Frankencows: A Complete Misunderstanding Of Science
from the way-to-go-media dept
Anyone who makes a habit of taking a cursory look at news sites is probably aware both of the Genetically Engineered Food Right To Know Act currently in front of Congress, and of a vocal animosity towards genetically modified agriculture. We've discussed GMOs here a few times as well and, yes, I'm perfectly aware that Monsanto is quite likely run by a corporate board that includes Satan, Hitler, and Timothy McVeigh. But that doesn't mean that all genetic techniques for food are bad and it certainly doesn't excuse hysteria-producing misinformation campaigns perpetrated in part by media members.
Yet that's exactly what has been occuring in the case of the hornless dairy cows.
“Scientists are designing a health and safety cow, genetically altered to have no horns,” claimed the Sunday Times. “Hornless ‘Frankencow’: Genetic engineers aim to create super-bovine,” shouted Russia Today. Geneticists, various reports claimed, are “extracting” a strip of DNA from the genome of one cattle and “implanting” DNA it into another. A stream of stories read like pages from the anti-GMO playbook. The reports were liberally sprinkled with code words about designer animals, transgenics and Frankencows. No wonder people are in a tizzy.The problem, of course, is that none of those claims are true. They're a complete misunderstanding of the specific science involved in creating, or I would better say encouraging, production of hornless dairy cows. Livestock that are hornless, commonly referred to as polled livestock, occur naturally. More to the point, breeding techniques (read: the original genetic engineering) to produce more polled animals have been around for at least half a century, and likely longer. Scott Fahrenkrug of the University of Minnesota teamed up with other geneticists to form Recombinetics, a company that uses so-called molecular scissors simply to shift natural DNA around within animal genes. In other words, all of the attacks by anti-GMO folks were baseless.
Fahrenkrug’s technique does not involve transgenics, which results from moving genes from one species to another. While utterly safe, the very mention of genetic manipulation enrages anti-GMO activists. In this case, Recomibinetics is mirroring nature—taking snippets of DNA that first appeared through natural, spontaneous mutations in livestock hundreds of years ago to create hornless cows. The snippets are copied—not inserted as various reports had it. They are not moved. No “foreign” DNA is inserted. We’ve been eating these cows and drinking their milk for centuries—so we are sure there are no adverse health consequences.The entire process could be done through selective breeding. The problem with that is that it would take far more time and would require both the beef and dairy industry to take huge production hits in the meantime as the animals were used. This method doesn't offend Mother Nature beyond making her look less efficient. It produces animals that are genetically the same as what we're already consuming. As the article notes, people should be cheering this technique on, as it results in less animal cruelty and a higher production of milk. Hell, PETA is reportedly on board with this, and they get pissed off over Pokemon games.
The point is that whatever your thoughts on the more invasive GMO techniques, you can't let that mute a demand for factual information. And when we talk about legislation, there needs to be pushback on broadly-worded clauses that function as a catch-all for food technology.
[Fahrenkrug] pointed to a central clause in the “Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act,” introduced in Congress last week. The wording was clearly guided by activists rather than scientists, he told me. For example, the bill now uses a sweeping and very unscientific definition of “genetic engineering” to include “in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant DNA and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles.” That’s stunning in its breadth, and would result in mandatory labeling of natural processes, such as those introduced by Fahrenkrug. In effect the poorly written legislation attempts to re-classify some simple techniques used in classical breeding as GMOs—and could in the process endanger the technologically enhanced classic breeding techniques that are poised to revolutionize animal welfare. However intended, that’s just one of many passages in this shabbily written bill that will retard the biotechnology revolution.Anti-science legislation as a reaction to unsubstantiated fear? This is becoming far too par for the course for my tastes.