Safety of hybrid fruits & vegetables

posted in: Science | 301

This post examines why we are generally comfortable with non-GMO plants being released without safety testing, but have very different standards for plants developed with GMO methods.

Ugli fruit by Steve Eng via Flickr
Ugli fruit by Steve Eng via Flickr

Are hybrid fruits & vegetables safe? The short answer from this educated layperson is “yes, of course, generally.”

I’m not terribly worried about the dangers of the limequat, or the ugli fruit or the plumquat.

But still. To the best of my knowledge, none of them has ever been tested — that is, subjected to the sorts of long-term safety assessment that would involve feeding these things to generations of, say, mice or rats. The sort of assessment that critics of GMOs typically insist ought to be done on, say, Roundup Ready soybean.

The question arises because, in a very plain sense, hybrids are genetically modified foods, crosses between plants from two different species. But when people worry about GMOs, almost no one is ever thereby worrying about hybrids.

There are quite a few online sources that attempt to reassure people about the safety of hybrids, while at the same time demonizing genetically modified foods (i.e., GMOs in the modern sense). All such sources that I’ve found so far are full of fallacious reasoning — faulty logic through and through. There are claims that hybrids are “natural” whereas GMOs are not. There is no more common error in online debates over food than the mistaken assumption that natural means “safe” and artificial means “dangerous.” (Is naturally-occurring cyanide safe?) Such defences of hybrids also tend to be factually misinformed (‘hybrids are more nutritious’ or ‘GMOs always combine DNA from different sources’). False, and false.

Consider this: when a scientist creates a new kind of apple by, say, deleting the gene known to code for some particular trait (say, its flesh browning when exposed to air), it has to go through a scientific assessment before it can be sold. But hybridize two apple varieties — or cross an apple with a plum — any number of genes get scrambled, and no scientific or regulatory scrutiny is required at all. If blind faith in hybrids isn’t based on pure emotion and prejudice, what is it based on?

Chris MacDonaldBy Chris MacDonald. Chris is a Toronto-based ethicist, professor, speaker and consultantThis post was originally published at The Food Ethics Blog and was republished with the author’s permission.

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