Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What happened to the Flavr Savr Tomato?

Carl Zimmer recently suggested checking out a newish series from the New York Times called Retro Reports. The video series revisits old news stories that have since faded from the headlines. The digital-short-film format makes it readily accessible and I appreciate seeing the faces of the interviewees.

One of Carl's suggestions is a piece on the defunct Flavr Savr tomato, a timely subject for me as I now work in a plant biology lab using genetic engineering to study epigenetic factors at play during development.  Recently we had a departmental conversation about the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops. With that conversation in mind and after watching this clip I have formed an opinion on initiatives to label genetically modified food.

I am for labeling genetically modified food. Promoting transparency may help us embrace things worth embracing and discard those things that may be harmful to our health. George Church has argued that science ought to be more resilient when faced with ethical dilemmas.  I would like to apply this logic to labeling GMOs. The tool of genetic engineering can be equated with a "hammer." A hammer can be used to build a house or clobber someone over the head. The consequence is not the hammer's fault in either case.

The potential good that may come from genetic modification is overshadowed by the profit motives held by companies like Monsanto that now fuel 95% of the genetically modified crops in production throughout the world. There are under-reported cases like Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii, or Golden Rice where genetic modification has been the hero, not the villain.  It may be naive of me to think that the American public is science-savvy enough to decide for themselves whether a genetically modified plant is beneficial or not. However, I think science could exercise resilience in this case by allowing genetically modified foods to be labeled.  If in the long term some of those foods that are genetically modified prove beneficial to society, then the economy will carry them into wider markets, but if some GM crops prove over time a detriment they will be selected against.    

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