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The Curse of Frankenstein

It’s time for the villagers to torch the “Frankenfood” myth

By Robert W. Tracinski

The FDA’s decision to formally impose regulations on genetically modified foods was supposed to be a step forward for scientific objectivity—but it will actually serve to perpetuate an anti-biotech crusade fueled by an irrational hatred of science and technology.

The ostensible purpose of the FDA’s rules is to “reassure consumers” about the safety of genetically modified foods. But it will merely serve to give an undeserved legitimacy to anti-biotech environmental activists, by treating their scare tactics as scientific claims to be answered with scientific evidence.

In reality, these claims are based, not in science, but in a superstitious fear of science and technology. It is revealing that environmental activists have chosen to smear genetically modified foods with the term “frankenfood,” invoking Frankenstein, the classic horror story of a mad scientist who tampers with nature’s secrets and unleashes a rampaging monster. The moral of the story, as stated in Mary Shelley’s novel, is to show “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge”—an appropriate theme for a movement dedicated to stamping out new technology.

But this Frankenstein myth, and its theme of the dangers of science, has been thoroughly refuted in the nearly 200 years since it was first published. Science and technology have improved human life in countless ways, from the steam engine to the pasteurization of milk, from electrical power to antibiotics. And genetically modified foods are just the latest step in this march of progress.

Farmers have long modified the genetic makeup of their crops and livestock through selective breeding—choosing to breed the prize bull, for example, or planting seeds from the highest-yielding stalks of wheat. But genetic engineering has made this process much easier and faster. Scientists have discovered how to alter genes directly, allowing them to take advantages possessed by one species of plant or animal and splice them into the genes of another species. So, for example, one popular variety of genetically engineered corn contains a gene taken from a bacteria; that gene produces a chemical toxic to caterpillars, giving the corn an inbuilt defense against harmful insects.

This new technology is already providing farmers with crops that bear higher yields, grow in drier climates, require fewer pesticides, and so on. The result has been bigger harvests and lower costs for American farmers. And scientists have also begun engineering plants that grow better under difficult conditions, such as drought—promising a new “green revolution” for the Third World.

Genetically modified foods are not merely safe—they are an enormous advance, and we should be applauding the heroes of science who invented them.

But that’s not what the environmentalists are doing. Instead, they have concocted a pseudo-scientific scare campaign against these foods. Here is a sampling of the claims against genetically modified foods, as summarized in a US News & World Report article last year: “Though no scientifically valid study has shown that altered foods are toxic, some researchers believe it’s possible that genetic manipulation could enhance natural plant toxins in unexpected ways.” And: “People who suffer from allergies could be exposed to proteins they react to without knowing it.” The FDA already screens for such allergens, but: “[S]ome scientists fear that unknown allergens could slip through the system.” Or: “Scientists also say foreign genes might alter the nutritional value of food in unpredictable ways.”

The basis for all of these claims is the “unexpected,” the “unpredictable,” the “unknown”—in other words, not evidence, but the lack of evidence. This gimmick could be used to prove or disprove anything. By the same logic, anyone could be hauled into the police station and charged with murder, on the grounds that he might have killed an unknown person using an undetermined murder weapon and then hidden the body in an undiscovered location. Of course, such an arbitrary assertion would be thrown out of a court of law—and it should also be dismissed from any scientific debate.

But for the environmentalists, this debate is not really about science. They approach this issue with the pre-established conviction that science and technology must create monsters. They believe in the Frankenstein myth—and they refuse to let any amount of evidence, or lack of it, shake their belief.

The proper response to this anti-science campaign is not more regulation of biotechnology, but a total rejection of the alleged need for such regulation. It is time to expose and reject the primitive fear of technology that lurks behind the attack on genetically modified foods. It is time to kill the Frankenstein myth.