Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

By Virginia B. Wood

AUGUST 9, 1999:  When Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1831, it was arguably the first techno-thriller, a true science horror story. The novel reflected the British public's discomfort with the fledgling science of experimental biology. They were horrified by the dissection of corpses and the vivisection of animals, even though those things were done in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. The novel's protagonist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, ultimately deals with the awful consequences of advancing scientific discovery when the malevolent result of his experiment wreaks havoc on his life.

For more than 150 years, Mary Shelley's Gothic novel has served as a cautionary tale about the potential dangers inherent in scientific discovery. Today, British and European consumers are raising the specter of Frankenstein in their battle against genetically engineered foods. According to environmental activists worldwide, including a growing community of environmentally aware American consumers, giant biotechnology companies are releasing an increasing number of Frankenstein's monsters into the world food supply. Some irate members of these groups would like to see the new "Frankenfoods" outlawed completely, while most others agree that a strict policy of labeling foods which are genetically engineered (GE) should be mandatory.

In response to public outcry, companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, Dow, and DuPont insist that genetic engineering is really no different from the long-practiced science of natural selection and crossbreeding. They categorically deny that GE foods offer any serious health risk to the public and complain that labeling or segregated storage of GE crops such as corn, soybeans, potatoes, or canola oil used in the preparation and manufacture of thousands of food items would place an undue financial burden on producers. When the EU voted to boycott American beef raised on growth hormones, American companies appealed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and recently won a ruling that branded the EU boycott as illegal. However, the battle over GE foods is far from over.


Understanding the Science

The science behind genetic engineering is so complex that even scientists disagree about the inherent dangers. The information about how any cell functions is encoded into single and distinct genes, certain segments of DNA with specific instructions for specific protein production. In front of each gene is a piece of DNA known as a promoter that regulates the operation of that specific gene. Breeding is the natural process of cell reproduction between members of the same species, where genes will always be surrounded by the same DNA unless mutations or accidents occur. Closely related species might be able to interbreed (a horse and a donkey) but would almost always produce infertile offspring, a natural safety device that prevents the mixing of genes. For the purpose of simplification, genetically engineered foods or genetically modified organisms (GMO) are foods that have had the genes and pieces of DNA from another species added to their genetic material. This biotechnological technique makes it possible to break the species barrier, shuffling genes between totally unrelated species, such as splicing a gene from a North Atlantic flounder into tomatoes or strawberries to increase their resistance to frost or adding a toxin lethal to some insect species to corn, cotton, or rape seed.

illustration by Lisa Kirpatrick

For the spliced genes to work in the new species, they must be introduced with a promoter that the original species will recognize. In the interest of speed, most genetic engineering of plants is done with viral promoters because they integrate their genetic material into the host cell very quickly. The drawback with viral promoters is that once they're spliced into the host plant, they can't be controlled or switched off. This can result in unpredictable side effects or pleiotropic effects such as salmon genetically engineered with a growth hormone gene growing too big too fast and also turning green, or genes for the color red placed in petunias causing decreased fertility and altered growth of roots and leaves.

This simplified explanation of genetic engineering technology is based on information researched and written by Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher for the Women's Environmental Trust (WEN), one of Britain's leading environmental charities. Dr. Steinbrecher contributed a chapter on the science of genetic engineering to Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology (New Society Publishers, $16.95 paper) by Canadian biotech expert Brewster Kneen.


Where Are the Regulations?

One of the true mysteries of this situation is how such unpredictable scientific results have been mainstreamed into the American food supply with almost no long-term studies to address the many concerns about GE foods. There are three government agencies responsible for overseeing genetic engineering technologies, and they each have very specific duties. It is the responsibility of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to determine whether or not GE foods are safe for humans and animals to eat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with the responsibility of evaluating whether altering a crop so that it produces its own pesticide is safe for both the environment and human consumption. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) checks to see if the plant grows the way the manufacturer says it will. However, at this point, it is not within the purview of any U.S. government agency to monitor the long-term effects of GE foods on people or the ecosystem.

illustration by Lisa Kirpatrick

In a weekly column called "Focus on the Corporation," Washington journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman reported that some public interest groups have sued the FDA, alleging the agency "violated federal law by allowing biotech foods onto the market without first adequately testing the foods for safety" or labeling them with necessary consumer information. The federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act incorporates the precautionary principle that a new food additive is presumed unsafe until it is established to be safe through standard scientific procedures. However, the FDA ruled in 1992 that genetically engineered foods are not new food additives. According to documents obtained during the discovery process of the lawsuit, this ruling was made over the objections of some FDA scientists who "warned that foods produced through recombinant DNA technology entail different risks than do their conventionally produced counterparts." The giant biotechnology firms (Monsanto, DuPont, et al) responsible for these products operate on the premise that genetic engineering is no different from the time-honored conventional selection and breeding processes, and the FDA seems to accept that explanation over the objections of many of their own scientific experts.

The danger here appears to be that the FDA (not unlike some other federal agencies) has long since forsaken its regulatory imperative and traded it in for a promotional role in speeding new products developed by giant agribusiness concerns onto the market. The formerly stringent review process necessary for new products has been replaced by a more congenial approval process. And though they disregard suggestions from their own scientists, FDA representatives consistently repeat the mantra that all decisions are based on "sound science." The upshot of this attitude change is that government agencies designed to regulate business and protect the public interest seem much more invested in product promotion and protecting the corporate sector from the public.


International Battlegrounds

United States agriculture and trade officials have been butting heads over the issue of genetically engineered foods with members of the international community for several years now. One of the most popular new tools used by U.S. officials to promote GE foods is the assertion that they are absolutely necessary to feed booming Third World populations in the new millennium. However, this emotional blackmail technique seems to have backfired on the FDA and the biotech firms when representatives of 20 African states published a statement denying that gene technologies are the answer to hunger in their countries. On the contrary, they stated their belief that it would "destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems ... and undermine our capacity to feed ourselves." After this statement became public knowledge, U.S. trade officials pressured European Union (EU) representatives to bring the African countries into the GE fold with no success.

The trade war erupting over the EU's 10-year ban on importing American beef that has been treated with growth hormones is another case in point. A majority of the beef cattle raised in the U.S. are treated with growth hormones, and Europe represents a large export market, so American officials appealed the ban to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has twice ruled the boycott to be illegal, but the EU refuses to lift the ban, citing the fear shared by many Europeans that there are possible links between growth hormones and cancer. Therefore, U.S. trade officials last week levied 100% tariffs on a large list of European gourmet items to penalize boycott supporters in France, Germany, Denmark, and Italy. English products escape the stiff tariffs because the English will import U.S. beef.

In response to the EU boycott of American hormone beef, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman appeared on ABC's World News Tonight, minimizing the concerns of European consumers by saying that European producers "simply refuse to modernize and don't have a reliable system of food regulation in place. They just don't have the same sophisticated mechanism to scientifically examine their food products and determine their safety that we do." Most U.S. government and business officials who are quoted regarding the EU beef boycott describe Europeans in condescending terms, using words like "hysterical, unsophisticated, or ignorant."


A Reasonable Voice

In the deluge of print and online information about the GE foods issue that have been generated recently, one of the most intelligent, well-reasoned responses has come from Charles, Prince of Wales. A lifelong environmentalist, the prince set up a discussion forum regarding genetically modified organisms on his Web site late last year to encourage wider public debate on what he considered an important issue and received more than 10,000 responses. In an op-ed piece written for the London Daily Mail on June 1, the prince raised several important questions about the value of genetic engineering technology to the people of Britain at the very same time Prime Minister Tony Blair's government was attempting to calm the public's fears about GE crops and foods.

illustration by Lisa Kirpatrick

The article decries the release of so many GE crops onto the world market before they were subjected to adequate scientific testing to determine the long-term behavior of the plants. It also raises legitimate concerns about why rules for the approval of GE foods are so much less stringent than those for the approval of new medicines using the same genetic engineering technology. The Prince of Wales points out that most of the benefits of GE technology accrue to the corporations who invented it and large corporate farming operations and wonders how hundreds of thousands of acres of genetically modified corn could be grown in the U.S. before it was known that the corn pollen would be toxic to monarch butterflies. Was the potential destruction of monarchs deemed an acceptable risk by the manufacturer of Bt corn, and if so, how many more negative environmental surprises can we expect from these transgenic crops?

Regarding the new claims that GE crops are the only way to feed the Third World's burgeoning population, Prince Charles raises the issue of whether or not there is any serious research to substantiate that grandiose claim and cites the rejection of GE technology by the leaders of 20 African countries. He also poses a very worthwhile question, namely "how much more could be achieved if all the research funds currently devoted to fashionable GM techniques (billions per year) were applied to improving methods of agriculture which have stood the test of time?"

In the conclusion to his "thought piece," the prince encourages the public to consider just what kind of a world they want to inhabit and pass on to their children, one that allows "the industrialization of life itself, redesigning the natural world" for the sake of convenience and corporate profit, or a world that adopts a "more considered approach ... making better, more sustainable use of what we have, for the long-term benefit of mankind as a whole."

Such an enlightened and reasoned approach to this contentious issue is encouraging: A respected environmentalist with no profit motive makes a compelling argument against potential Frankenstein's monsters in our food supply, in contrast to corporate biotech profiteers promoting science and technology as mankind's only savior. Consumer concerns about tampering with the balance of nature are legitimate and should be voiced repeatedly until governments and the businesses they support begin to listen.


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