This recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides evidence that people have been doing selective breeding of plants–using evolutionary concepts of selection–as early as 10,000 years ago. This work continues today.

However, I post this research here with a warning. Industrial agriculture’s biotech wing will undoubtedly use this at some point to blow smoke on the issues surrounding genetically engineered crops. A pet peeve of mine about biotech agriculture is how it is not up-front about the issues. One of its alternative strategies is to use verbal trickery to discount the issues by lumping what they do with the traditional selective breeding that has gone on –as this article illustrates–for thousands of years. They do this using the term “genetically modified.”

There are a number of terms used to describe modern, high-tech genetic manipulation: genetic modification, genetic engineering and transgenic. While commonly used in a technical sense to mean the same as the other two terms, genetic modification can also be used in a non-technical sense to mean any human activity that manipulates an organisms genes. This includes, of course, traditional methods of selective breeding and cross-breeding of closely related organisms. By lumping modern techniques that insert genes from totally unrelated organisms with traditional methods, biotech agriculture is trying to make people think they are the same process. They are not.

So, when I talk or write about modern methods, I prefer to use the term genetic engineering. This clearly gets the point across that this is a modern, high-tech method that differs from traditional methods. Although I don’t use the term transgenic because it requires more explanation to a non-technical audience, it means the same thing.

My advice: Keep an eye out for arguments made by proponents of genetic engineering. Somewhere along the way, they will probably use the term genetic modification. When they do, they are also likely to make a claim like “People have practiced genetic modification techniques for thousands of years. We wouldn’t have today’s foods if we didn’t have genetic modification.” Recognize that they are using the term in a non-technical way to lull you into believing it is a benign process similar to traditional methods. It is not.

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