Weird Science

The debate over genetically modified foods


As scientific progress marches on, global attention has turned to GMOs. In the world of agribusiness, GMOs--"genetically modified organisms"--are very much at issue. The perception of GMOs as "Frankenfood" (as they are often called) is prevalent, but what's the perception based on?

It's common knowledge that agriculture has always sought to isolate desirable traits through selective breeding--farming itself cultivates one kind of vegetation to the exclusion of others. GM science is on this continuum, isolating and introducing new traits through manipulation at the genetic level. The United States is on the GM forefront, with agribusiness researchers operating locally; the University of Idaho has a biotechnology program and GM vegetables are produced here in the valley.

GMOs in our market are ubiquitous, and this may well be because in the United States, GM foods are not required to be labeled. At least, not exactly. There are three agencies governing agricultural biotechnology in the United States: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and according to the latter, a food's mode of production isn't sufficient reason for labeling. To require labeling, food must be "substantially altered"--containing DNA from common allergens (like peanuts or wheat), for example, or having some nutritional difference. For opponents, this isn't good enough.

The rest of the world is leery of GMOs, with regulations to prove it. Some countries have bans on the import of GMOs, although some, like Japan, have had to relax these restrictions. (A high percentage of soybeans are GM, and their ban for Japan would mean a critical shortage.) In the United States, calls for regulations and bans are catching up with the rest of the world, as biotechnology becomes increasingly politicized. For years, GM foods have faced stiff resistance overseas and recently GMOs have become hot-button issue domestically, with growing opposition.

Case in point: Bt corn (Bt meaning Bacillus thuringiensis, a common organic pesticide; the Bt gene is inserted into plants for insect-resistance). Bt corn is bred to kill the corn borer, an insect causing millions of dollars in damage to crops annually. Concern arose when it was known that Bt pollen could settle onto any nearby milkweed, the food of choice for monarch butterflies, inadvertently killing monarch caterpillars. Lab tests revealed that Bt corn pollen killed a very high percentage of monarchs in the experiment. These results, however, were inconclusive. In the experiment the monarchs were exposed to incredibly concentrated amounts of pollen, not reflective of the real-world situation; the experiment also failed to account for the limited time overlap when corn pollen is out and monarchs are in larva stage. The experiment's variables weren't subsequently adjusted to get a more accurate impact assessment. Another concern is that gene manipulation might inadvertently introduce allergens into GM foods. Researchers labor to eliminate the risk, and FDA regulations require labeling when genes from common allergens are bred into other veggies. Yet this very difficulty has also arisen with non-GM potatoes and celery; the problem is breeding in general, not GM technology.

If science hasn't exposed GMOs as unsafe, a specter of fear still shadows the technology. What if they unknowingly breed in allergens? What if they inadvertently cause superweeds with Bt and antibiotic-resistant genes? What if GM yields some calamity we haven't yet imagined? The question is evident in the following passage from Jeffrey Smith's recent book, Seeds of Deception: "A letter from the British Government's Joint Food Safety and Standards Group to the U.S. FDA discusses the dangers of gene transfer via inhaled pollen. Although there is no research verifying this, if it were true, it might not only pose a risk for farm workers but also for the general public ..." Similarly, the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) states, "Although there is no proof that food already on the market that containing genetically engineered products are harmful, this does not mean they are safe ..." On the other hand, in 1972, the pesticide DDT was banned because of purported detrimental effects on bird populations and possibly humans. It's now known that the claim is dubious. Yet in developing countries where malaria is epidemic, DDT isn't used to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes because people still fear DDT's dangers.

Opponents have other concerns than health. Some critics on the right object to GMOs on the grounds that science has no right to play God (a common refrain on birth control and stem cell research as well). Others cite GM's potential effect on global agriculture and matters environmental--as with GM modification by inclusion of a so-called "terminator gene" which renders the plant sterile. Locally, a seed company's geneticist states that their practice is to use the terminator extensively as product protection, and in all seed for export to certain countries (like China, whose policy is to pirate seed). GMO opponents cry foul--agribusiness hail GMOs as the solution to world hunger while preventing farmers from saving seed back for future sowing. Breeders, on the other hand, say that it's business, that GM crops are products of years of research and development, trial and error, at cost of millions. Monsanto and other seed companies can't afford to essentially give their product away.

On multiple grounds, environmental, farm-advocacy and other watchdogs demand labeling legislation for GMOs, if not total bans. Protests and boycotts have proven effective in forcing the issue, perhaps not governmentally, but with seed companies themselves. Recently, Monsanto bowed to several years' pressure from grassroots protest organized by WORC, halting development of its "Roundup Ready" wheat. WORC, citing local and global pressure, sent a message: we don't want to buy or sell GM wheat. The Seminis research station in our valley moved its GM research out of Idaho several years back to avoid the controversy.

The GMO debate has extended beyond politics, and at times, the economic and ethical stakes have become high. Seminis researchers working in South America have been killed for their work by eco-terrorists. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) caused several million dollars' worth of damage at the University of Washington when it bombed the offices of a plant geneticist. Eco-extremists have destroyed thousands of dollars in crops and equipment, including targets in Idaho--uprooting GM pea plants at a research station in Filer, as well as causing extensive property damage when the ELF twice targeted the biotechnology program at the University of Idaho.

Ever contentious, GMOs are often discussed on either side in loaded language gauged to deliver an emotional, rather than factual, wallop. The ongoing debate seems to have less to do with what is safe and fair, and more with how GMOs are perceived and how people feel about them.