Seed World

Genes, Trains and Automobiles


Fear of new technology is age-old. For example, when trains were first introduced, there were a lot of extreme and fearful reactions. It was the first time that humankind was travelling faster than the till then the fastest form of transportation, the horse. In Great Britain in 1830, there were strong fears that people would not be able to breathe while travelling at such a velocity, or that the passengers’ eyes would be damaged by having to adjust to the motion. Others suspected that any human body might simply melt at such high speeds; and then there were even those that thought that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour, and worried that the uteruses of female passengers would simply fly out of their bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.

With cars it was not much different. As automobiles gained traction in the early 1900s, they were seen by many as noisy, erratic “devil wagons”. And interestingly, there was a time that people worried about cars because they had human drivers. In fact, it was the removal of the horses—the horseless carriage—that gave some people fits. In the late 1800s, the prospect of a person driving without the aid of a second intelligence (i.e. the horse) was a real concern. A horse, or team of horses, acted as a crude form of cruise control and collision aversion. But speed was the biggest concern, as with the advent of automobiles, people could suddenly move much faster. Such speeds meant more danger, so some countries introduced very prohibitive measures. In England for example, an old law dubbed the Red Flag Act required self-propelled vehicles to be led, at walking pace by someone waving a red flag. The law was written before automobiles, specifically for steam-powered locomotives, but it was so broad it applied to horseless carriages when they emerged.

Marcel Bruins, editorial director, European Seed

Although we eventually got over our locomotive fears, it is safe to say that such fear of the new has picked up speed (pun intended) alongside our rate of innovation.

Let’s not forget that in the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver’s education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver’s licenses or posted speed limits. Drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime, and there were no seat belts, or airbags. Much has been improved in terms of road safety, however, according to the World Health Organization, in 2010 road traffic injuries caused an estimated 1.25 million deaths worldwide. That is, one person is killed every 25 seconds.

The kind of reaction where a society experiences extreme fear when particularly revelatory technological advances show up is often referred to as “moral panic” and similar fears could be noted with the introduction of television, the internet, or mobile phones. The term ‘moral panic’ is subject to inflation however, and is occasionally used for the emergence of GM crops.

Several parallels can be made to current progress in plant breeding. The regulations for plant varieties, including those for biotech, were written well before the arrival of the latest plant breeding methods such as cisgenesis or Crispr-Cas. And as with many other sectors in society, also in plant breeding, history has demonstrated that new advancements have almost always been controversial – even though safety or environmental risks have not been proven. For example, we should not forget that in the early 20th century, some statisticians and other scholars asserted that Mendel’s 19th century results were fraudulent, stating that he had altered the numbers he found in his pea experiments to conform to the numbers he anticipated.

But unlike modern day cars, which causes the death of a person every 25 seconds, the absolute safety of these latest breeding methods or of GM plants for that matter has been proven over and over again. There has never been even a single reported case of someone dying from a genetically modified crop, which should come as no surprise when one understands that any commercially available genetically modified crop has undergone rigorous testing. There is also no credible, scientific evidence to suggest that GM crops are causing diseases or illnesses that would harm or kill someone over a long period of time. In fact, science has demonstrated quite the contrary. After thousands of scientific studies that have been performed on the available gm crops, and all of them demonstrate that these crops are just as safe as their non-gm counterparts.

But there’s more than just safety. In my view, not only the developers, but also the regulating authorities should be proactive in communicating information to the general public about why we need the latest plant breeding methods and their products and whether these may or may not need to be regulated. Policy regarding gene-edited crops has scientific, legal, and social dimensions and not all issues can be answered by science alone.

Indeed, the science and progress in plant breeding is moving so rapidly that we may wonder if producers, as well as consumers, and especially regulators will be able to understand and embrace the changes. If misunderstanding these latest breeding methods leads to a delay in acceptance and use, it may very well be that we lose many wonderful opportunities to help humankind bring the much-needed improved varieties to the farmers and eventually to the consumers.