Genetically modified crops are a very complicated issue that are difficult to discuss because the public is mostly clueless about how genetics work. I found myself whipsawed between concern about genetic modification and despair at how uneducated the public is as I read this piece in the New York Times about efforts to save the orange industry. A sequence of DNA that makes a protein is a sequence of DNA that makes a protein. There is nothing “human” or “pig” or “virus” or “spinach” about such sequences. They may in occur in all of those organisms or they may be unique to just one of them. Putting a spinach gene in an orange will not turn the orange green or make it taste like spinach. Yet, the public is more hostile to using virus genes than they are about using plant or animal genes, and they don’t like mixing plant and animal genes. Whatever the legitimate concerns are about genetic modification, these are not among them. People are just very dumb when it comes to genetics and evolution.

Yet, there are plenty of people who are knowledgable about the science who have legitimate concerns on a whole host of issues. And the tradeoffs can be agonizing. We are now allowing more pesticide use in the orange groves because disease is overwhelming them. Would you rather have more spraying or a spinach gene in your oranges that makes them resistant to bacterial infection?

Then there is the issue of patents, where companies can actually own the seeds produced by other people’s crops, and can genetically-modify crops to be resistant to their own pesticides.

What’s the difference between making a genetic modification for purely cosmetic improvements versus changes aimed at increasing yield or preventing the collapse of a whole industry facing some kind of blight?

These questions go beyond my pay grade, but I’d urge caution. I’d also urge people to fight back against the Creationists and other morons who actively misinform people about basic biology. What the public thinks about GMO food is almost meaningless when they don’t understand what a protein is and how it is produced.

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