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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Manipulating disgust

Breakfast on the run. 

A much hyped concern about biotech crops is that the effector proteins engineered in the plants could have unintended effects when consumed by people. For example, corn that is engineered to make the Bt protein requires much less pesticide since the Bt kills the larvae of certain insects, while remaining harmless to humans. This is so effective that the strategy is being explored to incorporate it in plants like eggplant (Bt Brinjal).

Putting aside this objection for the moment, this fallacious concern that the bioengineered proteins can be toxic to humans, the strenuous objection to processed items from biotech crops like sugar beets is far more difficult to sympathize with. That's because in this case, the consumer product in the end, sugar or crystalline sucrose, has been purified away from any direct gene product. Sugar beets are never consumed in their vegetal state, and after extraction, chemically speaking, sucrose is indistinguishable whether it comes from biotech or heritage sugar beets - or sugar cane, for that matter. In this case, the technology only serves to improve the efficiency of production. The same logic applies to canola oil, or corn oil - the protein products of bioengineering do not make their way to the consumer product.

Protests are even more specious when it involves genetically modified cotton, since that isn't even eaten!

All this illustrates is that the anti-biotech fervor is really not based on logic, but on emotion, and most effectively, on the manipulation of disgust. Disgust is a powerful response in human cultural perception, most notably because it has contamination properties. That is, if one can tie an object to a disgust response, then anything that object come in contact with inherits the same disgust response. I believe the technical term is "cooties". Marketing folks are adept at leveraging disgust responses, and the power of propaganda for manipulating disgust can change whole industries (the history of lard and hydrogenated vegetable fats, or that of lean finely textured protein should be textbook case studies for this). In this case, anti-biotech objectors are trying to tie the disgust response to the crops, but perhaps one would be better able to resist if one is aware of the manipulation.

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