One evening, during the drearily sodden summer of 1816, Lord Byron and his friends read Fantasmagoriana, a French translation of a German book of ghost stories (they were intellectuals after all) in his Villa Diodati in Switzerland (they were rich intellectuals). Afterward, Byron suggested they all write a horror story. Everyone did except Mary, the wife of his friend, Percy. She kept demurring, saying she had not yet thought of anything suitable.
Then one night they discussed the rumor that Erasmus Darwin had electrically "galvanized" a piece of a worm; an electric current had made the vermicello twitch. Mary Shelley began writing a moral cautionary tale of what happens when arrogant science meddles with nature: “Frankenstein.”
In 1816, the Industrial Revolution had just begun. Dizzying technological advancements such as the spinning jenny displaced people from their livelihoods. Angry bands of men, calling themselves Luddites, smashed machines, murdered industrialists, and fought with the military. New inventions shoved the old ways aside.
Change whipsawed the people of Britain at a dizzying pace. “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place,” the Red Queen told Alice. “And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”
Were these new things even safe? Britain’s Quarterly Review called for caution, “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stage coaches! We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which, we entirely agree with Mr. Sylvester, is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”
Today we are experiencing a new revolution—the biotech revolution. The human genome has been mapped. Genes from one species are being placed into other species. Genetically modified E. coli bacteria now produce much of our insulin and GE yeast produce vaccines for us. Four billion acres have been planted worldwide with genetically modified crops that resist insects or herbicides.
Just as the Industrial Revolution triggered riots, so has today’s biotech revolution: vandals have uprooted genetically engineered (GE) crops and burned research facilities. Marie Mason, who said she was acting on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front, was sentenced in 2009 to 22 years for torching the Michigan State University’s Agriculture building. She told the judge, “I meant to inspire thought and compassion, not fear.”
That humans have been altering the genetic structures of their food and fiber crops for 10,000 years gets lost in the shouting. As an example, the wheat we use for bread came about from the crossing of at least three different species of wild grasses from two different genera. This new food had new proteins and chemicals that were never, ever part of the food supply before. One European Union report (PDF) put genetic engineering this way, “(A) genome [e.g., all the genes that make up an organism's DNA] is not a static entity but a dynamic structure continuously refining its gene pool. So, for a scientist in genetics, the act of splicing to generate a transgenic organism is a modest step when compared to the genomic changes induced by all the ‘crosses’ and breeding events used in agriculture and husbandry.” Indeed, natural breeding involves the random mixing of tens of thousands of genes (genes are recipes for proteins) from two parent plants, resulting in entirely new proteins and other plant chemicals never before part of the food supply, but anti-GE advocates find this practice totally natural.
Now, instead of breeding and crossbreeding, and then breeding again to breed out unwanted traits, agronomists can now select and place a single trait into a plant.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and food agencies in the United States and Europe all say GM foods currently on the market pose no health risk. The WHO says on their website, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption” of GM foods.
“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about," says Stewart Brand, leading environmentalist who authored The Whole Earth Catalog. "We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. In defense of a bizarre idea of what is ‘natural’…we make ourselves look as conspicuously irrational as those who espouse ‘intelligent design’ or ban stem-cell research, and we teach that irrationality to the public and to decision makers.”
Some have labeled GM food as "Frankenfood." Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations hold that we are playing god and meddling with forces that we cannot possibly understand.
It’s not Frankenfood; it’s just food, and better than we have been eating for thousands of generations, and it holds the promise to feed those most in need.
“You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,” says Dr. Florence Wambugu of Kenya, “but can we please eat first?”
Let’s eat, and not confuse the process with the product, and wish a Happy Birthday to fabulist Mary Shelley, who raised Romantic objections to science.