Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 13, August 2001: "Frankenfoods vs. the neo-Luddites"


Ned Ludd was a man who fought against the change of his time. He saw the industrial revolution and mechanization of the 19th century as a threat to the way of life of many people, and took action to prevent the catastrophe. He failed, of course, but to this day if someone is anti-technology and innovation, she is still likely to be branded a Luddite.

Actually, Ludd is probably a legendary figure. What we do know is that the movement started in 1811 near Liverpool, England, and was directed against the textile machinery that was displaying the local workers. It spread rapidly to other parts of England, but was brutally arrested by a bloody repression. In 1812 a band of Luddites was shot because of the complaints of a factory owner (who was then killed in reprisal), and a trial in 1813 ended in mass hangings. The movement had a second peak in 1816, following the Napoleonic wars, but this time a combination of violent repression and of ensuing better economic times determined its final end.

Yet, at the turn of the 21st century more and more people consider themselves "neo-Luddites": there are alternative music bands by that name, there is a folk opera dedicated to Ned Ludd, and-oddly enough-plenty of Web sites dedicated to Luddism. Even some prominent contemporary writers such as social critic Neil Postman can be counted as exponents of this informal movement.

One of the targets of neo-Luddism is a category of food products that the protesters have dubbed "frankenfoods," with obvious reference to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel (written at the end of the Luddite movement) depicting the catastrophes that ensue when science goes too far in its quest for knowledge. Frankenfoods are, of course, genetically engineered foods, a category that includes a large and increasing variety of both plant and animal products.

The question I wish to briefly discuss is this: what is the most rational approach to the frankenfood controversy as an example of the real or imagined dangers of technology? The answer is obviously not simple, a truism when complex problems are considered.

We can effortlessly dismiss both extreme views on the topic as irrational. On the one hand, there is nothing magical or even unnatural about genetic engineering. Anybody who takes the time to study a bit of molecular biology will easily understand the relatively straightforward (in principle, though not always in practice) technology of recombinant DNA, which is at the base of genetic engineering. As for the naturalness of it all, evolutionary biologists have discovered plenty of natural examples of "horizontal gene transfer" between species. This is the technical term for when a gene that evolved in one organism (let's say a bacterium) is acquired by a different organism (for example another species of bacterium, a plant, or even an animal). Genetic engineering is simply an accelerated (and consciously directed) version of horizontal gene transfer. In that, it does not differ from plenty of other "unnatural" technologies, such as flying above the earth's surface on machines heavier than air, or exploiting the properties of radio waves to talk into a cell phone.

On the other hand, the claim by multinational companies such as Monsanto that genetically engineered foods are absolutely safe is also nonsense. Research in evolutionary biology shows clearly the dramatic effects of horizontal gene transfer on certain organisms (for example, some bacteria can become extremely resistant to antibiotics) and the fact that humanly modified species can interbreed with their natural cousins to produce offspring whose characteristics are impossible to guess. Furthermore, no matter how many tests are carried out on a new genetically engineered product, there is always the possibility that some allergic reaction or other side effect has been neglected and that it will cause disease or even death in a minority of people.

The real question, therefore, is not weather the technology is "good" or "bad," but what is its appropriate use and what kind of safeguards should be put in place to use it. This is why the answer is actually complex. We are now talking about a trade-off between benefits and dangers. I am not referring here to the obvious benefits to the corporations that produce genetically engineered foods. Those are irrelevant from a social point of view. I am speaking of the benefits to farmers and consumers of those products. These range (potentially) from crops that are resistant to pathogens to the availability of a wide variety of foods with interesting properties such as different flavors or unusual time of availability on the market. But are these advantages worth the risk of putting farmers at the mercy of a few and often unscrupulous companies? And what about the possibility-however small-of health risks or environmental damage caused by the new products?

Since there is no yes/no answer to the problem, we are left with the much more thorny issue of estimating probabilities. There is a certain likelihood that a newly released genetically engineered food will become a health hazard. But the same is true for any new drug aimed at fighting a human disease. There is a given probability of environmental impact of the new product, but this is also true for just about any technology we use, with apparently "innocuous" technologies (such as cars) carrying an already demonstrated much higher burden on the deterioration of our environment.

As the rapid demise of the original Luddite movement demonstrated, it is difficult to change the direction of history once certain forces have been set in motion. However, the rational person should still be able to discriminate between the pros and cons of any new development, and such knowledge should be used to inform others and to change things slowly by changing people's vision and habits of thinking.


Next Month: "The dark side of philosophy" (part of the 'Pizza & Philosophy' series)

by Massimo Pigliucci, 2001