In the late 1990s, political scientist Gregory Conko had been studying food and pharmaceutical regulation as a fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and noticed the rising concerns in the European Union over genetically modification of crop plants. I saw this was an issue that was getting much bigger and that it would likely also become a bigger issue in the United States, he says. So he began shifting his focus almost exclusively to examining issues of the regulation of genetically engineered foods. Last month, Conko and Henry I. Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, published The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution (Praeger Publishers), a book that examines some of what they say are the major misunderstandings about agricultural biotechnology.
TR: What is the central argument of your new book on these genetically engineered frankenfoods?
CONKO: Its not a point-by-point refutation of all the misconceptions that are being spread about agricultural biotechnology. The primary mess that we tackle has to do with an attitude that is being spread by both opponents of biotechnology and by a lot of its supporters that it is somehow uniquely risky and therefore should be subject to special caution and special regulatory oversight.
TR: Arent there unique risks to creating new plants using genetic engineering, to introducing traits these plants might not otherwise gain?
CONKO: After recombinant DNA techniques were first demonstrated in the early 1970s, the scientific community started to take a very close look at the technology. They determined that while it certainly increases the flexibility of the kinds of genetic modifications that one can make in microorganisms, plants, or animals, the techniques dont inherently increase the risks of engineered organisms.
TR: So the techniques may not be dangerous, but the plants could be.
CONKO: With both old and new technologies, you could create a crop plant that might have significantly heightened environmental risks. If youre making an herbicide-tolerant plant, for example, you can do this with either conventional breeding techniques or with recombinant DNA technology. There is no risk difference between the two end products. The scientific consensus essentially holds that you dont want to look at the process used to create a particular new organism; you want to evaluate its characteristics to ensure that the plants themselves dont become invasive or spread harmful genes either to related crop plants or related wild plants.
Similarly on the food safety side, you want to ensure that the genes youre transferring into crop plants or into the food supply are safe, and you want to do that whether youre using recombinant DNA technology or not. Potatoes and tomatoes are both part of the nightshade family, and both produce toxins that, if they were present in high levels, could be very harmful to human consumers. So when youre creating or breeding new potato and tomato varieties, you want to be in tune to whether you may be accidentally increasing the level of toxinsand that’s true regardless of whether youre using recombinant DNA or more conventional technology.