Kevin Folta: Atomic Gardening- the Ultimate Frankenfoods

University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta wrote the following sharp, very pointy little essay. By comparing transgenic technology to mutation breeding Kevin illustrates clearly what the anti-GMO minions are truly after – it is “who makes the product”, not what the product is nor the process by which the product was created. These snippets will motivate you to read the whole thing:

 gf-l.gif A powerful radioactive source in the center of this field hammers surrounding plants with gamma rays. This treatments induces random damage DNA that results in new genetic variation.

If you hate transgenic (GMO) technologies, just wait until you hear about mutation breeding!

(…) Actually many cultivars have been produced using this technique. Barley, wheat, corn, bananas, grape, tomato, sunflower… at least 3000 induced-mutant plant lines in the Mutant Variety Database. Some are ornamentals, so not all food crops.

Transgenic techniques come under fire for many reasons. Let’s hold mutation breeding to the same criteria and compare the two techniques.

table1.JPG How do transgenic (GMO) plants compare to plants derived from mutation breeding for commonly raised criticisms?

What about labels, organic cultivation, growth in the EU? No problem if the plant’s DNA has been scrambled by radiation or chemicals!

table2.JPG Angry citizens demand to know what is in their food… unless it is mutation bred, then not so much.

For intellectual consistency, mutation breeding of crops must be considered much more random, unpredictable, un-assessable and imprecise. There is no question that genetic changes have been made, as traits of interest are selected based on visible traits, such as resistance to drought/cold in wheat. There is no easy way to assess what additional genetic baggage comes along with that new trait.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any problem with mutation breeding. The techniques are proven successful at producing useful genetic variation that results in improved plants. Awesome. As a scientist, it is difficult to reconcile how this method is freely accepted, while transgenic techniques are harshly criticized. Or is it?

Maybe it simply points out that the scientific and intellectual arguments against genetic alterations are not the real concerns– they are just strawmen for the actual political, business or social agendas. The science of transgenics is a convenient place to cultivate misunderstanding and fear. But somehow the same fear mongers miss mutation breeding. It tells us a little about the real agenda. It is not about the process or product, but rather, who makes the product.