Letter: Perpetuating ‘scientific’ myths about biotechnology

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Your May 17 article about genetic engineering [“Facts, Fears and the Future of Food”] is so chock-full of glib falsehoods that I hardly know where to begin. I would have far more respect for the “science” behind biotechnology if it didn’t depend so heavily on half-truths, double standards, unwarranted assumptions, blurred distinctions and conflicts of interest.

Jack Britt says that the same microorganisms move genes between species both in nature and in genetic engineering, and therefore the methods are the same. This is half true. In the latter, various techniques are employed to either bypass or weaken the natural immunity of the organism being manipulated, often literally forcing the DNA into the cells in ways that would never occur in nature. Stating that “many” organisms are naturally GMO, and therefore implying that we have carte blanche to do whatever we wish, isn’t just a stretch, it’s a whopper.

Britt and Leah McGrath emphasize the “precision” of these techniques. Again, this is a perversion of the truth. In fact, this is merely a precision of abstractions, because the living organism is then going to move these genes around in ways that can’t possibly be controlled or predicted. The only way to even begin to achieve complete control or precision would be to kill the organism, which would obviously be counterproductive. A technology that treats living organisms as though they were dead has extremely questionable scientific validity, not to mention morality.

Both the tone and title of the article perpetuate the same old “scientific” myths about biotechnology: The facts are with the “scientists,” the fears (“beliefs”) are with the uninformed public, and the future of food requires the widespread adoption of these techniques. The public is misinformed, largely because news media like the Xpress have allowed themselves to be used as soapboxes by academic cheerleaders for corporate interests.

As long as we continue to assume that:
1. The deterministic gene we’ve been taught in school and through the media is real.
2. The kind of science we now have (which is mostly technology rather than science proper) is the only science possible. And
3. Everything a scientist says is scientific by definition,

we will continue to make catastrophic mistakes.

Substantive criticisms of biotechnology do exist, but for some reason, they almost never find their way into the mass media. The opposition only seems weak because its strongest arguments are ignored.

— Andy Shaw
Easton, Md.

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Nick Wilson responds in part: “I thank you for your passionate response. I appreciate criticism and view it as an opportunity to learn through grappling with different perspectives. Ultimately, I’m more than happy to admit my past errors if I come to a new understanding that falls more in line with what I believe to be true. If it comes to my awareness that I have put forth falsehoods, I’d absolutely like to remedy that. This is to say that my perspectives are evolving, not fixed. It’s important to me to keep learning and growing in the pursuit of truth. …”

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