Frankenstein vs. Godzilla: What’s in Your Cereal Bowl?

Why fear Frankenstein and not Godzilla?

In all of the recent discussion about genetically modified (GM) foods here in California, we’ve overlooked regular foods and how new traits are found (or created) in them. There isn’t usually a monk lovingly breeding peas in the Austrian countryside somewhere. Instead, more often than not, there is someone blasting a seed with radiation and/or harmful chemicals.

See, new traits come from differences in a plant’s genes. Plant breeders often use chemicals or radiation to create lots of new DNA differences in the plant they are interested in. The idea is that the more you mutate a plant’s DNA, the more likely you are to stumble on the DNA difference(s) you’re looking for. And this approach has worked.

For example, over 75% of the rice grown in California is a dwarf variety discovered this way. Same thing with different varieties of barley, peanuts, oats, wheat, and cocoa.

Sometimes radiation or chemicals are used to strengthen a trait that is already there too. The red grapefruit started out as a natural variety that lost its pink color with time. After zapping this variety’s seeds, scientists found a few that kept a deeper color of red. Now 75% of the grapefruits grown in Texas are this variety.

As you can see, this method has yielded many wonderful crop varieties. In fact, a lot of what we eat today is created through this process. But at the DNA level, it is a very messy affair. The genomes of these plants are often riddled with DNA mutations as a result.

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Now I’m not bringing this up because this is bad. These foods have been around for a long time with no obvious side effects. No, I want to bring it up to contrast it with the way GM foods are made.

Instead of all the collateral genetic damage that comes with mutating the bejeezus out of a plant’s DNA, GM technology is much more elegant. A single gene is added to a plant’s DNA and the rest of its DNA is left untouched. This method gets around the potential problems of all of the mutational baggage caused by those chemicals and/or radiation.

This is why this debate about GM foods seems so weird. In one case we are all perfectly fine with food that has a large mutational load built into it but frightened or hesitant about the one with a single extra gene. We fear Frankenstein but are ok with Godzilla.

Again I am not saying that this mutated rice or barley or whatever is bad. I’m just saying that GM foods are, if anything, even more benign than these safe foods. If we follow the logic of Proposition 37 (which requires labeling of GM foods), should we also label these Godzilla foods as well? If Godzilla corn has more genetic damage than Frankencorn, which should be labeled?

Additional Links:

Recent Polling Suggests Prop 37 Could Go Either Way

NY Times article: Useful Mutants, Bred With Radiation

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