Friday, July 27, 2012

GMO Myths and Truths: Muddying the waters with imprecise terms

This post will cover the "Muddying the waters" subsection of chapter one in GMO Myths and Truths.  This subsection is mostly tied to section 1.1 and may have been better suited to just be a part of it.  It basically covers the same ground and with the same level of verifiability.

GM proponents often use the terminology relating to genetic modification incorrectly to blur the line between genetic modification and conventional breeding.
This is more Fallacy Fallacy here.  And again, it could be a Straw Man if no one is actually doing this.  I'm still waiting for this paper to really start arguing about the risks vs. benefits of GMO products instead of arguing against how people marketing them or supporting them are presenting their case.
For example, the claim that conventional plant breeders have been “genetically modifying” crops for centuries by selective breeding and that GM crops are no different is incorrect (see 1.1). The term “genetic modification” is recognised in common usage and in national and international laws to refer to the use of recombinant DNA techniques to transfer genetic material between organisms in a way that would not take place naturally, bringing about alterations in genetic makeup and properties.
A quick search for people saying this actually does turn up examples, though none as damning as the paper implies.  The only unqualified example I found was on an online debate page, made by an anonymous user with no sources cited.  Not what I'd call the best example of a proponent of GMOs.  Most qualify that the method by which the natural gene flow is altered is very different between artificial selection and transgene techniques.  Natural breeding itself does change the genetic makeup of offspring through standard mutation rates and artificial selection and directed mating can alter the proliferation rates of those mutations.  The introduction of modern genetic modification, the qualified argument states, simply gives us the ability to generate or transfer the desired traits instead of waiting for nature to generate them semi-randomly through thousands or millions of deletions, insertions, duplications, etc.
The term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe marker-assisted selection (MAS). MAS is a largely uncontroversial branch of biotechnology that can speed up conventional breeding by identifying genes linked to important traits. MAS does not involve the risks and uncertainties of genetic modification and is supported by organic and sustainable agriculture groups worldwide.
I can find no one making that argument.  I find people repeating the claim in this paper, but once again I find no one actually using that argument.
Similarly, the term “genetic modification” is sometimes wrongly used to describe tissue culture, a method that is used to select desirable traits or to reproduce whole plants from plant cells in the laboratory. In fact, while genetic modification of plants as carried out today is dependent on the use of tissue culture (see 1.1), tissue culture is not dependent on GM. Tissue culture can be used for many purposes, independent of GM.
 And again I find no one making this claim, either.  Example after example of claims that the opposition is making an argument and the only thing I can find are people repeating that claim.  It gets harder to chalk it up to my failure to find the right Google search phrase instead of assuming that we're dealing with straw man arguments.
Using the term “biotechnology” to mean genetic modification is inaccurate. Biotechnology is an umbrella term that includes a variety of processes in which biological functions are harnessed for various purposes. For instance, fermentation, as used in wine-making and baking, marker assisted selection (MAS), and tissue culture, as well as genetic modification, are all biotechnologies. Agriculture itself is a biotechnology, as are commonly used agricultural methods such as the production of compost and silage.
If we used GM and say we used biotech, that isn't inaccurate.  They just said it themselves that biotechnology includes GM.  If I ate a cheeseburger, it isn't inaccurate to say I ate a sandwich.  It isn't specific, but it's not deceptive either or an attempt to confuse you about what I had for lunch.

After arguing that one side is using a term in a way not normally recognized by the public, they proceed to use a not widely used or recognized version of biotechnology that encompasses all of agriculture as well.  I doubt the average organic food proponent is going to claim their heirloom tomatoes are "developed using biotechnology".  This definition also fails to include bioinformatics and the various fields and products considered to be in the "biotech industry" that don't harness biological functions, but use artificial devices and procedures to study biology or to aid in manipulation of biological systems.
GM proponents’ misleading use of language may be due to unfamiliarity with the field – or may represent deliberate attempts to blur the lines between controversial and uncontroversial technologies in order to win public acceptance of GM.
Again I find very little in the way of examples that anyone is actually doing this.  The most readily available example of any muddying of terms involves the inclusion of agriculture under biotechnology when the layperson reading an article on biotechnology isn't going to lump their window sill herb garden in with transgenes, MAS, knockout genes, and the like even if at a technical level it is a correct use of the term.  I'm also ammused by the idea that proponents for GMOs are the ones not familiar with the field.  From the previous section's failure to acknowledge more recent versions of only selecting for cells in a tissue culture that contain the desired transgene, that seems to be a bit of projection.

It would be useful to have clearly defined terms for both sides to argue for or against.  However, I don't think that we have a clear example that anyone is actually doing this on the side of GMOs.

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