Saturday, March 13, 2004 When the media attempt to be "balanced" and present "both sides" on such an issue — even though one side has no demonstrated competence — it is understandable that the public errs on the side of avoiding what they see as a small possibility of harm. Modern techniques of genetic engineering sound a bit daring and even "unnatural" (whatever that means), so the anti-biotechnology zealots have been able to play on fears of unknown and unknowable future harm. Since no reputable scientist can give a 100% certain guarantee against all unforeseen harm, the ideologue is free to sow the seeds of fear with little substantive challenge.

Rather than lecturing people about the technology that has made their food crops possible, and how easily old technologies, too, could be made to sound scary were we not all by now familiar with it, I am trying an alternate strategy: asking people twenty questions — some of which may sound scary — that I hope will make them think more rationally about food safety. Try to answer honestly, as you would without looking at the answers:

Q1 - Would you favor mutation breeding using carcinogenic chemicals or gamma rays, or techniques such as altering the ploidy or chromosomal structure that allows the crossing of diploids and haploids?

A1 - Well, this practice has been carried out in agricultural breeding since the 1920s.

Q2 - Would you favor plant breeding tissue culture or somoclonal variation, creating a plant from a cell in a cultured medium?

A2 - It has been possible to do so since the late 1930s and has become increasingly important in plant breeding, particularly for disease resistance, since the late 1970s.

Q3 - If a breeding technique is used that produces sterile crosses for plants that would otherwise not be able to produce a viable embryo, would you favor a procedure called embryo rescue to remove an embryo before it would naturally abort and then growing it in a cultured medium?

A3 - It has been done for decades.

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