Remember my last post that was defending genetic engineering when done right? Well, as you know I try to keep my blog as impartial as possible and look at things from multiple perspectives, which is why this post is all about the potential consequences of genetic engineering done wrong.
In particular, I have two articles for you to read over your Sunday evening tea and/or Monday morning coffee – one from the New York Times that reflects on farmers’ misgivings on the herbicide Glyphosate, which is one the main ingredients of Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup; and another one on the possible next frontier in GMO and agro-chemical use, namely the development of 2,4 D – resistant corn and the subsequent use of this herbicide on fields around the world. The main controversy attached to this: 2,4 D was one of the components of Agent Orange, the defoliant and herbicide used by the US military in the Vietnam war which was linked to cancer and birth defects.
Linking both articles is serious scientific disagreement on how safe – or unsafe – these products are. The New York Times article cites farmers’ circumstantial evidence that they found notable decreases in their soil quality which led them to switch back to conventional crops to preserve their land, whereas the US Environmental Protection Agency increased the limit on the amount of glyphosate that is allowed to be used (and allowable residue limits on foodstuffs) in May in response to a request by Monsanto – in many cases setting the allowable residue limit two to 25 times higher than before. This decision was made despite many serious studies citing adverse health effects of glyphosate residues, including this one carried out by MIT scientists.
The evidence on the effect of the herbicide on soil quality is similarly contradictory, as this USDA review study highlights – yet, their conclusion was that its effects are relatively benign. But how much evidence has to surface proving that a particular practice is harmful in order for it to be ceased until all misgivings and doubts have been addressed?
The same issue is at stake in the 2,4 D case, where there is disagreement on whether this particular component or another one was responsible for the deleterious health effects of Agent Orange. Opponents argue that even if this herbicide is different from the original formula and has been proven safe according to studies, we don’t know about the cumulative effects that multiple agro-chemicals – herbicides, pesticides and the like – could have on human health, not to mention agricultural ecosystems. The most recent report I could find mentioned that the approval of this corn variety and the agrochemicals linked to it was delayed until at least 2014, though, so there is a margin of time where scientific debate can still flourish.
Still, all this got me thinking – if we are always in this limbo of scientific uncertainty, where do we draw the line and declare something ‘safe’? If most of the available evidence points to the fact that it’s harmless, which seems the US’ stance? Or do we follow a precautionary approach (as the EU in certain cases, especially related to GMO use) and approve a practice only if we can conclude that there is no evidence of potentially harmful outcomes? And if we do that, do we stifle innovation in the making?
Let me know your thoughts!