In a recent Mother Jones Inquiring Minds piece, Indre Viskontas interviewed Dr. Steven Novella, a renowned neurologist at Yale University. Dr. Novella does a wonderful job of outlining the myths and facts surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms:
“Almost everything I hear about [industrial agriculture] is a myth. It’s such an emotional issue—a highly ideological and politicized issue—that what I find is that most of what people write and say and believe about it just fits into some narrative, some worldview. And it’s not very factual or evidence-based.”
Dr. Steven Novella argues that many of the fears surrounding genetically modified crops are unsupported. He continues to discuss the misinformation surrounding the technology and how it is negatively influencing the public’s perception:
So where does Novella think the public is misinformed?
One myth concerns the novelty of GM foods. Many people think that modifying genes in our food is a 21st-century phenomenon, but according to Novella, humans have been using selective breeding to create more desirable versions of plants and animals for thousands of years. In fact, it was a lone monk, Gregor Mendel, who in the 1800s discovered the laws of inheritance and launched the science of genetics by crossbreeding pea plants.
And there are even more questionable genetic modification practices that aren’t subject to anywhere near the same scrutiny as GM foods. Novella points to the increasing popularity of “mutation breeding,” in which chemicals and radiation are used to increase the rate of plant mutations in order to produce favorable traits. “Over 2,000 plants that are the product of this mutation breeding have been released to the public in the last 100 years,” explains Novella.
Another important myth surrounding GM foods is that they are somehow unsafe for human consumption.
There are two broad types of genetically modified organisms: transgenic and cisgenic. Cisgenic modification occurs between closely related plants—something that might have happened more “naturally” through crossbreeding. Transgenic modification involves transferring genes across disparate species, or even kingdoms—impossible if left to Mother Nature. It’s this second type of modification that gives products the derogatory label of “Frankenfood.” But compared with crossbreeding or mutation breeding, says Novella, genetic modification is “much more precise”—selecting only one gene or a part of a gene and inserting it into the target food.