Monday, August 2, 2004

Literally avoiding the genetic fallacy

(This one goes out Allison, the prettiest food scientist I know.)

Nibble With Caution (ScienceNOW -- Stokstad 2004 (728): 3)

Government agencies should evaluate the safety of new food crops based on what they contain rather how they were created, according to a report released yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences.

Now, I'm sure this seems like yet another expensive waste of time and money by scientists to state the obvious in ten times as many words. It seemed like to me at first glance. But this rather plain statement actually addresses an important ethical distinction. We should not be so alarmed by the means of gengineered food production as we are by the specific contents of food, produced by any means, "natural" or "unnatural." Claiming a food item is inferior, or bad, simply because it was produced by certain means, irrespective of its comparative merits in the nutritional market, is to commit the genetic fallacy, which says a thing's origin automatically detracts from, or enhances, a thing's value. But the NAS report will have none of it:

The panel, chaired by Bettie Sue Masters of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, distinguished between crops that are genetically engineered (GE)--having a gene deleted or transferred between species--and those that are genetically modified by other methods. It noted that no harm to humans has been found from GE crops, but concluded that transferring genes does raise the risk of surprise effects. However, the panel noted, techniques other than gene-splicing, such as mutagenesis from radiation or chemicals, have a higher risk of creating genetic surprises. Even crops whose genes are modified and shuffled by conventional breeding can turn out to have harmful effects, such as heightened levels of naturally occurring toxic compounds.

This is exactly the reason I have not, despite my best efforts, been able to get that upset about gengineered food reasearch. If we're honest, we'll admit all food is and always has been gengineered. As far as I can see, for now, there is no principled difference between a "naturally" bred heifer and one that's been tweaked at the genomic level for the same, albeit much more directly achieved, results. Of course, pragmatically speaking, I can imagine the former is a little more genetically stable, more reliable, since that "natural" heifer's gene's have been strained into a desired genetic mold by generations and generations of false starts and better developments.

It may be prudent, therefore, to avoid gengineered beef, since we don't know what it's many DNA-level alterations may spring on us, but I still say it's no less or more unethical to produce these products. And then, just as I typed that last word -- products -- I think I stumbled upon the big worry: gengineereing is a flagrant, unabashed commodification of the genetic beauty and vitality of God's Creation as a mere product to be harvested.

Hmmm, I'll keep thinking about it.

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