Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Do bees know something about genetically modified foods that we don’t?

Posted by metaphorical on 15 January 2007

It’s hard to know what to make of this, but a recent study is leading some environmentalists to argue that wild bees shy away from the genetically modified version of rapeseed.

The study, initially published by the Ecological Society of America before being picked up in Italy, looked at pollination and the response of wild bees to organic, conventional and GM rapeseed crops.

It measured the abundance of bees and the pollination deficit, which is the difference between potential and actual pollination.

The results showed no pollination deficit in organic fields, a slight pollination deficit in conventional fields and a high pollination deficit in GM fields.

Likewise, bees were most abundant in organic fields and least so in GM fields.

The problem with GM food is, to quote the noted epistemologist Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns.

Testing of GM foods is not done by the government, nor is it done by the order of the government. Rather it is done voluntarily. As Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, notes,

The FDA urges companies to conduct allergenicity studies when a gene is transferred from a plant known to be commonly allergenic (or when a novel protein is introduced). Thus, thanks to premarket testing, a company found that a Brazil-nut gene that it had added to soybeans encoded a known allergen. The company did not market the product.2 Importantly, the allergen was identified only because it was known and could be tested for. An allergen newly introduced into the food supply (say, from a bacterium) would be difficult to identify.

The pollinating bee test seems, at least in hindsight, to be a rather obvious precaution. Even leaving aside what it may or may not mean as far as the healthfulness of GM rapeseed, do farmers want to grow a crop that doesn’t pollinate well? (Or is this one of those crops that farmers will now have to buy seed for every year anyway?)

The unknown-unknowns problem affects what we might call the language of genetically modified foods as well. Should GM foods be required to be labeled as such? Those who oppose such regulations seem to have a hard argument to make. They can’t claim that the differences between GM foods and their non-GM equivalents are negligible if we don’t know what the differences are. Once we admit the likelihood of unknown unknowns, isn’t the best course to label GM goods as they show up in stores?

Opponents of labeling argue that it scares off customers who don’t know any better. On the contrary, it gives information to cautious customers who want to wait until the unknown unknowns are resolved in some way.


One Response to “Do bees know something about genetically modified foods that we don’t?”

  1. Dale Bailey said

    Sniffer bees set to snare suicide bombers
    By BARRY WIGMORE – 29th November 2006

    Sniffer bees with a nose for explosives are set to make a major breakthrough in the war on terror.

    An extraordinary invention by a small British company is being praised by American scientists who have been testing it.

    Researchers at Inscentinel Ltd, which has just three employees at its Harpenden, Herts, HQ, have developed an amazing “sniffer box” to harness the bees’ incredible sense of smell.

    Now Inscentinel is set to cash in when its box full of computer technology that turns honeybees into bomb detectors goes into mass production.

    Bee sniffer squads could be on duty at airports, train stations and other terror targets within a year, say the scientists. Los Alamos sniffer squad trainer Tim Haartman, an entomologist – insect specialist – at the lab, said: “The technology is there. It’s just a case of putting it into production.”

    A honeybee finds explosives by doing what comes naturally. He pokes out his proboscis – the trunk-like feeding organ with which he sucks in food – when he smells something he likes.


    NOTE: This comment was edited on 9 March 2007 to delete all but the first few paragaphs of the article quoted and to include the link to it. –Ed.

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