Chinese to Feed (or Poison?) Millions with Space-Irradiated Seeds

Tomatoes as big as basketballs? One-hundred-pound pumpkins?

The Chinese have found a way to make these prodigious vegetables a reality. They are irradiating seeds during space flights, selecting the most promising ones, and then breeding them over three generations to arrive at what can only be called "superfood."

Irradiating seeds isn’t new. As early as 1995, President Eisenhower’s campaign, "Atoms for Peace," led to a University of Virginia study on mutant breeding, proving that irradiating corn seeds almost doubled the rate of mutations, occasionally leading to improved characteristics in corn’s size, growth rate and ability to take up nutrients from soil.

A recent article declares scientists aren’t sure how irradiation works. In fact, they are very sure. Radiation alters gene expression in the cell. Not all radiation is bad; early hominid evolution may have occurred as a result of radiation (from space). This led to mechanisms that enhanced the accuracy of DNA, providing a phenotype with a larger brain capacity and the ability to speak, not to mention a desire to come down from the trees. This process is known as adaptive radiation.

The pragmatic and hungry Chinese have shunted explanation and are pursuing superfood on a national scale. Some of their scientists insist that some of these superfoods are better than the original, providing more flavor, vitamin C and trace elements. Yields of space rice are reported 25 percent higher. Some space breeds are even less water-intensive, a development that could prove beneficial in a warming, drying world. Overall, the 50 new Chinese species of plants have spurred scientists to target a goal of more than 200 new species in the next few decades.

Elsewhere, at the University of Helsinki, these radiation techniques are being used to produce larger cassava, a type of sweet potato. Cassava provides low nutrition values but a lot of carbohydrates, making them a focus for future biofuel production. They also require little water, and can be grown on marginal soil. Unfortunately, cassava is also a staple food in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, and crop withdrawals for biofuels are likely to increase the global hunger epidemic.

That, and the possibility that irradiated crops may prove a silent but lethal weapon in the future, is precisely what concerns environmentalists. These Chinese superfoods are the next generation in genetically modified foods (GMs), and present both known and unknown risks. Known risks include food allergies, genetic pollution or even extinction of natural strains, and the consequent damage to beneficial insects. Unknown risks include cancer, pesticide-resistant food crops due to the evolution of new insects and bacteria, new toxins and poisons as a result of GM engineering, and the possibility that 10th or 20th generation plants may become antithetical to the human genome itself (not to mention all the genomes in nature).

Of greater concern, at least to me, is the process of using radiation to alter the nature of soil microbes in biofertilizer. Originally biofertilizer was sewage sludge, for example, that had been highly irradiated to remove dangerous soil organisms before it was used on crops. This process also, and unfortunately, removes all the beneficial organisms as well, including the ones needed for plant water absorption, carbohydrate consumption and photosynthesis. Scientists are now using radiation, or ion beam breeding, not to remove but to alter the nature of these organisms. This sounds like a singularly bad idea. A step down from manimals, perhaps, but clearly one step up from plant genetics. Plants aren’t likely to turn around and eat us. These mutant soil organisms might.

In nature, these mutations had hundreds of generations to evolve and develop synergy with one another, the earth, and human, when we finally arrived. In the hands of scientists, this process is a hasty and poorly thought-out attempt to fix the problem of global hunger. Starvation is undoubtedly a global concern, but if the earth’s biosphere won’t still be intact by the next millenium, why bother addressing it at all?

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any biotech company.

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