Examples of Regulation of Nanotechnology 1 Health and Safety Regulations

On June 1, 1992, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Sheldon Krimsky titled "Tomatoes May Be Dangerous to Your Health," in which Dr. Krimsky criticized the exemption of genetically engineered crops from certain levels of review by the Food and Drug Administration. This article was met with a response by Paul Lewis, in which the term "Frankenfood" was coined to refer to food derived from such crops:16

"Tomatoes May be Dangerous to Your Health" (Op-Ed, June 1) by Sheldon Krimsky is right to question the decision of the Food and Drug Administration to exempt genetically engineered crops from case-by-case review. Ever since Mary Shelley's baron rolled his improved human out of the lab, scientists have been bringing just such good things to life. If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it's time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle.17

This rather derisive characterization of food derived from genetically modified organisms quickly became popular, reflecting a fairly widespread distrust of the safety of such food. Numerous, highly visible protests against government decisions permitting the sale of such food followed, being notably strong in Europe. The result was a long confrontation between scientists and those who were concerned about the potential harms that could result from ingestion of food derived from genetically modified organisms.

But in fact, human beings have been engaged in genetic manipulation of organisms for millennia. Most of this genetic manipulation has taken the form of domestication of plants and animals—and the evidence of genetic manipulation arising from domestication was one of the important pieces of evidence put forth by Charles Darwin in his thesis in The Origin of Species. Examples of such genetic manipulation by human beings abound. Perhaps the most commonly advanced example is dogs, which share a common ancestor with modern wolves. Dogs have been bred to have specialized domestic roles, with those breeds that become pets having been bred to have youthful physical characteristics—a short muzzle, small teeth, round eyes—and to have a docile demeanor. Those bred to act as herd or hunting dogs emphasize other characteristics—notably the instinct to stalk prey— but remain much more docile than their wolf cousins.

This kind of domestication illustrates a certain acceptance by human beings of their ability to engage in genetic manipulation. While much of that kind of domestication was done without a good understanding of the underlying genetics, more modern examples evidence a more pragmatic acceptance of our ability to control the characteristics of species genetically. In Russia in the 1950s, for example, silver foxes that were farmed for fur were savage animals. They managed poorly in farm captivity, often dying from anxiety. But with a deliberate program of selective breeding, their demeanor was changed in only twenty years to a group of considerably tamer animals that also had more desirable features in their coats.

Other examples more directly related to the "Frankenfood" issue are to be found in food production. In these cases, genetic diversity is often sacrificed in favor of highly valuable strains of species for food production. For example, it is startling to learn that the entire soybean crop in the United States, which amounts to some 60 million tons, is descended from a mere dozen soybean strains that were collected in northeastern China. The same predilection for reproducing the genes of superior specimens is evident in beef and dairy production. When the Dutch Holstein Friesian bull Sunny Boy died in 1997, he had sired some 2 million calves, resulting in a significant and deliberate impact by human beings on the genetic makeup of the world's cattle population.18

It is within this context that fears about "Frankenfood" should be judged. In many ways, it is the increased level of control over genes that gives rise to fears about the potential dangers of genetically modified organisms. But when viewed against the backdrop of how intrusively human beings have always influenced the genetic makeup of other species, the concerns about genetic modification seem somewhat irrational. To be sure, there may be certain risks associated with genetic manipulation directly at the level of DNA, but the notion that genetic modification of species to suit human purposes somehow represents an abomination of nature is surely overblown. And yet, the challenges faced in gaining public acceptance of using genetically modified organisms as food sources acts as a sharp reminder of the potential challenges to be faced in gaining public acceptance of foods produced using nanotechnology.

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