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Stop fretting about GMOs; we have bigger food issues to worry about

AgricultureFertilizerChemical Industry
Which is scarier? Scientists intentionally inserting genetic material, or blasting plants with radiation?
'Mutation breeding' is a more random way of tweaking the genetic makeup of food
We don't label fertilizers; think of that when you think about Toledo's tainted water supply

The battle against genetically engineered food revolves mostly around the idea that it’s somehow bad for us in some way, though critics of the technology have a lot of trouble producing credible, peer-reviewed research as evidence.

And arguments that most things we eat are genetically modified through selective breeding and other methods fall on deaf ears. Selective breeding is good, people say, which we know because it’s been done for thousands of years. (I’d make an argument, though, about the people who selectively bred the flavor right out of tomatoes, an unexpected side effect of their desire to make the fruit uniformly red.) Besides, they say, it’s natural because we all know that plants can hybridize on their own.

But a new article in the (also new) online publication Vox takes a good stab at that notion by pointing out that there are some ways of modifying food that haven’t been around for hundreds, much less thousands, of years and are anything but natural.

One of these, the Vox article says, is “mutation breeding” or “radiation breeding” -- the use of radiation to induce mutations in plants and see where that takes you. It’s rather random. Scientists don’t really know what they’ll get, but sometimes they get something worth keeping. Actually, a fair amount of the time. As author Brad Plumer put it:

“More than 2,500 varieties of plants bred through mutagenesis have been released since the 1930s -- including rice, wheat, barley, peas, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit.”

And some of them are organic.

The public hasn’t shown much anxiety over these foods, Plumer writes, though the National Research Council has said that mutation breeding “has a higher risk of producing unintended effects than genetic engineering does…”

This goes hand-in-hand with all the other strange things we do in food production these days. Pesticides, growth-inducing antibiotics, hormones, artificial fertilizers -- some of these affect our health, others the environment, some both. Think of bodies of water that become choked with toxin-containing algae because of fertilizer runoff from agriculture, and think about the water that Toledo residents weren’t allowed to drink for a couple of days. We don’t label foods for pesticides, fertilizers or these other “conventional” food-production technologies. Only genetically engineered food is considered unconventional; it’s what the big labeling-law movement is all about these days. Why is that? Largely because groups of people have managed to make it an issue, not because it’s the one big dangerous thing happening with our food.

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