Why Certain Plants Are Considered Pests

Potatoes | Photo: alicehenneman/Flickr/Creative Commons License

When the Founding Fathers of America (your Benjamin Franklins, George Washingtons, John Hancocks, all those wig-wearing folks) sat down together back in the late 1700s to figure out how to create a long-term plan for prosperity, they had the foresight to think up a method to enact new laws. "Who knows what the world's going to be like in ten years, let alone one hundred," was the thought process, "so might as well have the ability to create new laws as we go along." Hence, the whole checks-and-balances system of legislature. The only problem is, while they figured out a way to make new laws, they forgot about the need to sometimes get rid of the old ones.

Sure, there's the ability to create a new law simply to reverse an old one. (The 21st Amendment repealing the nation's alcohol-banning 18th Amendment is the best example of that.) But you can't do that for every one of them. Which is why we have some very antiquated regulations lying around that still are technically laws: it's illegal to curse at a firefighter while doing his job in New Orleans, for men with mustaches to kiss women in Eureka, Nevada, and for atheists or duelists to hold elected office in the state of Tennessee. While most of these are cute and harmless, and simply aren't enforced anymore -- trust me, men with mustaches sure can kiss women in Eureka, Nevada -- there's a few oldies-but-not-so-goodies that are actually causing havoc on the current state of affairs. Specifically, regarding the chaotic process by which genetically-modified foods are regulated today.

Among the pesky legal conundrums currently troubling the GM food industry:

- Atlantic salmon that grow quickly due to a kickstart from a growth hormone are deemed "new animal drugs" because of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

- A cotton plant that makes insect-killing proteins is considered a pesticide because of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act of 1972.

- A whole bunch of genetically-modified crops are actually being considered "potential plant pests" because of the Federal Plant Pest Act of 1957.

Story continues below

As you'd imagine, this is all a big headache both for the scientists in the labs and the people trying to safeguard the public from Frankenstein-ish experiments gone awry. Instead of having one agency handle the various genetic alterations, the whole process seems to be out of a Kurt Vonnegut book, a landscape of agencies answering to other agencies answering to other agencies, with nothing really ever getting done. Then again, perhaps having a harsh, byzantine process to get through isn't all that terrible.

Take, for instance, this piece over at Boing Boing about efforts in the 1960s to create the perfect potato chip:

Instead of using the new GM method of getting inside of a food's DNA and messing with it, they went the old-fashioned route (although, I guess, back then it was considered more state-of-the-art) of cross-breeding to create the Lenape potato. And it was a perfect creation. When sliced and fried into a chip, it had the ideal taste, texture and color. Only problem was, it was toxic to humans.

The Lenape produced a poison called solanine -- something that all potatoes produce as part of their natural defense system to keep from getting eaten by predators -- but did so in such an over-the-top way that humans could not handle ingesting it. People started getting sick and, when they found that the heavy solanine production was simply part of the inherent structure of the Lenape and there was nothing to be done, the potato was no longer allowed to be bred.

While this story may seem a bit outside of the realm of current GM-tinkering, it offers a lesson to be used in today's food laboratories: All this tinkering changes things. That's the whole point of it after all. Sometimes the tinkering leads to a good result, sure. But sometimes, as in the case of the Lenape, it's not so good at all. Having a tough, byzantine process for the tinkered foods to get through -- a system of checks and balances, as it were -- might actually be a good thing.

Eat better by following KCET Food on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading