic to nuts). True, a small firm in California did concoct a plan to this effect-- for the benign, even heroic purpose of increasing the nutritional content of grain legumes. Yet no soybeans have ever been marketed with Brazil nut genes, precisely because researchers were alert to the risks. Or consider the recently reported scientific finding that genetically modified potatoes are toxic to rats. On inspection, the real problem was the toxicity of naturally occurring pesticides, not genetic modification at all. Nor is there much basis to worry over the creation of "superweeds" that are resistant to all herbicides and threaten to breed uncontrollably. Some genetically modified plants are indeed herbicide-resistant; but they are immune to some herbicides, not to all of them. Scientists have yet to create weeds that are immune to herbicides as such.

Yet none of this means that genetically modified organisms are risk-free, or that regulation should be eliminated. The tale of the Brazil nuts, though false, contains a valid warning about the need to screen GMOs to ensure against the sale and the consumption of allergenic ingredients. Rapeseed pollen is allergenic, and farmers and researchers often develop hay fever from working with it. GM rapeseed crops should not be grown in areas close to large population centers. Environmental assessments are also important. It is right to worry about the disruption of ecological systems through seemingly small interventions.

Some GMOs are perfectly safe for the areas for which they are intended, but they carry dangers for other regions. In Canada, for example, GM rapeseed has been approved, and adverse environmental effects are exceedingly unlikely. But the United Kingdom has a different ecology; and as McHughen emphasizes, planting of genetically engineered rapeseed might disrupt a delicate environmental balance. Or consider GM crops that have been engineered to withstand cold spells (this technology does not yet exist, but it is coming). Such crops would have a significant advantage over wild crops, in a way that could be extremely disruptive. It is necessary to guard against this risk.

Shouldn't GMOs at least be labeled as such, so that consumers will know what they are eating? The issue has received a great deal of attention in Europe and India, where mandatory labeling is immensely popular, and it is likely to be a serious question in the United States soon. At first glance it might seem right to urge that GMOs should be labeled. Polls everywhere suggest that such a step would be supported by strong majorities. In many contexts, labeling has done considerable good, both by deterring production and use of risky products and by ensuring that any risks are assumed voluntarily.

And yet McHughen is extremely skeptical about mandatory labeling, for a variety of reasons. First, he argues, any such requirement would be an administrative nightmare. What exactly would the label say, and on what products would it be imposed? (Sellers do not always know all of the ingredients of food.) McHughen also contends that it is hard to defend a mandatory labeling program for GMOs without imposing labeling requirements on other products. Why mandatory labeling for GMOs without labeling for crossing and mutation breeding? Most important, labeling might not make consumers better informed. The usual purpose of consumer labels is either to offer nutritional information (now required by the Food and Drug Administration) or to give warnings about risks to self and others (as in the case of cigarettes). GM labels could not be justified on either ground. On the contrary, a label might be technically accurate but deceptive--if, as is likely, it leads people to think that there is a risk when one does not exist in fact.

Instead of labeling GM foods, McHughen proposes a public database for all products and all processes, available and maintained on the Internet, to let people know not only about GM products, but also about mutation breeding and other approaches. He emphasizes that while GMOs have been grown on millions of acres and consumed by millions of people over a period of years, no environmental hazards or health issues have arisen. Still, McHughen is alert to possible abuses and future hazards, and so he wants to accompany the public database with a regulatory apparatus designed not to kill GMOs with paperwork, but to ensure rigorous testing to prevent health risks (recall the possibility of placing allergens in crops) and environmental problems (recall the danger of ecological instability).

This is McHughen's closing plea:

What is the single greatest food-related threat to your health? Is it GMO's? Synthetic pesticides? Natural toxins?. . . None comes close. The greatest real damage is chronic anxiety over diet. Instead of worrying--almost always needlessly--over whether or not your food supply is safe, or if you're eating too much pesticide, or not getting enough fibre, or too much cholesterol, or too little polyunsaturated fat, simplify your life and diet. Eat balanced and varied meals. Stop worrying so much about your food; it's almost certainly healthier than you are.... If you need to lose weight, consult your physician, not the `miracle diets.' . . . Moderation and variety are the key. Not only will you relish a diverse selection of tasty nutritious foods, but the occasional anti-nutritional components, whether natural or synthetic, will be diluted and compensated by the volume and balance provided by everything else. Enjoy your meals. Bon appetit.

McHughen has written an admirable book, which persuasively establishes its general points: that nature is hardly benevolent; that "safety" is a matter of degree, not of absolutes; that when regulating one risk, we often increase other risks, and thus make life less safe; that labeling has important social uses, but there are distinctive reasons for labeling, and any policy of mandatory disclosure should be undertaken with those reasons in mind.

Still, Mchughen's argument has some real gaps. He says a great deal about the risks of genetic modification, but he says little about the benefits. Skeptics might agree that the risks are speculative and probably controllable, but they will also insist that since the process is not likely to do much good, even the speculative danger is not worth running. The best answer here is that genetic modification has already delivered considerable benefits, among other things to human health, and that the potential benefits, above all for poor people in poor nations, have only started to be tapped. McHughen does refer to better nutritional composition, longer shelf lives, and products with modified, lower-calorie sugars; but his discussion of benefits is strangely brief and sketchy.

Sometimes McHughen crosses the line that separates science from advocacy. I think that he is correct to oppose labeling of GMOs, mandatory or otherwise; but his arguments against labeling place far too much emphasis on administrative difficulties. Most of these problems are not unique to the context of GMOs, and if they were the principal objections to labeling, they would not count for much. McHughen also makes excessive use of a popular but inadequate argument, of the following form: why should controls or restrictions be imposed on X if they are not also imposed on Y, which creates similar risks? To be sure, the question might show that it is arbitrary to regulate X without also regulating Y; but it does not show what it purports to, that X should not be regulated at all. It might be better to regulate X, and not Y, than to regulate neither of them. McHughen's occasional refrain--if we worry about GMOs, why not worry about X, Y, and Z as well?--seems too defensive, the stuff of corporate self-justification familiar from the apologetics of gun lobbyists and the congressional testimony of tobacco company executives.

Nor is there much to be said on behalf of McHughen's only original policy recommendation: a public database on the processes used to produce foods. Would such a database really be useful? To whom, precisely, would it be useful? True, more information is usually better than less, but why should a complicated database of this kind be created, if the underlying processes are both complex and safe? Far more useful would be a reliable database with the most accurate and up-to-date information not about the processes that underlie our food, but about the risks that we actually face, in food and drink and perhaps in other things, too. Such information would help people to separate fact from fiction, in a way that would be genuinely valuable.

An additional weakness of McHughen's account involves his inability to explain the remarkable difference between Europe and the United States on the topic of genetic modification. As I have noted, many Europeans are extremely alarmed by GMOs, and hence European nations regulate GMOs heavily; whereas Americans have seemed, until recently, indifferent to the potential problems. As McHughen briefly speculates, a part of the explanation might be historical. With the Nazi experience closer to home, Europeans might well be skeptical of any scientific experimentation designed to improve races, even races of plants.

But surely a part of the explanation, a much less elevated part, has to do with interest-group pressures. In world markets, European farmers must compete with American farmers, who enjoy some significant advantages over them, in large measure owing to the practice of genetic engineering. Any effort to frighten people about GMOs is likely to help farmers from Europe, who are well aware of that fact, and not unwilling to fuel and to exploit public fears for their own benefit. This is not the first time that fear-mongering has served narrow economic interests.

Most people are not nervous about risks unless other people are nervous about them. Once people share a common anxiety--perhaps because of media attention, perhaps because of interest-group propaganda--they will tend to talk about it, and the result of the talk will be to amplify that anxiety, even to create cascades. Once a certain degree of anxiety has spread, large numbers of people will acquire it. Hence relatively small initial differences can be magnified by social influences, especially when newspapers and television become involved. My hunch is that this helps to explain why nuclear power is a non-issue in France but a source of serious and continuing concern in America. With respect to genetic modification of food, it helps to explain the difference between Europe and the United States as well.

And there is a larger problem. It is much too simple merely to hum, as McHughen seems to in his less cautious moments, "don't worry, be happy," or to suggest that all we have to fear is fear itself. Notwithstanding his general and laudable enthusiasm for evidence, McHughen offers none to support the striking (but not terribly plausible) suggestion that "chronic anxiety over diet" is the greatest of all food-related threats to health. Unhealthy diets are a serious source of unhealthy lives, and far more attention needs to be paid to the linked problems of poor diet and insufficient exercise. An astonishing amount has been learned about diet and health in recent years, with the explosion of knowledge about the value of fruits and vegetables and the risks of cholesterol, obesity, alcohol, and smoking; and here much remains to be learned. McHughen's presentation would have been better if he had been more specific about the nature of a "diverse selection of tasty nutritious foods."

Yet it would be wrong to end on a churlish note. McHughen skillfully demonstrates the senselessness of thinking that the more natural something is, the better it is for you. If a nation wants to protect the environment and the health of animals and people alike, it will often have to tamper with nature. With respect to health and safety, Mill was right to say that the "duty of man is not to follow" nature "but to amend it" and McHughen offers a fine application of Mill's point. And if we regulate one risk, we need to make sure that we are not actually increasing overall risk, as a result of leading people to use less-safe substitutes. Fear of risk often leads people to protect themselves against genuine hazards; but it can also be a serious problem, partly because fear can be exceedingly unpleasant, partly because fear can produce less-safe behavior, partly because, other things being equal, fear really is not good for you. These notions are not the worst starting points for official regulators, not to mention those of us seeking to manage risks in our own lives.

Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Cass R. Sunstein