THE NEW BIOTECHNOLOGY'S CRAZED CRITICS
By HENRY MILLER
Foes of the new biotechnology -- using genetic modification ("GM"), or gene-splicing techniques, to alter existing organisms -- have for years raised fears that it would wreak havoc on the food we eat, creating toxic or allergenic crops. Their surmise may have a macabre twist: perhaps tainted food causes some of the irrational demand for over-regulation and even for complete elimination of food produced through GM.
The historical record of mass food poisoning in Europe provides a cautionary tale. From the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, Europe suffered a succession of epidemics caused by contamination of rye with ergot, a poisonous fungus. Exposure to the potent fungal toxin, ergotamine, caused hallucinations, bizarre behavior and violent muscle twitching. These symptoms gave rise at various times to the belief that victims were possessed.
Witch-hunting and persecution became commonplace -- and the New World was not immune. In the notorious 1692 Salem witch trials, three young girls suffered convulsive visions in which they saw the mark of the devil on certain women in the village. This led to the execution of perhaps twenty innocent people. One possible explanation for the young girls' behavior is that they consumed tainted rye; when the supply of infected grain ran out, the delusions and persecution likewise disappeared.
Scientific evidence that Europeans are now consuming ergot-contaminated grain is not yet in hand -- but their actions and rhetoric toward genetic modification are certainly suggestive. Critics of GM blithely skip over the science supporting the new biotechnology and go straight for the convulsive visions. One agitated critic recently characterized GM soybeans and the like as "a form of annihilation every bit as deadly as nuclear holocaust." Another has said that his organization's goal is the complete elimination of GM plants for food and fiber.
Indeed, across the Old World there has been widespread public and political opposition to GM products. This has included a huge outcry over importing gene-spliced maize and soybeans, the vandalizing of field trials, moratoria on large-scale cultivation of plants and even banishment of GM foods by major supermarket chains and food processors. Meanwhile, the British government declared this month that importing unapproved GM marigold plants or apple seeds would be a criminal offense.those critics simply won't address the scientific data on GM. In fact, GM is fundamentally an extension or refinement of the kind of genetic modification that has been carried out widely for centuries. It is safe, effective and extremely valuable to us all. Yes, there should be regulation of GM products when and where appropriate, but the degree of oversight must be commensurate with the risk. Certainly, there is no justification for the mindless over-regulation or even outlawing of GM that its critics seem to have in mind. These are points I have been making for years, but they have not been palatable to the community of GM critics.
The evidence in favor of GM is overwhelming. Let's start with precedents of plant breeding in the 1930s. Some seventy years ago, plant breeders were performing various hybridizations that moved genes from one species or one genus to another, transcending "normal" breeding boundaries. They did this by performing hybridizations of only distantly-related plants. None of the plants resulting from these so-called "wide crosses" existed in nature. They were "genetically modified" by any rational definition. So for decades now, European and American consumers have been eating genetic variants of, for instance, oats, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, wheat, corn, rice and even black currants. And those foods are subject to no special testing, labeling or government review.
But it's not just food. During the past half-century, genetic modification has been used with increasing sophistication in an astonishing variety of ways. For example, the capacity of the mold Penicillium chrysogenum to make penicillin has been increased more than 100-fold by various techniques. Other microorganisms have been selected and genetically enhanced for their ability to produce industrial detergents, antibiotics, organic solvents, vitamins, amino acids, polysaccharides, steroids and vaccines. As for beverages, beer drinkers might be interested to know that some of the most sophisticated genetic engineering of yeasts has been performed by Guinness, Bass and Kirin.
The more recent GM, known as gene-splicing -- the process of using molecular techniques to combine snippets of DNA from different organisms -- has refined older methods by enabling scientists, farmers and plant breeders to identify and transfer single genes encoding specific traits to improve a plant or organism. Earlier approaches involved a scattershot inclusion of new genes, often with the movement of whole chromosomes or even whole genomes; the new methods have scalpel-like precision, ensuring very safe, predictable results.
The most ubiquitous and important use of genetically modified organisms is the vaccination of human and animal populations. Live but genetically weakened viruses have been used for decades to prevent mumps, measles, rubella, poliomyelitis and yellow fever. A remarkably safe and effective gene-spliced hepatitis B vaccine introduced in 1986 has reduced the incidence of the debilitating liver disease by seventy percent.
So why are some people so opposed to a scientific process that has helped save and improve the lives of millions of people for decades? Perhaps it's the belief, which has been around for thousands of years, that new technology is inherently dangerous.
In earlier eras, for instance, techno-skeptics doubted the possibility of matching blood for transfusions. They also predicted electrocution from the first telephones and that Jenner's early attempts at smallpox vaccination would create monsters. And so today, they warn of Andromeda Strains and Jurassic Parks resulting from gene-spliced organisms. The media, eager enough for a story of technology run amok (bad news is always more interesting than good, it seems), publicize what to most of us in the scientific community amount to outlandish speculations and allegations.
But the fears raised about gene-spliced organisms are largely spurious. Gene-spliced plants are no more likely to transfer genes to weeds than are other crops or ornamental plants (flowers, etc.). Yes, small effects on organisms that interact with GM organisms are to be expected. For instance, with plants enhanced to resist pests or disease, there are sometimes small effects on organisms other than the primary target. But in addition to having minimal impact, consider the alternative: the use of broad-spectrum chemical pesticides that carry far more dangers to other plants, animals -- and us. This brings me to a broader point. Forgoing the benefits that GM can provide -- in food, drugs and many other products -- carries with it a far greater cost than using genetic modification.
What I find most surprising about the continued fear some people have of the new biotechnology is that most if not all of them are beneficiaries of GM, though many may not even realize it. Dozens of life-saving, gene-spliced drugs are in use around the world and are used by millions of patients daily. And in North America more than 60 per cent of all processed foods -- bread, salad dressing and ice cream, for example -- now contain byproducts of gene-spliced soybean or canola plants. But no one is dying of something akin to the Andromeda Strain.
I am not unaware of some of the ethical questions surrounding gene-splicing, but they are not fundamentally different from those that have attended other new therapies and technologies in the past. My concern is that unscientific, excessive regulation will stifle technological innovation that can give rise to improvements in food, drugs and other products.the safety and utility of GM, and to demand rational, scientific and risk-based public policy. But we should also check Europeans' grain for ergot. Their outlook on the new biotechnology might be different if only the hallucinations would stop.