The Monsanto's of the world have seen the universe of natural alternatives -- the entire genetic complement of nature.
It is far off-base, in my opinion, to say that we should work with what nature has given us without recognizing how dramatically humans have already altered the raw material. The vast majority of ag. crops are very far from their "natural" ancestors. Most of them could not persist without human intervention to protect them from competitors. Calling this co-evolution isn't quite right, given the intentional directing of the path of ag. plant and animal characteristics. To me, tapeworms, viruses and bacteria, etc. have co-evolved. The gut flora and fauna in ruminants represent an excellent coevolution example; not corn, wheat or cotton.
With few exceptions, our ag. research establishment does a very haphazard job of risk assessment of conventional technologies. A notable exception I know of is the measurement of solanine in new potato varieties (NOT done in all jurisdictions, by the way).
We do a lot better at risk assessment for pesticides than we do for new crop varieties -- including non-GE -- it isn't safe to assume that novel characteristics will not appear in normal, sexual recombination -- the arguments about unpredictability of gene location and expression in GE are equally valid for conventional breeding. So far, at least, the ag. GE folks are using naturally-occuring genes; they haven't synthesized completely novel ones to any degree. For many years, plant breeders have used chemical and radiation treatments to induce random mutations in plants, then screened for "improved" characteristics to breed into commercial lines; this mimics natural processes, but are these alleles "synthetic"; are they dangerous? Who assesses the risk of letting them loose in fields?
The socio-political question has been with us for years and will likely stay around for a while. As long as we are not willing to give away food to people who cannot produce all they need (or afford to pay for it), some will starve while others are paid not to produce. Eventually, truly "improved" production technology will be needed. By improved, I mean sustainable -- including energy inputs. In my view, this sustainable system will include plants and animals with transgenic characteristics.
Based on the amount of GE food being produced and consumed in North America, we should know pretty soon from epidemiologic evidence whether there are significant, obvious deleterious effects of these foodstuffs on human health. Ecosystem health concerns will require attention; in any case, the detection of RR or Bt genes in, say a wild mustard isn't evidence of ecological harm -- so, ecological researchers will have careers in trying to detect evidence of impacts of gene escape from their more holistic field studies.
There will be impacts, though I expect most of them to be related to the human/plant interaction -- ie, weeds, Bt resistance, etc. -- than to wild ecosystem effects, since most of these genes are unlikely to confer competitive advantage on the wild plants that express the genes.
I'm with Dale in believing that significant adverse health effects from ag. GMOs are unlikely; I would be surprised by them. I'm also with Ann in saying I'd rather not be surprised. Given the current controversy, the prudent course is to intensify government-sponsored, or, at least, government-supervised safety assessments for GE. This technology can never be "proven" safe; a growing body of negative evidence of harm would go a long way to allaying fears, though. And, such research would provide the safety of early warning, in the off-chance that there are harmful effects (a la DDT, Thalidomide, etc.) lurking in the technology.
Keep the pressure on for study that is insulated from corporate self-interest. When a red flag --like the Puztai results -- pops up, efforts to replicate and verify the conclusions need to be started right away (instead of just accepting the results as proven or, alternatively, explaining them away as the result of experimental flaws -- depending on your pre-existing bias).
I accept that many of the arguments against GE have theoretical basis in biology; except for pest resistance (which is pretty much guaranteed, eventually, whether GE is involved or not), I haven't seen evidence that these harmful effects are likely to occur or persist. Obviously, I'm not ready to give up on GE just because it involves human intervention in the reshuffling of naturally-occuring genomes; I am eager to see that the result of this technology is screened adequately for safety -- as should be done for products of conventional breeding programs. I'd also like to have a better idea of the _relative_ riskiness of GE foods compared to pesticides in food, bacterial contamination, or any of a number of risk factors --> I don't want to fret excessively over a real, but minutely-small danger while overlooking a much bigger issue. Right now, we are ill-equipped to say which is which -- and, as Ann rightly points out, relatively little effort is going into helping ke!
ep us better-informed of levels of risk.
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