Make your own free website on Tripod.com

A Report on Genetically Engineered Crops

Copyright June 2001
Revised January 2008
Charles M. Rader

This report is about two closely related subjects. One subject is the considerations for and against genetic engineering of our food. This part of the report will quickly reveal my personal bias in favor of engineering, but I have tried to fairly represent the problems as well as the benefits.

The other topic is more important. Genetic engineering gets to the very core of how life works and people are inclined to have very strong feelings about it. Because the public knows so very little about science, some opponents of transgenic agriculture have been able to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion. As Donna Shalala told a group of scientists, speaking about genetic engineering, ``My concern is if we don't have a broadly educated public ... that charlatans out there will be able to play on public fears.''

Exactly that has happened. Almost everything the general public has been told about genetic engineering of food has originated in the deceptive presentations by skilled propagandists.

Although the science behind genetic engineering is very complex, it is not so difficult for laymen to make reasonable choices with only very basic information.

That doesn't mean that people who possess the same scientific understanding would necessarily make the same choices. Different people have different values. Nothing in this report is meant to demean anyone's value system. I hope to change some minds by presenting accurate information.

This report is a virtual book. I've used hyperlinks in place of footnotes and I've left out most scholarly references. I've tried to make the main flow of the report logical, but since that can be tedious, I recommend following most of the hyperlinks, some of which contain material that's interesting but not vital to the flow. Links which point to a short text will open in a new window, which you may close or move out of the way. Other links open a new page in the main window and you can return to the main text by clicking on ``back''. There's also a clickable table of contents.

I would certainly welcome your comments at charlesmrader@verizon.net .

to top

Introduction to Genetic Engineering

Probably the most important scientific event of the 20th century was the 1953 discovery, by James Watson and Francis Crick, of the structure of the DNA molecule which is the basis of heredity. Darwin had shown how species might have changed over eons by slow, random natural processes. Watson and Crick gave us the key to moving evolution along much faster, to suit our own purposes. (Whether the biological world is governed by God's plan or Darwin's is a matter which continues to divide people, but nothing in this report should require you to change your own view!)

A DNA molecule is like a string of letters, using a four letter alphabet, easily copied when living cells reproduce. The sequences of letters make sentences, which we call genes. These sentences are the instructions for making and operating a living cell. There are two kinds of sequences. One kind of gene gives a cell the necessary instructions for making one of the various kinds of protein, used for structures, enzymes, signals, all the basic mechanisms of life. The other kind of sequence is used as a control mechanism so that a cell can tell when to make which proteins and when to do something else.

By 1966, scientists had learned the language of protein-making gene sequences. This language is the same for all forms of life. That means that a human gene sentence for making insulin, a kind of protein, could be transferred to, say, a yeast cell, and then the yeast cell could equally well make human insulin.

The other gene sequences, the control sequences, are like switches that turn other genes on or off. A control sequence could have different results in different organisms, just as an electrical switch can produce a different result in a car or in an oil burner. In particular, it could control a completely different protein-making gene. Some control genes are used to turn another gene on, and others are used to turn another gene off, and some control genes turn other control genes on or off.

In a simple case, suppose a cell needs protein A, but not too much. If the gene that tells the cell to make protein A is turned on, eventually the control gene will sense that there is lots of protein A available, so it will turn off the protein making gene. Later when the supply of protein A has diminished, the control gene will relent and let the protein making gene turn back on.

There are more complicated control arrangements. For example, the gene which makes insulin is turned on in pancreas cells but not in liver cells.

To understand the connection between a gene and its function requires lots of scientific work, enough to keep biologists busy for a very long time. Even in the simplest cases, one first needs to know what sequence of letters make up the protein-making gene, and what sequences make up the control genes which turn it on or off, as well as where they are situated on the chromosome; one needs to know what signals activate the control genes; then one needs to know the chemical reactions in which the protein molecule takes part, and finally one needs to know how those chemical reactions relate to some activity of the cell. Each different organism has tens of thousands of different genes and makes a huge number of proteins. Life is enormously complex.

Slowly but surely, more and more secrets of living things are being uncovered. Hundreds of genes are now understood completely. There are many more genes which have been discovered and associated with some function, but not yet understood very well.

It is now possible to transfer a gene from the DNA of one species to the DNA of another species. For cases in which scientists know exactly what a gene does and exactly how it does it, it is now possible to express that function in another species. That is genetic engineering.

There are practical applications of this knowledge. The first practical applications were in medicine, using genetically modified bacteria to make medical drugs such as interferon, human growth hormone and human insulin. The second kind of application was to modify organisms for agricultural purposes. It is this second application that will occupy us now.

to top

Some Early Fruits of Transgenic Agriculture

Let's see what some of these agricultural applications have been and what they might be in the future.

to top

Rice with Vitamin A

RICE PADDY Rice does not contain very much vitamin A. In the poorer parts of Asia, where rice is almost the only food of the rural population, a vitamin A deficiency is common, leading to early blindness. Now Drs. Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, two genetic engineers, have transferred the genes for vitamin A from other species into rice, creating a strain of rice which is rich in vitamin A -- the amount of rice in a typical third world diet could provide about fifteen percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, sufficient to prevent blindness. Now that a few plants with this trait have been created, they are being cross bred with other varieties of rice using conventional breeding techniques, as has been done for centuries. Such cross breeding could further increase the vitamin A content.

The development of rice with vitamin A was carried out at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, making free use of patented technology and of the earlier research which had established the basic facts about how plants synthesize vitamins. The corporations holding the various patents all agreed to cost-free use of their patents as long as the rice was to be provided free to poor third-world farmers. The new rice strain was then turned over to the International Rice Research Institute, a non-profit organization based in the Philippines, where it will be evaluated for its adaptability to various growing conditions, food safety, and environmental impacts, etc. The IRRI preserves thousands of varieties of rice with different genetic characteristics, so the new strain can be cross bred to produce varieties suitable for almost any locality.

The result is that rural Asians can soon expect to retain normal eyesight.

Genetic engineers also intend to produce a rice variety rich in iron, because iron-deficiency anemia is a common problem in the same rural populations. But this is a more difficult problem than increasing rice's vitamin A content. Rice contains a substance called phytate. Phytate prevents the body from absorbing iron, so it does little good to breed for increased iron content, and the rice plant cannot reproduce without adequate phytate in the grains. Dr. Potrykus hopes to be able to find a gene coding for a protein that will break down phytate when the rice is cooked.

to top

No-till Agriculture

The world's biggest environmental problem is loss of topsoil to wind and drainage. The US experienced its dust bowl during the early part of the 20th century as a result of ploughing up the prairie. The problem is much worse in tropical soils, which may have a thin, inches thin, layer of topsoil above a type of soil which, when ploughed, turns into a non-porous concrete-like substance. One field, one crop, once. The problem, both in the prairie and in the tropics, is deep ploughing, which kills weeds which would otherwise crowd out the desired crop. The solution is called low-till agriculture. The soil is broken up but not deeply ploughed. Weeds are killed instead by herbicides. A herbicide of choice should be cheap, quickly biodegradable and non-toxic. An excellent choice is a chemical called glyphosate, except that glyphosate kills the crops as well as the weeds. So genetic engineers found a gene which lets plants tolerate glyphosate, and transferred it into soybeans. Today, 63% of the soybeans grown in the US are glyphosate tolerant, allowing soil saving no-till agriculture on half the US soybean acreage.

There is another advantage to no-till agriculture. There are lots of plant residues beneath the ground, both root systems and humus transported by earthworms. Ploughing brings this material to the surface, where it can oxidize. Carbon dioxide is created, a greenhouse gas. So transgenic soybeans are a positive factor in postponing global warming. Approximately four tons of carbon dioxide are retained in the soil per acre per year. This saving is applicable to the accounting of CO2 reductions in the Kyoto Treaty on Climate.

In fact, any technology which reduces the need to plough, spray, or till crops will reduce carbon dioxide emission. Consider a tractor pulling a ten foot wide harrow over a square mile of agricultural land. Simple arithmetic shows that the tractor will travel 528 miles, all the while burning gasoline.

Perhaps you are thinking that even if ploughing has disadvantages, herbicides don't sound very good either. The very word means ``plant killer''. But that is not the choice. Traditional soybeans are also grown using herbicides, most of which are far more toxic than glyphosate. On the average, the transgenic soybeans actually use 30% less total herbicide than conventional soybeans. So environmentally, this is a no-brainer.

to top

Witchweed Control

Farmers in east Africa are plagued by a devastating parasitic weed called Striga, or witchweed.

Farmers are used to dealing with weeds that grow in the soil alongside the crop and compete for nutrients. From time immemorial, they have dealt with those weeds by pulling them up by hand. Less labor intensive methods like spraying and ploughing are now common. But none of these methods work for the witchweed. Striga attacks plants directly, underground, even before the weed has emerged above the soil surface. It sucks nutrients from the seeds and the roots of the crop. In some parts of Africa, the striga parasite destroys as much as 80% of the crop yield.

But now that a herbicide resistance trait can be transferred to a crop, scientists in Israel and Kenya, working together, have demonstrated a new strategy for striga control. Before planting the crop, they soak its seeds in a herbicide. The seeds are unharmed, but they become poisonous to the striga parasite. The seed germinates and sprouts without interference. By the time the crop is harvested, the herbicide has decomposed and disappeared.

Their demonstration used herbicide resistant transgenic corn. The same strategy would probably work with Africa's other important grains, sorghum and millet.

Soaking seeds would use far less herbicide than spraying it on the ground, and the complex spraying apparatus would not be needed. This is a significant consideration in Africa, where so many farmers are too poor to own expensive equipment.

to top

Cheese chymosin from yeasts

WINE BREAD AND CHEESE

Hard cheeses are made from whole milk by adding an enzyme called chymosin (rennet), which was formerly extracted from the stomachs of calves, a byproduct of veal. The gene for making chymosin was transferred from cows to yeast. Yeast can be grown in vats, as any brewer knows. Although many people consider it wrong to slaughter calves, yeasts have few defenders. Besides, chymosin from yeast is cheaper and purer than chymosin from calves. So today, almost all hard cheese (over 90%) is made from chymosin produced by genetic engineered yeast.

The poet Omar Khayyam wished for a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness. He owed two of his three pleasures to the working of yeasts. Today he would also be indebted to yeasts for a piece of cheese.

to top

Cotton without Insecticides

Cotton farmers are plagued by various insect pests, such as the boll budworm, the tobacco budworm, and the pink bollworm. In the US south, where most of our cotton is raised, these insects were controlled using chemical insecticides. But there is a natural insecticide which has been used for almost a century by organic farmers, a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt for short. The bacterium produces a toxin which is deadly to caterpillars like the three mentioned above, but harmless to almost everything else (except insects of the order lepidoptera, butterflies and moths -- even the legendary boll weevil (Anthromonus grandis) is not harmed by the Bt toxin). So genetic engineers transferred the gene for Bt toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis to cotton. Then the cotton plants, which could make Bt toxin, were cross bred with other varieties in the old fashioned way. Today, much of the US cotton crop is genetic engineered for the Bt toxin trait. The use of chemical insecticides in the cotton belt has declined dramatically, by over a million liters per year. Since the Bt toxin is inside the plant instead of sprayed onto the plant, the only insects which it can harm are those which eat the plant.

The benefit of reduced spraying of cotton is overwhelming. The cotton pesticides replaced are extremely damaging to the environment. They not only kill all insects in a cotton field, harmless or not, but also nearly anything else in the field, thus depriving insectivorous birds of their food. There is no way to keep these pesticides from getting into streams and rivers, where they are a serious hazard to aquatic life. We may think of cotton as a natural material, therefore environmentally friendly, but before there was Bt protected cotton, that was just wrong.

The gene for Bt toxin has been transferred into several other crops, including potatoes and corn. Approximately 30% of US corn is now transgenic, and the most popular transgenic varieties contain the Bt gene. Although we call it a toxin, to humans and other mammals and birds it's just a nutrient.

The principal potato pests are not caterpillars, but beetles, and the Bt toxin that protects cotton and corn doesn't harm beetles. But there is another Bt toxin found in another variety of Bacillus thuringiensis which is deadly to beetles. The gene for that toxin was used in potatoes.

Biotechnology also has overzealous advocates who exploit consumers' fears about pesticides. Except in the case of serious accidents, there's little to worry about. Our bodies deal with many toxic substances in many foods, and as long as the amounts are small enough they give us no problems. The toxic load of pesticide residues on food is completely negligible in comparison with the toxins naturally present.

But as they are applied in the field, these agricultural pesticides are seriously hazardous. Each year many farm workers are poisoned by exposure to pesticides and farmers have nightmares about their children or pets being injured by playing near pesticides. Pesticides can also harm wild birds and small animals, and when they get into waterways they can kill fish and other aquatic life. The Bt transgenic plants reduce or eliminate this danger.

to top

Slow Ripening Fruits

There are many fruits which ripen after picking. After they reach optimum ripeness, they begin to deteriorate. This is necessary for the life cycle of the plant, which relies on the sweet and pulpy parts to nourish the seeds. A ripe fruit literally digests itself.

When this process is rapid, it effectively means that the fruit cannot be enjoyed out of season, or far from its growing area. For example, there is a popular Malaysian papaya variety which is unavailable outside Southeast Asia because it ripens so rapidly that it cannot be shipped very far. But it is quite easy to genetically engineer a fruit so that it does not ripen so rapidly. It doesn't even require a gene from another organism. Instead, a gene involved in the ripening process is copied with the message in reverse order. So now that plant has two genes with mirror image structure.

The way an organism uses the information in a gene to make a protein involves copying the gene (DNA) onto a messenger molecule, known as messenger RNA. The modified plant copies both the original gene and the mirror image gene to produce both types of messenger RNA. But since these messenger RNAs are exact complements of one another, they can wrap about one another just like the two strands of DNA, effectively blocking both messages. This means that the plant makes very little of the enzyme that causes ripening. This genetic engineering trick is called ``antisense technology''.

The Malaysian papaya was transformed in this way and therefore a slow ripening variety will soon be available.

The very first genetic engineered plant to be commercially developed as a whole food was a slow ripening tomato, called FlavR Savr. It was developed by Calgene, Inc. Because it could remain on store shelves for a long time, it could be left on the tomato plant until optimally ripe, and therefore the FlavR Savr tomatoes sold for a premium compared to other tomatoes. Although consumers initially liked Calgene's tomatoes, they didn't ship well and the variety was eventually dropped.

to top

Controlled Ripening

A coffee bush ripens a few coffee beans each day for many months. The best quality beans must be picked just after ripening, so picking coffee beans is very labor intensive. It would obviously be preferable if the beans would all get ripe at the same time.

Genetic engineering will make this possible. There is a coffee gene which turns on to initiate the last stage of ripening. Scientists modified a control gene so that the ripening gene does not turn on until the plant is sprayed with a triggering substance (patented and sold by the company that developed the coffee variety). Therefore all the beans on a bush reach the same not quite ripe stage and stop to wait for the triggering signal. The farmer decides when to spray the bush so it can be picked completely clean a few days later.

This can substantially improve the life of the small farmer. He can take a short vacation without losing part of his livelihood. He can work fewer hours per day, or he can pick all his crop in a few days and increase his income by working at another job. A large scale farmer would need fewer workers to pick the same quantity of coffee beans, and could afford to pay them a higher wage.

The control of when a crop is harvested would be valuable for other crops besides coffee. For example, the quality of grapes declines rapidly after they reach their optimum sugar content. Grape farmers now have to mobilize every available hand to harvest all their crop in a very short time. Their lives would be simpler if they could spread the harvest effort over a few weeks instead of a few days.

Large scale crops are harvested with special equipment. A farmer would not need to own a combine if he could rent it for the few days it was needed. But that wouldn't work if his neighbor needed to rent it for those same few days. If neighboring farmers could control when their crops become ready for harvest, they could share scarce and expensive equipment.

to top

Saving the Banana

Wild bananas have seeds. They reproduce sexually, like beans and oak trees. But they aren't easy to eat. Bananas grown on plantations have no seeds. They are reproduced by taking cuttings from older banana plants.

Cultivated bananas are seedless because they have three of each type of chromosome instead of the normal two of each type. Such plants are called ``triploid''. They are always sterile. Genetic triploid freaks arise from time to time in nature, but modern breeders can also use chemicals or electric shocks to create triploid mutant cells.

Bananas have been cultivated for many thousands of years and there are about three hundred different banana varieties. Each variety was developed by crossbreeding wild bananas. Whenever a promising variety was been produced, the breeder caused it to be triploid, hence seedless. That plant was cloned by propagating cuttings, and it became the parent of its variety. All bananas plants of the same variety are genetically identical, like identical twins.

BANANA

Of the three hundred varieties, only one single variety completely dominates international trade. It is called Cavendish. It is possible that you have never seen a banana other than a Cavendish banana.

Certain kinds of fungus can infect and kill banana plants. In many parts of the world, Cavendish banana plants are being attacked by a fungus called black Sigatoka. Since wild bananas can reproduce sexually, they are not all identical and some wild bananas can resist black Sigatoka. If the black Sigatoka fungus is present in a region, the resistant banana types become prevalent. But the Cavendish banana plants have no resistance. They are all identical so they all die.

To grow bananas commercially, growers must spray their plants with fungicides. Year after year, the black Sigatoka fungus has been evolving resistance to these fungicides, so growers have to spray more and more fungicide each year. Approximately one third of the cost of raising a banana is the cost of spraying it with fungicides, and it gets more and more costly each year.

A form of black Sigatoka banana disease, now spreading around the world, can tolerate all known fungicides. Soon it will attack bananas in Central America and the Carribean islands, the heartland of banana culture. The Cavendish banana will become virtually extinct. Agronomists estimate that this will happen within ten years.

This is not a fairy tale. It has happened before. Forty years ago, the most popular variety of banana was one called Gros Michel. But Gros Michel was susceptible to a fungus called ``race 1 Panama disease''. Now it is gone. Cavendish bananas, which are not susceptible to race 1 Panama disease, replaced them. (A related fungus, race 4 Panama disease, can infect Cavendish banana plants. At present it is only found in Malaysia and some nearby countries.) In turn, some other variety of banana could replace the Cavendish. It would look different and taste different but it would still be a banana.

There is only one practical way to save the Cavendish banana. It must be given some combination of genes from wild bananas which are not susceptible to the fungus. But this can't be done by any natural technique.

Cross-breeding can create other banana varieties because wild bananas reproduce sexually. But Cavendish bananas reproduce only by cloning. Conventional breeding would have to rely on rare mutated Cavendish banana plants which can produce seeds and which can therefore be crossbred, in theory. Even the mutated plants produce only a tiny number of viable seeds, as few as two or three seeds in a hundred pounds of bananas. No banana breeding experts think that they can breed fungus resistance into a Cavendish banana variety in only ten years.

Biotechnology can rescue the Cavendish banana. Scientists in Belgium have used genetic engineering to transfer some fungal resistance genes from wild bananas. The transformed Cavendish plants are not susceptible to the fungus and they can then be reproduced into nursery stock by the usual method of taking cuttings.

to top

The Eggplant in Winter

The edible part of an eggplant is formed from the ovary of its flower. In this way, it is like the edible flesh of an apple, a pepper or grape. When we eat these fruits, we discard the seeds. But the plants only transform their ovaries into fruits when they start to produce seeds, although in the case of an eggplant, its seeds are so tiny that we ignore them. Eggplants will only set seeds in warm weather, so to grow them in the winter in an unheated greenhouse, the grower must use a chemical to trick the plant into beginning fruit development without setting seed. Such fruits do not grow very large or very fast under these conditions. So eggplants are expensive in the winter.

But now scientists in Italy have transferred two genes into a variety of eggplant, which not only allows the plant to set fruit in cool greenhouse conditions without chemicals, but also increases productivity of the same plant in either hot or cold weather.

The eggplant variety that the Italian scientists created is seedless. One of the two transferred genes is a switching gene which is turned on only in the ovary part of a flower. That gene turns on the other transferred gene, which makes a protein involved in synthesizing a growth hormone. The growth hormone makes the ovary grow into the fruit, just as it would have done in a traditional eggplant making seeds. Neither gene requires either seed setting or warm weather.

Where does one get seeds to produce large numbers of seedless eggplants? The transformed plants produce pollen, so they can be crossed with traditional eggplant varieties and the hybrid produced by that crossing has the seedless and self-starting property.

The scientists report productivity increases of 37% for the new variety, and they believe that the seedless type would be more marketable.

to top

Virus Resistant Crops

Some viruses infect people or animals and other viruses infect plants. Plant viruses reduce the productivity of annual crops and can kill fruit trees.

Some plant viruses are spread by insects. Plants can be protected from those viruses by using insecticides or other pest management methods. There is essentially nothing else that a farmer can do to protect his crop from virus damage, except to grow a different crop. But genetic engineering a plant to protect it from a particular kind of virus is quite easy. A gene from the virus which encodes a protein in the virus' outer coat is copied into the plant's DNA. The plant then makes the coat protein, which is harmless, but which stimulates the plant's natural defenses. Virus resistance traits have been introduced into many crops, including squashes, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and, perhaps most dramatically papaya.

Recently, cultivated Hawaiian papayas were hit by a devastating virus which essentially eradicated the commercial variety. Only the virus resistant transgenic papayas survived. If you like papaya, you can only buy the transgenic variety. Nobody can grow any other kind.

to top

The Potato Famine

In 1840s Ireland, the potato crop was devastated by a late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans) and Irish people starved en masse. That fungus could reappear at any time in any place and wipe out a potato crop. Some varieties of potato have previously had some resistance to late blight fungus, but now a fungal strain has appeared in Russia that destroys those previously resistant varieties. This year (2001) a similar fungus appeared in potato fields in Prince Edward Island and 630 million pounds of potatoes, the island's principal crop, had to be destroyed. But very recently, scientists were able to transfer a gene from alfalfa to a potato plant and the resulting potato plant is able to resist the fungus and thrive.

Potatoes also rot. A principal cause of potato rot is the bacterium Erwina carotovora, which has been called the flesh eating bacteria of the plant kingdom. Now a gene that confers resistance to E. carotovora has been coupled to a control gene that turns on when a plant has been wounded, and this construct has been transferred to experimental potatoes. As the researchers hoped, the modified potatoes, when punctured by a toothpick and exposed to E. carotovora, had almost twenty times less rot than unmodified potatoes.

to top

Sentinel Crops

A recent innovation is a plant intended not for food but for quality control. It contains a gene derived from a luminescent jellyfish, but in all other ways it is identical to the food crop it is planted alongside. When these sentinel plants experience a lack of water, they literally glow in the dark. The farmer then knows that his crop must be watered or whether irrigation can be postponed.

In the western U.S. water is scarce. Agriculture is the biggest user of water. Wasting water is intolerable. For example, so much water is taken from the Colorado River for irrigation that the river flows into Mexico a mere trickle, and it never gets to the sea at all. So this is yet another way that transgenic crops can benefit the environment.

to top

Building with Silk

Silk is composed of two proteins, fibroin and sericin. The gene for fibroin has been transferred from a silkworm to a goat, and is expressed as a component of its milk. Soon we may also expect sericin to be transferred. It still remains to be seen whether technology can be developed to spin these proteins into a fiber.

That has already been accomplished with the kind of silk spiders use to make their webs. Genes for the two spider silk proteins were transferred to cells cultured from cow udders. Those cells then made the proteins. Happily, the spider silk can be spun by forcing a solution of its two protein components through a tiny nozzle. The proteins self-assemble into spider silk strands. The same genes have since been transferred to live goats and when those goats are old enough to produce milk, it should be possible to make large quantities of spider silk very cheaply.

Silk is an extraordinarily strong material, stronger than steel. In the future we may be getting our strongest building material from a farm instead of from a mine.

to top

Safer Meat

Escherichia coli are friendly bacteria that live in our intestines and contribute to our health. But there is one strain of E. Coli (designated as O157:H7) that can make us sick, even kill us. We can get it from inadequately cooked meat.

The E. coli infected meat comes from cattle with the virulent E. coli strain in their intestines.

A cow's digestive system is adapted to digesting hay and grasses. The food first goes into a pre-stomach called a rumen. That's why cows are called ruminants. In the rumen, microorganisms turn the indigestible cellulose into nutrients the cow can assimilate. The food is then passed to a true stomach, and finally gets to the cow's intestines, where E. coli can live. Therefore to guarantee against the virulent strain thriving in the cow's intestine, one needs to get some sort of prophylactic agent into the intestine.

Antibiotics won't do. They would kill the cow's normal intestinal bacteria, and besides, it isn't a good idea to overuse antibiotics.

There are antibodies specific to the virulent strain of E. coli, but they would be destroyed by passage through the cow's stomach before reaching its intestines.

Genetic engineers are working on a neat solution. They are developing a transgenic animal feed which resists complete digestion in the stomach and delivers the antibody, specific to the virulent E. coli strain, into the intestines.

There are over 60,000 cases of E. coli illness in the United States each year. There would be many more except for an extensive program of meat inspection. Even this understates the problem, because meat, if contaminated, has to be destroyed.

E. coli infections were not such a serious problem when cattle were raised exclusively on grass and hay. On that diet, there isn't much digestion going on in the cow's intestine and the E. coli populations are comparatively low. But today's cattle spend the last weeks of their lives in feed lots, being fattened up on grain, which is digested in their intestines, leading to much higher populations of E. coli. So another way to solve the E. coli problem would be to raise leaner cattle and skip the feed lots.

to top

Reduced Need for Fertilizers

One of the ways that farmers get better yields is by providing their plants with sources of organically bound nitrogen and phosphorus. These can be provided either by applying chemical nitrates or phosphates, or by using manures or decaying vegetation as sources of the same nutrients.

Nitrogen is the largest constituent of the atmosphere, about 80%. It may seem paradoxical that unfertilized plants could suffer from a nitrogen deficiency while immersed in a sea of nitrogen gas, but it is just not available in the form they need. Of living things, only certain bacteria (and human chemists) have evolved the means to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere to a form useful to plants.

But some plants, primarily legumes (peas and beans), have a symbiosis with these nitrogen fixing bacteria. The plants provide nodules on their roots that protect the nitrogen fixing bacteria, which then enrich the soil around those roots. Not only does this permit the legumes to grow luxuriantly without nitrate fertilization, but it makes the soil fertile for other plants growing in the same soil later. The technique of crop rotation is one of the oldest techniques of agriculture.

Scientists hope to be able to transfer the genes which direct the formation of the nodules to other crops. If this is successful, the need for fertilizers would be dramatically reduced.

Unlike nitrogen, phosphorus is not a constituent of the atmosphere. There is no short-term likelihood that scientists will find a genetic engineering way to replace fertilizers that provide phosphates. The best hope for phosphate replacement would be to breed or engineer plants that make more efficient use of the phosphate available to them.

If it proves impossible to engineer plants for nitrogen fixation, there are still options which can let them use fertilizers more efficiently. An enzyme called glucine dehydrogenase is involved in utilization of fertilizers. The gene for glucine dehydrogenase is present in most crops, but it is expressed at low levels, because the control genes turn it off more than on. A genetic transformation of wheat which promoted increased synthesis of glucine dehydrogenase was 29% more effective in utilizing the same amount of fertilizer as the unmodified variety. The increased efficiency can either be used to grow more crop on the same land, or to cut down on the need for fertilizer to grow the same amount of crop.

to top

More From The Sun

Plants derive energy from sunlight and use it to make sugar from carbon dioxide and water. This is photosynthesis.

Scientists still do not have a complete understanding of how photosynthesis happens, although they know most of the steps. They know many of the genes which create the proteins needed for photosynthesis. They also know that there are differences in photosynthesis from one species to another. It happens that corn is an overachiever. Corn plants make more sugar per unit of sunlight than any of the other grains.

An international team of scientists from Japan and from Washington State has transferred three of corn's photosynthesis genes into a rice plant. Early indications are that the transformed rice is more productive than the original rice variety.

A more important potential application may be the development of very fast growing trees. If global warming cannot be prevented by adding less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, by burning less coal and oil, the only alternative is to depend on processes that remove it. Number one on that list is growing new trees. Anything that makes agriculture more efficient can make more land available for growing trees. Anything that makes those trees grow faster removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

For many environmentalists, preventing global warming is the highest priority. But proposed measures to restrict burning fossil fuels have encountered fierce political resistance. Opponents claim that such restrictions would be cost too much money, and would cost people their jobs, their comfort and their prosperity. By contrast, nobody loses anything if carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by growing new trees.

to top

Toxic Soils

Some soils are poor for plant growth because their mineral content is toxic. A high aluminum content is the most frequent problem, especially in acidic soils. But it has been possible to identify a few genes which enable some plants to extract aluminum compounds from soil and sequester them harmlessly in their fibrous parts.

Recently, Florida scientists discovered a type of fern which can extract arsenic from the soil, although they do not yet know how the fern does this. But other teams have identified genes that can enable plants to remove cadmium, zinc and mercury from soils. By transferring such genes to fast growing plants, it should be possible to clean up some toxic soils in much the same way as we can use bacteria to clean up oil spills.

In the nearer term, there is the work of Mexican scientist Luis Herrera Estrella. He transferred into corn a gene that allows the plant to overproduce a natural chemical, citric acid, which it then excretes through the roots. Citric acid binds to aluminum and prevents the plant from taking it up from the soil. Herrera's approach is not to extract aluminum from the soil but to prevent it from passing from the soil to the plant.

A much larger problem is salt-contaminated soil caused by irrigation. Rainwater is very pure, but water borrowed from rivers contains some dissolved salt. Over many years of irrigation, the salt accumulates. But water cannot get from soil to roots if the soil water is saltier than the intracellular water. In fact, water goes the other way, from plant to soil, and the plant dies.

A gene was identified in a relative of cabbage. This gene enables the plant to pump salt from the soil into an isolated part of a cell, called a vacuole, where it is stored without harm to the plant. When salt is thus removed from the soil around the roots the plant can then take up the less salty water. The salt-tolerance gene was experimentally transferred to a tomato plant, where a control gene keeps it turned on all the time. The resulting tomato plant is able to grow well in salty soils. Happily, the fruit is not high in salt, but the plant's stems, leaves and roots are loaded with salt, so after the growing season the plant parts could be shipped elsewhere, making the soil become less salty each year. It's one more case of an environmental problem that can be solved by gene transfer.

to top

Biological Pest Controls

Farmers, for very obvious reasons, would prefer not to use pesticides. They cost money and they are dangerous to use. Farmers much prefer Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a system that combines many different methods of suppressing crop pests, including encouraging predatory insects. Farmers even buy them. Agricultural distributors can supply such insects as ladybugs, praying mantids, lacewings and parasitic wasps.

Integrated pest management includes using pesticides when other means are insufficient. But when a crop is sprayed with conventional insecticide, the harmful insects are not the only victims. Predatory insects may also be wiped out. Without any predators available, the pest populations can recover quickly, so that a second application of pesticide is required, which also kills the insect predators.

This vicious cycle could be broken if genetical engineers can develop predatory insects resistant to common pesticides.

to top

Rust Resistance

To a plant scientist, rust has nothing to do with oxidized metal. It is a plant disease caused by a fungus. It blights all the cereal crops, barley, wheat, oats, corn, millet and sorghum, but not rice.

The rust fungus reproduces itself by forming club shaped cells called basidia. Each basidium bears four spores. When the spores are ready, they are released and carried by the wind. The fungus infecting a single grain of wheat can easily produce millions of spores. The spores are so light that they can travel several times around the world before falling to the ground.

Although some varieties are more resistant to rust than others, no variety is immune. But rice must contain some combination of genes that confers immunity to rust. If these genes can be identified and if their function can be deciphered, it should be possible to transfer them to other cereal crops and end, once and for all, this most important cause of famine.

to top

Fast Growing Trees

Making paper requires large amounts of natural cellulose. Some can be derived from recycling, but most of our paper is made from freshly cut trees. The best trees for paper-making are fast growing softwoods with low resin content, like aspens. Genetic engineers have transferred genes for pest resistance and herbicide resistance into aspen and have tinkered with the genetic switches that promote growth to create a fast growing aspen that could supply our paper needs using considerably less land.

The paper-making process must bleach out the brown color of lignin, one of the components of wood. The bleaches used to be dumped in the nearest rivers, an important and highly visible kind of pollution. This is no longer allowed, but the disposal of chemicals from paper mills is still a major headache. At the Michigan Tech University, researchers have reduced the lignin content of aspen so that fewer chemicals are needed in the paper making process.

to top

Fast Growing Fish

Most of the salmon we eat are caught wild, but some are grown in farm ponds. It takes about three years for a salmon to grow from fingerling size to optimum marketing size. In wild salmon a control gene turns on the gene for growth hormone, but only in the pituitary gland and primarily in warm water. So genetic engineers used a different control gene to turn on a growth hormone gene in cold water. That control gene was transferred from an ocean pout, and it originally turned on a gene for a protein that helped the pout tolerate very cold water.

The resulting creature looks and tastes just like the wild type salmon but it grows three times faster so it ought to be cheaper to produce.

Wild salmon are now under environmental pressure from overfishing and because many of the streams where they lay their eggs are either polluted or inaccessible. If farmed salmon can economically replace more wild salmon, the pressure on this desirable species could be reduced dramatically.

There's a need for fast growing fish in rice growing regions. Rice is planted in standing water, but it is harvested from dry ground. With a slow growing rice farmers often raised fish in the rice paddy alongside the young plants. But newer strains of rice mature almost twice as fast as traditional varieties. Although this lets farmers grow more crops per year, unfortunately the rice paddies are not flooded long enough to raise fish. If genetic engineers were able to make fish grow faster, the farmers could again exploit this valuable protein resource.

to top

Consumer Traits

Most of the traits in the examples mentioned so far have been targeted at the producer. The no-till soybeans are cheaper to grow because ploughing costs money. The cotton is cheaper to grow because chemicals cost money. The chymosin from yeast is cheaper than chymosin from calves. The consumer doesn't know how much water or fertilizer the farmer used, or whether a salmon is one year old or three. The vitamin enriched rice is the only one of the examples where the final product is better, rather than cheaper, for the person who eats it.

But in the future we can expect to see ``consumer traits''. One of the first to appear will be potatoes genetically engineered to have a higher percentage of solids. If you love french fried potatoes but don't like the calories, you will love the new potatoes. They will absorb less oil but stay crispier longer.

Another valuable trait coming soon is coffee beans without caffeine. Caffeine is now removed from coffee by a chemical treatment, invented by German chemist Ludwig Roselius. Decaf is the only coffee I drink so I am looking forward to cheaper decaf coffee.

In addition, many common foods are not safe for everyone. For example, peanuts cause a life threatening allergy in some people, especially children. Allergens are unusual proteins which are digested very slowly. Someone who has an allergy to a widely used food needs to read the small print on product labels, quiz the waiter in a restaurant, etc. If a child has the allergy, the problem is that much harder to manage. But peanuts or other crops are now being genetically engineered to eliminate these allergens. USDA scientists have identified the principal allergen in soybeans and have successfully developed modified soybeans which do not produce that allergen.

It is much easier to deactivate a gene, once its function is discovered, than it is to transfer a gene from one organism to another. The same antisense trick that was used to delay ripening can be used to suppress synthesis of an allergen. Therefore, once a gene has been identified which codes for an allergenic protein, the technology to eliminate that allergen from food crops is relatively easy, unless the allergenic protein is important to the life processes of the plant.

to top

Lawns That Don't Need Frequent Mowing

In addition to food and fiber, genetic engineers are working to modify grass. Farmland constitutes mankind's biggest footprint on the earth, but lawns, athletic fields, golf courses, etc. have the biggest footprint in some communities. Environmentalists have many criticisms of lawns. They must be mowed regularly, which uses gasoline, creates noise pollution, and takes up people's time. In addition, the growing grass uses a very significant amount of water, fertilizers and pesticides, to make longer leaves which are then cut off by the mower.

But genetic engineers are trying to develop a variety of grass which reaches a desired length and then dramatically slows its growth. Combined with pest resistance genes, this new grass would be almost as simple to maintain as astroturf.

to top

What Can't be Genetically Engineered?

It takes only your imagination to come up with other possible applications of genetic engineering in agriculture. I like to joke about scientists developing a vegetable which grows its own bar code.

But nothing can be accomplished until scientists have identified the relevant genes, figured out what they do, and figured out how the proteins they make work in the organism.

This point is vitally important. For example, scientists at one company tried to make a blue rose. They transferred the gene for delphinin, the blue pigment in delphiniums, into a rose and the rose made delphinin. But its flowers weren't blue. The scientists didn't understand how a delphinium uses its pigment, or how it would be used in a rose.

There are virtually identical genes in flies and humans, but they have profoundly different results. Until scientists understand each step of some life process in one organism, they will never successfully transfer the trait to another organism. The only successes achieved so far have involved either a single gene or a group of closely related genes whose function has been worked out in detail. Some characteristics, such as humans' height, are affected by at least dozens of genes, some of which surely affect other attributes. We are very far from being able to genetically engineer complex traits.

Unlike traditional plant and animal breeding, genetic engineering is not hit-or-miss. Genetic engineers do not have perfect control over the transferred genes, but they have much more control than the traditional breeders have.

to top

Legitimate Concerns about Transgenic Agriculture

There are problems with genetic engineering. As an engineer myself, even though I work with electronics instead of genes, I am naturally disposed to be sympathetic to genetic engineering, but that doesn't mean that it should be practiced without a concern for its dangers.

So the next part of this report is devoted to a survey of some of the legitimate concerns about genetic engineering of crops. Later we will mention some other concerns that are not realistic at all.

to top

Monkeying with Mother Nature

Some people think that this is an enterprise that should be left to God or to Mother Nature, that man was never intended to monkey around with other species' genes. I respect this point of view, even though I don't agree with it. But it can't be the basis of an argument. Whoever claims to know what God intends usually can't prove it, and can't be talked out of it.

Some people have religious or ethical concerns. They might point to Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits crossbreeding. Vegetarians may reasonably decide that their food should not contain genes derived from animals. Jews and Muslims may reasonably decide that their food must not contain any genes derived from a pig.

Some religious scholars believe that a gene loses its identity when it is copied and the copy is inserted into a target species. That point of view would remove some, but not all, of the religious objections to genetically modified plants.

Other advances in biotechnology have drawn most of the attention of clerics and ethicists. These include cloning, organ transplantation, research using foetal tissue, etc.

to top

Food Safety

Crops modified in any way might not be safe to eat, so any major change in the food supply should be tested. This applies to changes made by genetic engineering but it ought logically to apply even more to changes made by other techniques. To a great extent, genetic engineers know what they are doing. There can be unanticipated consequences, but by comparison, all other methods of improving crops involve an element of luck. The conservative approach is to test all crops whose genetics has been modified in any significant way.

An example of a possible safety issue was brought out clearly several years ago. Although soybeans are a good source of protein, soy protein is low quality. It doesn't have enough of the essential amino acid methionine. So scientists in Nebraska planned to transfer a gene from a Brazil nut to a soybean to get better quality protein from soybeans for use as an animal feed. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to Brazil nuts and it turned out that the better quality protein was one of the Brazil nut allergens. Since this fact was quickly revealed by testing, the genetic modification project was abandoned. This example shows that testing for safety is necessary. It also shows that such testing is being done and is working. But can new foods ever be tested enough for complete assurance of safety?

Another way to develop crops with new traits is to cause random gene mutations and select for them. This is analogous to spraying ink on the pages of a recipe book to make it hard to read, then following the distorted recipes to see which work well, and recopying those recipes. Breeders have induced mutations using radiation, chemicals and high temperatures. Since the effect of mutation is random, it makes sense that crops developed by mutation ought to be even more thoroughly tested than crops developed by genetic engineers since the genetic engineers are not relying on luck to get their improved traits. Yet there is essentially no regulatory process for plant breeding in the United States, although Canada requires that all new types of cultivars be tested.

Even conventional breeding techniques can accidentally create harmful foods. In a famous example, an improved variety of celery caused farm workers who picked the celery to become hypersensitive to sunlight. In another example a potato variety, Lenape, was withdrawn from the U.S. market in the 1960s when it was found to contain dangerously high levels of potato toxins (solanidine glycosides).

Even without mutations, there is a large pool of genetic variability in every variety or species. This means that unfavorable combinations are possible. In every instance of sexual reproduction the child gets some genes from each parent, in a random assortment. If John and Jane have a few hundred different genes (and about 30,000 that are identical), their children will each inherit a different subset of John's genes and a different subset of Jane's genes. Nobody can predict the characteristics each child will inherit from its parents. Sometimes, two apparently healthy parents have a child with a genetic disease. Similarly, sometimes two plants which bear nutritious food can have offspring which are more toxic. This is not an argument against having children or against breeding crops, so it ought not to be an argument against transferring genes by biotechnology.

Conditions of growth can also affect food properties. Certain inconspicuous fungi can turn a wholesome food into a poisonous food. Every year there are deaths from ergot, a fungus that infects wheat and rye, and from aflatoxin, caused by a mold that infects peanuts and corn.

In summary, genetic engineered crops need to be tested for safety. In the US, transgenic crops are tested much more strictly than crops developed by traditional breeding. So far the testing that has been carried out has been sufficient to protect the public. During the ten years that we have been eating transgenic foods, nobody has ever been exposed to unsafe genetic engineered food. Meanwhile there have been many thousands of deaths because of unsafe conventional food. So it seems to me that the issues of food safety are being better managed for genetic engineered foods than for conventional foods.

to top

Environmental Concerns

The third thread of concern is for the wild environment. Suppose a gene from an unrelated species is transferred to a crop species and then the modified crop produces pollen which fertilizes a wild plant. Or suppose some of the crop's seeds are carried by birds or by wind into the wild. The wild plant could reproduce and the gene could become fixed in the wild population. If it conferred an advantage, a wild plant that had been barely making it in the struggle for existence could turn into a dominant species. There are many examples of plants taking over an environment. Usually they are natural plants introduced from a distant continent. In the American south, kudzu is a decorative plant that escaped and is spreading out of control. In the northeast we see the same thing happening in marshes, being taken over by purple loosestrife. Pasture land in the American west is being invaded by cheat grass. These plants have no natural enemies and can overrun an ecology and devastate it.

So suppose a genetic engineered crop has been given a gene which makes it hardier. Suppose it gives the plant a tolerance to salty soil, or to cold, or to dryness. It is reasonable to fear that if the crop's pollen fertilizes a wild relative, that relative could produce a race of super weeds.

The solution to this concern is, again, testing. Scientists must study the plants growing wild in the area, determine which are closely related to the modified crop, experiment to see if hybridization is possible, and require that the crop be grown only in conditions for which hybridization is very unlikely. Or else, determine that the trait, in the wild relative, will not matter much.

Sometimes this is fairly easy. You can be pretty sure that soybeans will not hybridize with wild relatives because they self-pollinate and because the wild relatives live only in Asia. Corn can only hybridize with its wild relative, teosinte, found only in Guatemala and southern Mexico. Sugar beets are harvested before they produce flowers (unless they are being grown for seed) so they cannot pollinate other varieties. But for some other crops the testing should be much more extensive and in some cases it will not be allowable to grow the genetically modified crop in localities where wild close relatives are found.

Earlier we mentioned a variety of corn which could grow well in soils with high levels of aluminum. That variety was developed in Mexico, but cannot be field-tested there, perhaps because of the fear that it could pollinate its relative, teosinte, and give teosinte an advantage over other local wild plants. If careful analysis confirms this danger, there might still be a way around the problem. It is now possible to produce plants which are male-sterile. They produce no pollen, or only defective pollen. A farmer could then plant conventional corn as a pollen source and aluminum tolerant corn for his main crop. Since the plant with the extra gene is infertile, it would not be able to spread its gene by pollination. This still leaves the possibility that a seed could escape, carrying the special gene, but corn cannot live at all as a wild plant -- it cannot reseed itself -- so this avenue of gene transmission is much less likely.

Transgenic salmon have been engineered to grow faster than their wild relatives. There is a concern that they might escape from confinement pens and reproduce, or even cross with their wild relatives. Nobody can confidently predict the ecological effect of this. The transgenics could monopolize the wild salmon's food supply or be preferred as mates. If they were effective at attracting mates but less prolific breeders, salmon populations could crash. To prevent all these possibilities, Aqua Bounty Inc., the company developing transgenic salmon, plans to use only sterile females in commercial production.

Not every species that escapes into the wild will be a problem. Most crops will simply die out because they can't compete with hardier wild plants. In one experiment, rapeseed plants, both transgenic and conventional, were grown in a field but never harvested. Scientists then followed the subsequent history of the field for ten years. All the crops declined in numbers from year to year. After the fifth year, none of the genetically modified crops could be found at all, and after ten years there were only a few crop plants of any type remaining in the field.

In a more colorful example, during the nineteenth century, a wealthy and eccentric man brought to the United States populations of each type of bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Only one species was able to establish itself. That species, however, was the starling, now found in large numbers in every part of the United States.

Some species out of their natural place can enrich the environment. The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to America in colonial times. Besides its value as a honey maker, it is the principal agent of pollination for many staple crops, which are also European imports.

Organic farmers have a different concern. They consider a genetic engineered crop to be automatically non-organic even if it is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. They have expressed the concern that their crops might be cross fertilized by pollen from a gene modified crop . Organic farmers have every right to be protected from this problem. It is no different, in principle, from the problem faced by the seed companies who grow seed for sale. It is solved partly by keeping the different crops far apart, and partly by more active techniques, like barriers.

There is another concern. Suppose a crop is developed which is resistant to a certain insect or fungus. Evolution is like an arms race. Insects or fungi can evolve to overcome whatever defense has been built into the crop. For example, cotton with the Bacillus thuringiensis toxin will eventually lead to insects evolving a resistance to Bt toxin. But Bt is used by organic growers to control certain insects. I've used it myself. If boll budworms evolve Bt resistance, organic cotton farmers will not have alternative controls. Non-organic farmers might turn to some other insecticide, but even they would like some strategy to delay the evolution of resistant insects.

The solution to this problem is the so-called refuge strategy. Instead of growing only Bt cotton in a large field, the farmer must grow a mixture of Bt cotton and conventional cotton. This is an EPA rule. The theory is that then the insect with a lucky mutation who can tolerate the Bt toxin will have no advantage over the other insects without the mutation so Darwinian selection will not tend to increase the numbers of such insects in a population. This strategy is not simple. What percentage of the cotton in a field must be conventional, and how must the two types of plants be spaced? What about how the field is used in the following season? Personally I am not enthusiastic about the refuge strategy, but so far it has worked as advertised. Yet, as more and more acres are sown with Bt crops, year after year, it seems as if the insects must eventually evolve the resistance. In the same way, some weeds will eventually evolve a tolerance for any widely used herbicide.

Eventually genetic engineers will develop better ways to delay the evolution of insect resistance. Many plants have natural insect defenses which they use only when they are being attacked. Today's Bt crops express their toxin all the time, which gives their insect adversaries a constant environment in which to evolve. It would be much harder for insects to evolve a resistance to a varying environment. So it would be better to control the gene for Bt toxin selectively. For example, if scientists could identify a control gene that turns on when the plant is attacked, they could use an an identical copy of that control gene to turn on the Bt toxin gene only when it was needed. Even easier, a control gene could be used which would turn on the toxin gene in response to a cheap and harmless chemical which the farmer would spray only when deemed necessary.

The problem of evolved resistance is not new to genetic engineered crops. Insects also evolve resistance to chemical pesticides and to other control methods. Some farmers used to protect corn from rootworms (beetles) by growing corn in a field used every other year for soybeans. The corn rootworms soon evolved the habit of laying their eggs in soybean fields. Farmers and agricultural scientists are unlikely to ever find a perpetual solution to suppressing insect pests.

One widely voiced concern about transgenic crops is quite ridiculous, the fear that they could transfer unwanted genes to the bacteria that live in our intestines.

Many genetic engineered crops contain a gene for resistance to an antibiotic, such as kanamycin, which was transferred along with the useful genes. The reason is that most genetic transfer attempts are unsuccessful in some way so the genetic engineers try to transfer the useful genes into hundreds of plant cells at once, hoping that a few cells will be successfully transformed. But after a gene has been transferred into a plant cell, it takes much hard work to create a whole mature plant from that single cell and the genetic engineers want to avoid that work except for the cells that have been transformed. But it is hard to tell when a gene transfer has worked if the gene only functions in the mature plant. The antibiotic resistance gene acts as a marker. When the transformed cells are treated with the antibiotic they survive, but cells that were not transformed die. Only the marked cells are turned into mature plants for further experimentation.

But the concern has been voiced that E. coli bacteria which live in our intestines could obtain these genes and become antibiotic resistant. We certainly don't want that to happen, at least not by accident.

We can't transfer genes by eating them, but, unfortunately, bacteria can take up DNA from their environment and incorporate it in their genome, although this phenomenon is extremely rare. It is billions of times more likely for bacteria to acquire a gene for antibiotic resistance by natural mutation. Each of us has a few such bacteria in our intestines now. That's where the marker genes originally came from. If we are not taking the antibiotic medicine, the percentage of these bacteria will be quite negligible. The only defence against both the natural evolution of antibiotic resistance and the circuitous route through transgenic crops is to minimize the use of antibiotics.

Nevertheless, although the best scientific evidence is that antibiotic resistance genes would not be a problem, genetic engineers have stopped using them as marker genes. The alternative marker gene now favored confers resistance to a herbicide instead of resistance to an antibiotic. Another kind of marker gene comes from a bioluminescent jellyfish. It promotes synthesis of a fluorescent protein. When this protein is exposed to ultraviolet light, it produces visible green light, clearly indicating that the desired gene has been transferred to the target organism. Also, after a genetic engineer has created a useful new variety of plant with both useful genes and marker genes it is possible to eliminate the marker genes from future generations of the plant using conventional cross-breeding.

to top

Economic and Social Concerns

There is one last concern often expressed. Although the gene transfer technology is available worldwide, some people worry that a few large companies would get control of world agriculture, and further, that small farmers in the poorer countries would be at an ever increasing disadvantage as their competition becomes ever more productive. The counter-argument for the first concern is that we already have antitrust laws in place. The counter argument for the second concern is that the poor third-world farmers could also adopt more efficient farming practices. The experience of the last thirty years, the so-called green revolution for which Norman Borlaug received his Nobel Peace prize (1970), is that third world farmers can and do adopt new technologies. However, genetic engineering is yet one more technology which is making agriculture more dependent on large companies.

to top

A Debt to Critics

The two most serious concerns about transgenic agriculture are food safety and environmental impact. So far the record of the technology has been enviable. There have been no documented cases of any illness or any environmental damage.

For this the scientists developing the technology must and do owe a debt of gratitude to the people who have raised doubts. Responsible critics have suggested problems and the scientists have been able to take appropriate precautions, or have cancelled dangerous experiments. The anticipated mishaps didn't happen because they were anticipated.

For example, if no critic had raised the possibility of allergies, would transgenic foods be tested for known or likely allergens? If no critic had raised the possibility of insects evolving resistance to Bacillus thuringiensis, would the Bt cotton be grown with non-transgenic cotton close by? Would transgenic salmon farming be limited to sterile females if no critic had raised the possibility of escape and crossbreeding with wild stocks?

It takes no credit away from the scientists to acknowledge that the enviable safety record of genetic engineering in agriculture derives as much from its critics as from its inventors.

to top

Part II

The previous discussion has shown us that there is a new technology, proven to deliver advantages to farmer, consumer, and the environment but that there are reasons to be concerned because, like any new technology, it could be misused. Since the US has been the leader in adopting genetic engineering for agriculture, our government agencies have developed some standards for assuring food safety and environmental safety. Any genetic engineered product must meet these standards before it can be grown commercially.

to top

The Moratorium / Ethics of Genetic Researchers

I would like to mention something of the history of this research. During the 1970's, without any government regulation whatsoever, all the researchers in the field of genetic engineering adopted a self-imposed moratorium on further research for one year. They spent that year in developing and agreeing to a set of standards for experimental work to assure that the public would be protected from danger. To the best of my knowledge this is the only example of its kind in the history of technology.

At the beginning of the public funding of the human genome project, it was the scientists, not the politicians, who decided to devote five percent of the funding to a study of its legal, ethical and social implications.

These events show that concerns for safety and for the social consequences of their research were on the minds of genetic engineers from the beginnings of their field, and that they have, as a group, exceptional ethics. Now we shall see examples of the ethics of some opponents of transgenic agriculture.

to top

A Movement to Frustrate Transgenic Agriculture

Although there are legitimate reasons to oppose genetic engineered agriculture, or at least to demand the most careful controls, there are a community of opponents who have taken their opposition beyond what is ethical. I am not talking about a reasonable opposition expressing the concerns summarized earlier, but rather about an opposition for which the ends justify the means, including lies, vandalism, etc.

I need to stress this point. There are many people, sincerely opposed to genetic engineered crops, whose ethics I do not question. I believe that most of the opponents of biotechnology would fall into that category. Yet, in too many cases, those sincere concerns are based entirely on misinformation which originated in deliberate lies and fear mongering. We are here exposing the ethics of the people who have created the lies.

These opponents must have some motive, and it seems that an alliance has emerged between at least four groups, each with its own agenda.

First there are people who sincerely believe that genetic engineering is ethically wrong, and that anything they do to stop it from happening is therefore right.

Second there are foreign governments and their constituencies who are worried about American domination of agriculture. Closely related to this are advocates of organic agriculture who seem to be engendering public fear to make their own products more salable.

Third, there are environmental groups who have been misled by a radical fringe and have become willing to do anything to stop genetic engineering agriculture. The most conspicuous among these groups is Greenpeace.

Finally, there are people opposed to capitalism or to large businesses dominating agriculture.

Opposition from environmental groups is particularly frustrating to me. Most measures which benefit the environment require people to give up something, and they don't like to do that. Recycling is nearly painless and saves money, but many people won't make the effort. A few degrees adjustment of a thermostat could save vast amounts of energy, but most people would rather be comfortable. We end up settling for half measures. But here is a technology that benefits the environment without asking people to give up anything, and its biggest opposition comes from environmental groups.

Now let us visit some examples of deliberate mischief.

to top

Misinformation about Food Safety

There is a deliberate campaign to frighten people about the safety of the food supply. This campaign has worked successfully in England and in much of Europe.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who worked at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, performed an experiment. It began when a gene was transferred from a poisonous plant, the snowdrop, into a potato. The transferred gene specifies the production of a poisonous compound called lectin. Dr. Pusztai proceeded to experiment with rats. Some rats were fed with the raw potatoes which were genetically engineered to contain the poison. The rats in the control group were fed ordinary raw potatoes and were also given the amount of lectin poison which the first group of rats would have gotten from eating the transgenic potatoes. Both groups of rats developed malformed organs, and there was no statistically significant difference between the rats who consumed the poisonous potatoes and those who consumed the poison.

However, Dr. Pusztai claimed that his data showed that the rats who ate the genetically modified potatoes had more deformed organs. No scientific journal would publish Dr. Pusztai's interpretation, and his institution would not support him. He hired an independent statistician to review his data, who also considered the data to show no difference between the two groups. But Dr. Puzstai held to his opinion. Eventually the disagreement became serious enough that his connection with the Rowett Institute was ended.

The opponents of genetic engineering, mostly in England, have blown this result into a cause celebre. Dr. Pusztai is portrayed as muzzled by the scientific establishment, although the British medical journal Lancet eventually published Pusztai's paper over the recommendations of its reviewers because of the widespread public interest. The British tabloid press covers this story continuously, with lurid photographs of deformed rat organs. The potatoes genetically engineered to be poisonous became synonymous with all transgenic food, called Frankenstein food in the tabloids.

There are varieties of potatoes, bred to be eaten, engineered to resist insects, viruses and fungi. All these varieties have been fed to rats and have never harmed them. The opponents of transgenic food have no explanation for that - they are content to use one probably misinterpreted experiment with potatoes nobody will ever eat, to stir up doubts about food safety.

During safety testing of transgenic tomatoes, Dr. Belinda Martineau discovered that when rats are fed huge amounts of tomato paste they can develop stomach lesions. It doesn't matter whether the tomatoes are transgenic or not. But before there were transgenic tomatoes, nobody had ever fed rats such large doses. Martineau's results were reported to the FDA and published, but opponents routinely call this a ``cover-up'' of a health hazard with transgenic tomatoes.

As another example, I read an op-ed article in the Boston Globe in August of 1999, written by Paul Billings, a member of the board of the Council for Responsible Genetics. The gist of the article is that dangerous untested foods are being foisted upon an unsuspecting American public, by mad scientists. As we have seen, this is at least an exaggeration. Every genetically engineered crop has been tested for safety. The testing has been much more extensive than that for any other foods, including foods developed by radiation induced mutation. Dr. Billings knows this. He knows about the government testing rules that establish the safety of each individual crop. He wants genetically modified food to be tested as strictly as drugs are tested.

Billings' op-ed article contains only one `fact' that most people would not have known before - the rest is either his opinion or just wrong. He says that transgenic soybeans have been shown to be deficient in a certain unidentified nutrient. It is not easy to track down the source of this `fact', but I did it. The nutrient in question is a phyto-estrogen (also known as a phytosterol). Although phyto-estrogens are not essential to human health, there is some indication that they help prevent cancer. The study that indicates that transgenic soybeans are deficient in phyto-estrogens comes from Dr. Marc Lappe, who wrote the book ``Against The Grain'', a polemic against genetic engineering and especially against the Monsanto Co., the leading company in the field, which developed the soybeans in question.

Here is how Dr. Lappe established that genetic engineered soybeans are defective. Understand that there are dozens of varieties of soybeans with the herbicide tolerance trait and over a hundred varieties of conventional soybeans. Dr. Lappe compared one conventional variety with one transgenic variety. He found a 12% difference. But individual soybean varieties vary by more than 100% in their phyto-estrogen content. The FDA normally doesn't even measure the phyto-estrogen content of foods, but they have published one measurement each for green soybeans (young), which had 50 mg per 100 grams and for mature soybeans, which had 160 mg per 100 grams. Also phyto-estrogen content is not stable. It declines with storage, by much more than the 12% difference. But Lappe at least reports his data along with his biased interpretation of it. Dr. Billings reports only the interpretation without any indication that it comes from a biased scientist whose own data show insignificant variations in a nutrient whose role in human health is not even firmly established.

Dr. Billings seeks only to mislead people. Not one reader in a thousand would do what I did, track down the data. His purpose is to plant a little seed of doubt about food safety, hoping that it will fester in our minds, mingle with similar misinformation, and eventually become accepted fact.

Not everything misleading is false. Propagandists are very skilled at making true statements that seem to imply something quite different. For example, they frequently say that the FDA's rules about testing genetically modified food are voluntary, implying that some testing doesn't get done. Under current law, FDA has no authority to require safety tests for any food, transgenic or conventional, although it can prevent the sale of foods it considers unsafe. But, in fact, each developer of a transgenic crop has consulted with FDA and performed every test FDA suggested. They also like to say that safety test results are trade secrets. True, it would be legal to keep test results secret. But no developer has done it.

Earlier I mentioned a problem with a soybean with a Brazil nut gene. People allergic to Brazil nuts should not expect to have to avoid soybeans, but the allergen was identified by testing and therefore the modified soybeans were never created. Also, the scientists who demonstrated this published their results in a scientific journal, and this led the FDA to not allow any gene to be transferred into a food from a species known to cause allergies. That should be seen as evidence that the genetic engineers are responsible people, and that testing is working well. But the unethical opponents of biotechnology routinely present this episode, carefully worded, as if there was a near disaster, revealing gross problems with the current regulatory system.

to top

Tryptophan deaths

One of the most active anti-transgenic groups is Mothers For Natural Law which spreads the following half-truth - that, in 1989, 37 people died and thousands were paralyzed by consuming tryptophan made by genetic engineered bacteria. Half-truth because there were deaths and illnesses (eosinophilia myalgia syndrome) caused by tryptophan, sold by the ``health food'' industry.

Tryptophan is one of the twenty amino acids which are needed by every living thing. All bacteria already contain genes to make tryptophan and the tryptophan sold as a dietary supplement is made industrially using bacteria and is then purified. Showa Demko Ltd., the company whose tryptophan caused illnesses, genetically engineered bacteria to make more tryptophan than was needed for the bacteria's own life cycle.

The illnesses had nothing to do with the genetic engineering. Some cases of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome were traced back to Showa Demko's tryptophan manufactured as far back as 1983, years before the company used genetic engineered bacteria. It is now known that eosinophilia myalgia syndrome is caused by consuming excessively large doses of tryptophan, from whatever source. Back in 1989 it was thought that the cases of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome had been caused by some kind of contamination. All tryptophan molecules made by living things are chemically identical and there is no way that tryptophan made by genetically engineered bacteria could be different from tryptophan made by any other bacteria.

The tragic epidemic of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome makes a very good argument for more scrutiny of the health food industry. Presenting it as an indictment of transgenic food is a huge distortion.

to top

It's Unlike Anything in Nature

Advocates of genetic modification of crops often say that it is not significantly different from ordinary breeding techniques. They say that virtually every crop is genetically modified and that people have been genetically modifying plants and animals for several thousand years. This is, of course, true, but are the genetic transformations now possible through biotechnology different from classical breeding in some fundamental way?

The opponents say that the new gene transfer techniques are fundamentally different from anything that nature has ever allowed. Since this is only a matter of how the two sides define fundamental, it really isn't a case that illustrates an unethical behavior by either side. There is one minor exception.

The opponents like to illustrate their case by pointing to a tomato with a gene from a fish. This example seems to be selected from all the myriad possibilities because it strikes a chord of negative emotion. We just don't think that anything from a fish belongs in a tomato. This poster child for the opponents is played up endlessly. Their flyers and posters show a tomato with fins, or sometimes a whole fish with a stem and a few leaves. Sometimes the tomato is a strawberry. One is supposed to think that these are typical examples of genetic engineering. They are not!

DEIOPEA JELLYFISH ATOLLA JELLYFISH It is possible to transfer a gene from a fish to a tomato plant. It was tried by DNA Plant Technology of Oakland, California. The fish, an arctic flounder, can tolerate very cold water because its blood contains a natural antifreeze. The hope was that a tomato plant would also be cold tolerant. When the resulting plant was tested, it was a failure. The company abandoned the project and has no plan to try again. All the posters portray is a just-so-story, a product that doesn't exist. In fact, no plant product on the market today contains a gene from any kind of animal, with one exception - there is a gene from a luminescent jellyfish used as a marker, an indication that the gene transfer has been successful. (Images courtesy of Steven Haddock, Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

But the story still bothers people even when they know it doesn't have much to do with anything we already eat. There is a feeling that it somehow goes against nature to make such huge changes in an organism's genes.

It might be useful to examine a few cases from nature, which can be more complex than most of us imagine. At the very least, it will be interesting. There are natural examples of genetic engineering, and they are actually quite close to our lives.

Wheat is sometimes called the staff of life. Yet wheat has a complex genetic story. It is the result of three separate instances of natural genetic engineering. To introduce these changes, we need to explain that wild grasses similar to wheat have their genes dispersed among seven pairs of chromosomes. One of the earliest known domestic wheat varieties is einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum), which has seven chromosome pairs, like a wild grass. But another variety of wheat, emmer wheat, has 14 chromosome pairs. It resulted from an ``impossible'' cross species mating with another wild grass (Aegilops speltoids). This cross preceded modern biotechnology by several thousand years. It either happened by itself or with the help of a Sumerian farmer. This new plant had new characteristics that breeders, with ordinary breeding and selection, exploited to produce many modern varieties, such as durum wheat, which has grains that are easy to separate from the hulls. But natural genetic engineering was not finished with wheat. Around the time of the Roman empire there was another ``impossible'' cross species mating with a third wild grass (Triticum tauscii). The resulting new variety of wheat, bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), has twenty one chromosome pairs, the complete genomes of three separate species of grasses. This last mating brought in the genetic recipe for gluten, which makes dough springy and lets it hold together when yeast makes it rise.

The record of these crosses is written in the genomes of wheat varieties and in analyses of grain from archaeological sites. But the latest step in the series is a grain plant with twenty eight chromosome pairs. It is the result of a wheat-rye cross that happened with human help only very recently, but which made no use of the new gene transfer technology. Wheat has been involved in three ``impossible'' cross species matings during its history as a human food, none relying on the modern DNA technology.

But the DNA manipulation techniques themselves rely on methods developed by nature. To cut a DNA molecule at a specific place, the genetic engineers rely on a collection of natural enzymes called restriction enzymes, each of which recognizes a specific site to make its cut. To join two pieces of DNA, they rely on a natural enzyme called DNA ligase. To copy DNA they rely on the natural enzyme DNA polymerase. These enzymes are used by living cells to manipulate their DNA. In a few instances, they are even used to manipulate another creature's DNA.

There is a species of bacteria, Agrobacter tumafaciens, whose way of life is to invade a plant and cause it to create a gall, a home for the bacterium. It works its will on the plant by invading its cells and stitching a few of its own genes into the plant's DNA. In effect, Agrobacter tumafaciens is a natural genetic engineer who changes the genome of the infected plant so that it produces food and protection for the bacterium. How different is that from what human genetic engineers do? In fact, one of our ways to transfer a gene into a plant cell is to use A. tumafaciens as a ``vector''.

TOMATO HORNWORM There is a fat green caterpillar, the tomato hornworm, that eats tomato plants, and there is a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in the body of the caterpillar. The wasp larvae use the live caterpillar for food. But why doesn't the caterpillar's immune system attack the wasp larvae? Because the wasp has evolved a partnership with a virus. The virus is carried by the wasp into the caterpillar, where it goes to work changing the caterpillar's DNA, modifying the caterpillar's immune system to the benefit of the wasp larvae and the virus. The photo below shows a tomato hornworm covered with the cocoons of the parasitic wasps that grew as larvae within its body.

A TOMATO HORNWORM WITH WASP PUPAE

We need to look no further than our own bodies for a very ancient example of a cross species mating. Within each of our cells there are tiny bodies called mitochondria, which produce the cells' energy. Each mitochondrion is the descendent of what must once have been a free living bacterium. The mitochondria have their own DNA and they make their own enzymes. In fact, they would have all the machinery needed to run a cell, except that they, eons ago, transferred most of their genes into our nuclear genome.

These and other examples of natural DNA mixing across species and even between plants, animals, bacteria and viruses, show that nature invented genetic engineering before mankind did.

Nature even goes to the exact opposite extreme. There is a species of fish that cannot reproduce except by a cross species mating. The Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa), a tiny fish just a few inches long, is a species with no males. Every Amazon molly is a female. It bears its young alive, like its better known relative, the sailfin molly (Poecilia latipinna), which is commonly kept in home aquaria. How can a fish reproduce with no males? The Amazon molly borrows the services of a male sailfin molly. She mates and the sailfin's sperm enter her eggs, causing them to begin development. But the male sailfin molly makes no genetic contribution to the developing embryo. The DNA in his sperm is wasted, which is why we can consider the Amazon molly a totally different species. There are numerous other species all across the animal kingdom which have dispensed entirely with males, and reproduce by parthenogenesis, but it is certainly a surprise to find a species which relies on males of another species to fertilize its eggs. But not so much of a surprise as to learn of a species of cypress in North Africa (Cupressus dupreziana) which plays the trick in reverse. The pollen of the cypress requires the female parts of a different tree to produce its seed cones. The structural and nutritional parts of the seed cones are built by the female, but the genetic component of the seeds comes entirely from the pollen. (In medieval times, it was supposed that humans reproduced in this way, with all heredity carried by the sperm while the mother provided only nutrition and living space for the growing child.)

It is true that modern methods can speed up the processes which transfer genes between species, genera, families, even kingdoms, by millions of times and channel them into directions of our own choosing. Ultimately what we consider to be natural is a personal decision. But that decision should not be affected by street theater. Nature can give you examples of almost anything you can imagine.

to top

Vandana Shiva vs. Monsanto

Let us consider a widely circulated story about Indian farmers who committed suicide. This story comes from Dr. Vandana Shiva. The Monsanto company is supposed to have lured these farmers into borrowing heavily to grow genetic engineered cotton. When their crop failed, they were unable to repay their debts and hundreds committed suicide.

Actually, India had not yet licensed transgenic cotton, but there were some sites where transgenic cotton was grown in test plots, to determine scientifically whether the variety under test would be successful and whether any problems might be detected. The farmers who tended these test plots were not paid for the cotton, which was meant to be destroyed. They took no risk. But the truth is much worse. Although the suicides are a complete fiction, Dr. Shiva is correct when she says that the cotton crop failed. It failed because nearby Indian farmers were incited to raid the fields and burn up the young cotton plants.

Now why would they have done that? It was because they were told that the test plots were growing a variety of cotton with the terminator seed technology. This was a lie.

to top

Terminator Technology

So now we need to talk about the terminator technology. The fact is that it doesn't yet exist. It's just an idea.

Suppose you are a company that develops seed varieties, at great capital expense. If you sell your seeds to a farmer and he grows a crop, next year he will have a large number of seeds which he can sell. He will be your competitor.

For decades, seed companies have dealt with this problem in various ways. For hybrid seed, the next generation's seeds do not have the same traits and therefore the seed company keeps control of the trait and can sell seeds year after year. For non-hybrid seeds, the seed companies make the farmer sign a contract, sometimes requiring that he not supply seed for others, sometimes requiring that he not even save the seed for replanting. But farmers can cheat.

Terminator technology, patented as the ``Technology Protection System'', would be a rather complex genetic engineering technology. Several different control genes would be transferred into the target crop variety. When they all work together, the plant would produce infertile seeds. The crop would be edible, but its seeds would not germinate. But the genes would not all work together unless the seed from which the plant is grown were treated with an antibiotic, tetracycline. As long as the parent seeds were not treated with tetracycline, the next generation's seeds would be fertile and able to grow new plants.

Terminator technology is only suitable for plants that self-fertilize, like cotton, soybeans, or wheat. One would not want to make one's neighbor's crop sterile.

There's another variation, also still just an idea. Seeds could be developed for which the new trait would be expressed only if the seed is exposed to a proprietary chemical, available only from the seed company. So farmers could save seeds and plant them the next year, but they would be no different from ordinary seeds unless the farmer purchases the special chemical. Opponents of genetic engineering call this traitor technology.

There are numerous stories worldwide that Monsanto originated this technology with the purpose of gaining control of all the world's seeds. These claims are so widely circulated that many fervent advocates of genetic engineering believe that they are true. Ms. Shiva actively peddles this story.

The truth is that the patent (5,723,765) on terminator technology is held jointly by the USDA and the Delta and Pineland Cotton Company. According to that company's quarterly stockholders' report of February, 1999, commercial exploitation of the patent is seven years away. If you can be incited to burn a crop to destroy terminator seed, you have until 2006 to save up for a flame thrower.

The only connection of the terminator technology with Monsanto appeared in May 1998, when Monsanto offered to merge with Delta and Pineland, over two years after Dr. Shiva's false story appeared. The proposed merger has since been called off. Also, Monsanto has stated categorically that it will not commercialize terminator technology. (Since I first wrote this, 2006 has come and gone, but the terminator seed still doesn't exist. But Delta and Pineland and Monsanto did merge.)

Why do the crusaders connect the terminator seed to Monsanto? It's because Monsanto is a large multinational corporation, and can be seen as threatening. Delta and Pineland is a small company that would frighten nobody.

There are several ways to scare people about terminator technology. We are supposed to be worried about poor third world farmers forced to buy seed, from a rich multinational corporation, which they used to get for free by saving some of last year's crop. It is never explained why they would stop saving their own seed.

Another scare story is: -- What if these genes were to escape into the wild and make all living plants, worldwide, infertile. Frankly, it takes a rather determinedly ignorant person to believe that a gene for infertility would become widely distributed in the environment. What are we to think when this sort of speculation is spread by a PhD?

In fact, proponents of genetic engineering have pointed out that terminator technology could be used to prevent transferred genes from getting into the gene pool of a related wild species.

There is one truly bad aspect to the terminator technology. If it led to the widespread use of seeds treated with tetracycline, we could reasonably expect that micro-organisms resistant to tetracycline would evolve and become widespread. This would deprive us of a useful medicine. I would hope that if any company ever proposes to commercialize the technology, they will first do further development to correct this disadvantage.

I have talked to many people about their attitudes toward genetic engineering in agriculture and the issue of sterile seeds is the one issue most frequently raised. I thought at first that it would be useful to show people other examples of plants that farmers cannot reproduce. We eat seedless grapes without hesitation. Hybrid crops' seeds are not worth saving because they don't breed true. Many fruit trees are grafted onto a vigorous rootstock so their seeds can never grow into hardy trees. But these examples changed nobody's mind. To many people, the sterile seed technology crosses a line between what man may or may not do to other living things.

to top

Biodiversity

One argument made against transgenic crops is that they will lead to a loss of biodiversity. It is hard to see how this can be believed. Exactly the opposite may be expected.

The argument goes as follows. ``All over the world, there are farmers growing local varieties of crops, all different from one another. But transgenic crops are all identical. They will crowd out the local varieties and each basic crop will be the same worldwide. By bad luck, some fungus or other disease may come along that will wipe out that variety. The other varieties might have included some with resistance to the disease, but by adopting transgenic crops we would have lost the basic crop completely and finally.''

The argument starts with a true statement. There are numerous local varieties of most crops, called landraces, especially in the region of the world where the crop originated. For example, Peru has hundreds of varieties of potato. These are a reservoir of biodiversity. Traditional breeders have regularly mined this genetic diversity to improve the characteristics of crops.

The rest of the argument is untrue and nonsensical. First, transgenic crops are not all identical. Once a gene has been transferred into one variety of, say, potato, that potato is crossbred with many other varieties and dozens or hundreds of genetic combinations are created. Just as there is no best potato, there is no best transgenic potato. There is not going to be a worldwide uniformization of crops, period.

Second, local varieties may be crowded out, or not, according to the decisions of individual farmers. There are many varieties of crop that are more productive than many local landraces. This isn't unique to transgenic crops. The danger of landraces being lost is real, but has nothing to do with genetic engineering. In fact, transgenic seeds are usually more expensive than other commercially available seeds, so they would be less likely to be adopted by traditional farmers. But the real solution to the preservation of landraces is to establish ``germ banks''. A few hundred seeds of each variety can be institutionally preserved. This is already happening. There are landrace banks for most major crops. Many of these landrace banks were established decades before there were any transgenic crops.

Third, thanks to biotechnology, there is no longer the threat of complete extinction of anything! It has now become possible to take DNA of a single cell of a plant or animal and reproduce its genes indefinitely. Endangered species might be saved from extinction, or even recovered from extinction by genetic engineering.

A typical plant might have 40,000 genes, including perhaps 1,000 that differ from one variety to another. It is these 1,000 that constitute the biodiversity of the species. Genetic engineering can introduce new genes to the species' gene pool. That represents increasing biodiversity. This is so obvious that in order to claim the exact opposite, unscrupulous propagandists have had to weave in four separate untruths, that all transgenic crops are identical, that landraces are more in danger from transgenic varieties than from other commercial breeds, that landraces are not being preserved, and that the danger of extinction of any crop is increased by genetic engineering.

to top

The Reaction to Golden Rice

Earlier we mentioned rice with vitamin A, developed by Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus and his German colleague Peter Beyer. Nicknamed golden rice because the beta carotene gives the rice grains a distinctive golden color, this achievement posed a huge problem for the crusaders against transgenic agriculture. It seems to be a really good thing and they couldn't say anything bad about it.

Consider.

First, it's meant to provide a nutritional benefit to poor people suffering from a severe vitamin A deficiency. Preventing its use could be seen as depriving the third world poor of much needed help. In fact, for each month of delaying its introduction by insisting on excessive testing, the crusaders could be blamed for an average of 50,000 cases of blindness.

Second, much of the crusaders' case against GMOs is about domination of the third world by multinational corporations, dependence of farmers on large companies, concentration of profits, etc. But golden rice was developed without corporate money. Potrykus and Beyer were funded by the Swiss government, the European Union and the Rockefeller Foundation. They are making golden rice available free to the poor farmers.

Third, the crusaders loudest claim was that GMOs were insufficiently tested for safety. But this was a preliminary product, still being tested.

Fourth, there was no conceivable environmental problem. Rice plants already produce beta carotene, although not in their grains. So the escape of the transferred genes into wild rice relatives could not possibly matter. Besides, rice pollen never travels more than a few millimeters.

All the usual complaints about genetic engineered crops were either not applicable to golden rice, or were vastly outweighed by the humanitarian advantages.

It might have been better strategy for the crusaders to treat golden rice as a special case, an exceptional case of a bad technology put to a good use. But instead, they decided to denounce it.

Greenpeace threatened to interfere with the research but they were unable to do anything because Potrykus' research facility was too secure, even grenade proof.

Still, Potrykus received threats and hate mail. The rumor was spread that golden rice would cause impotence and hair loss.

In 1995, the researchers tried to send samples of a new rice strain to the International Rice Research Institute. A graduate student, sympathetic to Greenpeace, passed them shipping information and Greenpeace stole the samples from the package delivery company, putting on its usual street theater with protective clothing and gas masks.

Dr. Potrykus then arranged a meeting with Greenpeace campaign director Benedict Haerlin. He attempted to explain why the golden rice project was beneficial and innocuous and asked Haerlin to explain Greenpeace's objections to his work. But Haerlin said that Greenpeace opposed his work as a matter of principle.

In the spring of 2001, the biotechnology industry finally began a slick propaganda campaign of its own, launching television ads featuring golden rice. This, even though industry's only contribution to the project was allowing Potrykus free use of its patented techniques. In response to this campaign, Haerlin briefly changed his mind, stating that despite Greenpeace's objections to genetic engineering, they would not stage raids to vandalize the test sites planned in the Philippines. But a few days later, he retracted the statement, reserving the ``right'' to attack the test plots.

Soon, Vandana Shiva got into the fray. She issued a report calling golden rice a gigantic hoax. She claimed that its vitamin A content was so minuscule that a child would need to eat many kilograms per day to get the recommended daily requirement of vitamin A. But her calculations were based on the least favorable choice of each possible factor. She used a recommended daily allowance (RDA) instead of a minimum daily requirement (MDR), mixed up the weight of dry rice with that of cooked rice, used Potrykus' published research results about the first plants to display vitamin A, rather than the best, and assumed that there was no cooking oil and no other source of vitamin A in the eaters' diet.

After correcting Ms. Shiva's exaggerations and errors, the best strain of golden rice would still only provide about 15% of the RDA, enough to prevent blindness but far from an optimum. But today's best varieties can easily supply all of the daily requirement.

Shiva claimed, correctly, that industry was using golden rice to present transgenic agriculture in the most favorable light. Soon the other parties to the campaign began spreading her calculations, ignoring Dr. Potrykus corrections.

Finally, in January 2001, the rice seeds were transferred to IRRI and are being used for experiments by over twenty research institutes, crossing golden rice with other varieties. There is still plenty of testing to do before the rice can be released to farmers.

Another question is whether the third world consumers will accept golden rice. There is some reason to think not .

Greenpeace and the other critics have frequently stated that the money spent on developing golden rice could better have been spent on distributing capsules of vitamin A to the poor worldwide. Such distribution had already been happening for about fifteen years, funded by the World Health Organization, costing about $100 million annually, but it hasn't solved the problem of vitamin A deficiency. Pills often don't make it to the poor. Besides, a constant theme of the protesters has been that the poor of the third world need to break out of their dependence and become self sufficient.

Faced with a development like golden rice, the extremists choose to remain extremists.

to top

New Viruses

Some of the genes transferred to crops have come from viruses.

A virus consists of two parts. One part is protein, and there are virus genes which tell an infected cell how to make that protein. The protein serves as a coat which protects the virus and helps it to get inside the cell it infects. Without the DNA, however, the protein coat is harmless.

The other part of the virus is its DNA, which includes both the genes for making the coat protein and the control genes which take over control of the infected cell's functions. The latter type of genes are switches, known as promoters, which make the cell read the virus' genes.

Genetic engineers have borrowed promoter genes from viruses and used them as the switches to turn on the useful genes. One such promoter gene comes from a virus which infects cauliflower, the cauliflower mosaic virus. The reason it is a popular switch is that scientists know exactly how and when it is turned on.

Genetic engineers have also created virus resistant crops using virus genes. The idea is to insert the gene which specifies the virus' coat protein into the DNA of plants threatened by the virus. The coat protein is harmless, but it stimulates the plant's natural defenses. When a real virus shows up, the plant is ready.

A few critics, using language that sounds scientific, have claimed that these bits of virus DNA are particularly dangerous. The arguments are actually nonsense. One fear is that plant virus A will hide its DNA inside the coat protein of plant virus B, becoming a new kind of virus with new infectious characteristics. But if this chimeric virus were to infect a cell, its DNA would make the cell create only new type A viruses, not new hybrid viruses. Putting a bearskin on a wolf might make a wolf seem like a bear, but its offspring would be exclusively wolves.

The other fear is that the promoter gene from the cauliflower mosaic virus makes a particularly weak link in the DNA chain, making the modified DNA unstable, very susceptible to mutations. The only scientist who believes that the promoter gene (from the cauliflower mosaic virus) is a weak link is Dr. Mae Wan Ho. Other molecular biologists disagree. But if Dr. Ho is right, it would imply that cauliflower, broccoli and its relatives are naturally unstable. The cauliflower mosaic virus commonly infects them. Even if the plants are not infected, the virus promoter gene is part of these vegetables' DNA, because natural genetic engineering put it there eons ago. Yet cauliflower is neither more nor less susceptible to natural mutation than other plants or animals.

Viruses are frightening organisms. They can cause frightening diseases, some of which cannot be treated. AIDS and ebola are virus diseases, along with herpes and influenza. The biotechnology opponents try to twist our fear of viruses into fear of biotechnology.

to top

Viruses in Africa

Between 1950 and 1980, crop scientists were able to develop varieties of several basic food crops which yielded three times as much food per acre. As mentioned earlier, for leading this work, Dr. Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It has been called the Green Revolution. It required painstaking persistence. The variety of wheat most productive in northern China is not the same as the variety most productive in Kansas or in Peru. Different varieties do better in highlands or in lowlands. The rice most suitable for Vietnam is different from the rice most suitable in Japan. In all, some hundreds of high yielding strains of basic crops were developed and, as important, made available to the poor farmers of the third world. The important crops improved were wheat, rice and corn.

The green revolution happened before the development of today's biotechnology. It happened with conventional breeding.

Unfortunately, the green revolution missed Africa. The basic crops grown in Africa are not rice, wheat and corn, but millet, yams and cassava. Yields of these African crops were not improved much during the thirty year green revolution. It is no coincidence that Africa today is the continent with the most starvation.

People who care about adequate food for the poor of the third world are now concentrating on Africa. But the hunger in Africa is an emergency. It cannot be quickly solved by breeding new crops. In the short term, the solution is to send boatloads of grain to the countries with the most dire emergencies.

But there are also scientists working on crop improvement. Kenya's Florence Wambugu, who was trained in biotechnology in the US, has developed a genetically engineered yam (sweet potato) which is immune to a pervasive plant virus. In 1999, in one African country, virus infections destroyed half the cassava crop. Dr. Wambugu's students are developing cassava plant varieties which resist both viruses and fungi.

Dr. Wambugu expresses anger at the affluent European protesters who would stop her work on the basis of imagined dangers. In Africa, the dangers are not hypothetical. The starvation is now.

to top

Where the Transgenes Go

Remember that genes are analogous to sentences in a document. Critics like to claim that the process of gene transfer could put the new gene anywhere randomly in the document, possibly messing up other genes. By analogy, if a document had read, in part, ``don't drink the water!'' and the inserted sentence were ``be happy!'', one might get the construct ``don't be happy! drink the water!'' Of course, such a random insertion could change the meaning of either or both genes. Since almost anything could happen, goes the argument, it would be impossible to test enough to discover the problems caused by gene transfer.

There are several reasons why this criticism is misleading.

To begin with, although the genetic engineers do not have perfect control over where a transferred gene will go in the genome, they know, after the transfer, exactly where it did go. A plant for which the gene was transferred into the wrong place would be discarded and the engineers would try again. Besides, not having perfect control is a far cry from having no control and there are many more sites for safe gene insertion than for disruptive insertion.

Yet there is some leftover truth to the assertion that a gene transferred to a different species could have unanticipated consequences. It's just that genetic engineering, while not perfect, is much more precise than any other breeding technique. In every act of sexual reproduction, there are millions of possibilities for unanticipated consequences. Whereas genetic engineers transfer only one gene, conventional breeders use the sexual process, which mixes together thousands of genes. ``don't be happy! drink the water'' happens all the time in conventional breeding.

It is also misleading to imply that the genome is such a stable document in the first place. In nature there are at least four separate mechanisms at work to mix up genomes.

crossing over
Plants and animals have two of each gene, on separate but similar chromosomes, analogous to having two copies of the document. The two copies are usually slightly different. By analogy, if the document were The Lord's Prayer, one copy might read The Lord is my shepherd! I shall not want. The other copy might read God is my guide! He provides for me. In sexual reproduction, the two documents are sliced apart and put back together, so that they might read The Lord is my guide! He provides for me. and God is my shepherd! I shall not want. This process is called crossing over. This happens in the sex cells of both parents and then the offspring inherit one ``document'' from each parent. Crossing over is a major source of genetic variability. Sometimes, however, it produces the same kind of nonsense as in the example ``don't be happy! drink the water!''.
transposons
Genes are arranged on the chromosome in order but many genes make a habit of jumping to another part of the chromosome. They are routinely snipped out of the DNA and put back in a different place. These jumping genes are called transposons. By being moved to a different part of the DNA, the functional expression of a transposon changes. A familiar example of a transposon is a gene that determines the color of the kernels of Indian corn.
viruses
Many viruses insert their own DNA into the host's DNA document, where it gets copied and becomes part of the genome. More than half of the DNA in the human genome originated as invading viruses. These viruses can carry useful genes from other species into the infected animal or plant. Many human genes originated in other species by this mechanism.
mutations
With billions of letters in a DNA document, there are always a few copying errors, called mutations. A mutated gene has a changed meaning. It may specify a slightly different protein, or it may switch another gene on or off at a slightly different time. These changes are usually harmful, but tolerable, especially when we have two copies of a gene and one is unchanged. Occasionally a mutation is either deadly or beneficial. According to the theory of evolution, all of our genes originated, in the distant past, as mutations of other genes, a completely random process.

The critics of genetic engineering mean to leave you with the impression that nature has evolved a finely tuned but fragile system of inheritance but that genetic engineers have no good idea what they are doing. But actually, the genetic engineers make only small well controlled modifications to a genome, whereas nature often makes large and random changes. The likelihood of unexpected effects in transgenic technology is small. Unexpected changes in conventional breeding are virtually certain.

to top

A Ban on Glyphosate

We earlier mentioned glyphosate, an environmentally benign herbicide. It is biodegradable, lasting approximately two days after use, and its molecules bind to soil so it does not wash into streams or enter groundwater. Even if some madman were to dump it into a waterway, it is 230 times less toxic than the herbicide it replaced. It has been found safe and approved for use in almost every country, including all the countries of the European Union. Yet the anti-transgenic crowd seeks to ban it in Europe using the pretext of uniformizing regulations from one European country to another.

What reason is given for banning the safest of all herbicides? Two reasons. It is supposed to be `implicated' in non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and it is alleged to harm beneficial insects. Examining the evidence for these two claims reveals how some opponents of GMOs will use anything, no matter how shaky, to achieve their purposes.

Non-Hodgkins lymphoma patients were asked to recall what pesticides they had been exposed to in the past several years. A statistically insignificant number of them (four) mentioned glyphosate, not surprising since it is so widely used. Even though the investigators considered this association meaningless, it was enough for Greenpeace to demand a ban.

The claim about harming insects is even weaker. Several species were exposed to glyphosate and the control group were not exposed. There was similar mortality in both groups. But there was mortality. This is enough for Greenpeace to claim that glyphosate kills beneficial insects. Greenpeace ignores a follow-up study by the International Organization for Biological Control, which concluded that glyphosate was exceptionally safe. One might have expected the IOBC to be hoping that it would find something wrong with glyphosate, since its charter is to popularize biological controls. But IOBC's scientists are ethical.

The real reason for banning glyphosate is that it is made by Monsanto and used as the herbicide for the herbicide-resistant transgenic soybeans.

to top

Labelling Transgenic Food

This brings us to the issue of labelling.

Once the opponents instigated a doubt about the safety of genetic engineered foods, and remember that there has not, in ten years, been even the slightest evidence of that, the next step was to agitate for labelling. Why, after all, shouldn't consumers have a choice?

I agree people who want to avoid transgenic food should be able to make that choice. But labelling can take two forms. One could label food which is not transgenic, or one could label food which is transgenic. I can't imagine anyone objecting to labelling foods which are transgenic-free. But the anti-transgenic demand is adamant for the other choice. We can say that the difference is between those who would label the non-transgenic food with a smiley face and those who would label transgenic food with a skull & crossbones.

Labelling sounds so reasonable. How could anyone oppose it if they didn't have something to hide? But labelling has a down side. It costs. The cost is not in the ink to print the label. It is in keeping the products separate. We are talking now mostly about soybeans and corn. These grains are harvested by the hundreds of tons, shipped in railroad cars, stored in grain silos, sold in futures contracts. Approximately 70% of processed foods in the US have some ingredient derived from biotechnology. This includes most milk and cheese, sugar, soy products, corn and corn sweeteners, vegetable oils, etc.

63% of US grown soybeans are now transgenic. Neither buyers nor sellers distinguish between transgenic and conventional soybeans. Your tofu is a mixture of both kinds. (In my local supermarket, there is only one brand of tofu available and the manufacturer has recently decided to use only organic soybeans, which are specifically labelled non-GMO. At the same time, the package size changed from sixteen to fifteen ounces and the price was raised by $.25.) To keep the two kinds separate, we would need, at a minimum, to have two separate distribution channels, two storage systems, two futures markets.

In my opinion, the pressure for skull & crossbones labelling is really a pressure to increase the cost of the genetic engineered food. So far, the transgenic food has had only producer advantages -- it is cheaper to produce. Take away its cost advantage and it is no better than the conventional foods. Never mind that corn with the Bt trait, one third of the US crop, is grown without pesticides. Never mind that the transgenic soybeans prevent soil loss and global warming. The Economist magazine estimated that segregation of grains would add a 25% premium to the price of some processed foods, like packaged cereals. This is probably an over-estimate, but we should remember that these costs will fall inordinately on people with low income.

But if this were the only problem with labelling, the food industry giants would quickly adopt grain segregation and labelling. They are being forced into grain segregation anyway by the labelling regulations of nations that import US grain. The industry is really concerned that the labels will make it easier for groups like Greenpeace to boycott their products. Stop the scare campaigns and the resistance to labelling will disappear overnight.

If you doubt that demands for skull & crossbones labelling can be used to purposely create a disadvantage, imagine what your reaction would be if someone were to propose that products assembled by hispanic workers must be so labelled. The public demand for labelling would be justified by a ``right to information'', but just below the radar screen you would not be surprised to hear that hispanic workers might be illiterate, or might be illegal immigrants, or might be drug users. But you would recognize that the demand for labelling was meant to disadvantage hispanics.

We have established a precedent in this country about labelling. The government does not mandate labelling without a very good reason. The main exception is when safety (skull & crossbones label) is involved. Once the government decides that, say, a certain chemical pesticide is safe, nobody can require the food grown with that pesticide to be labelled. When a segment of the consuming public wants a label (smiley face) about a trait that it cares about, the market provides such a label and it is reflected in the cost of the product. For example, there are people who prefer to eat food grown with no chemical pesticides. They buy ``organic'' food. Everyone understands that the label ``organic'' means that the food was grown without pesticides. Everyone also knows that they have to pay more for the food labelled organic.

Similarly, orthodox Jews have certain religious rules about what they eat. These include a requirement that cows and chickens must be slaughtered in a particular way. This is a requirement for the Kosher label. Jews do not expect all meat to have a label detailing how the animal was slaughtered. Even in Israel, the people who want the label pay for the privilege, and kosher meat is often quite a bit more expensive that ordinary meat.

One has to be skeptical when the demand for giving consumers more information comes from the same people who are so blatantly broadcasting misinformation.

to top

Labelling as a Trade Barrier

Foreign governments are motivated to oppose genetically engineered food as a trade barrier. The United States sells one third of its crops overseas. Europe used to buy $200 million worth of corn and soybeans per year from American farmers. This year it will probably buy none because we are unable to supply a segregated product. Even farmers who grow traditional grains cannot sell them to the European Common Market because the ECM has not yet specified a clear lower limit on how much transgenic content would require a transgenic (skull & crossbones) label -- e.g. one bean in a pound, in a ton, in a shipload? Even such a clear limit would leave room for confusion and an excuse for excluding the imports. Do you consider food to have transgenic content if it contains oil pressed from transgenic corn or soybeans? No test can tell the difference. Sugar made from transgenic sugar beets cannot be differentiated from other beet sugar. Do you consider a chicken transgenic if it ate transgenic chickenfeed, ever? This is one of the demands of the most vociferous opponents. (Parenthetically, Europe has decided on the criterion for a non-transgenic (smiley face) label, 1%. So we have the paradox that a product made with only a few transgenic grains could be labelled as either transgenic or as transgenic-free, but cannot be sold in Europe without any label.)

It happens that Europe sells a great deal of cheese to the United States. Almost all of it is made using chymosin from genetic engineered yeasts. None of the transgenic food opponents call for cheese to be labelled for genetic engineered content. The governments of the European countries do not want this even to be revealed. They are trying to keep American agricultural products out of Europe, not vice versa, and one of the major ways they do it is by requiring the transgenic crops to be segregated. This is a ploy. They have already found several transgenic crops to be safe, but by requiring them to be segregated, they can get around the World Trade Organization rules, at least for a while longer.

The most blatant campaign against American imported food has been managed by Italy's minister of agriculture, Pecoraro Scanio, a Green Party member of the ruling coalition. He has vocally denounced transgenic products as ``mutant'' food, withheld research funds from Italian plant scientists who say transgenic food is adequately tested, and seized imported food and seeds in warehouses based on the rumor that they might have some transgenic content. But recently a German magazine published an expose revealing that Italy's most popular variety of spaghetti wheat was developed using mutations induced by radiation. (Never mind that this had happened decades ago.) It was a huge embarrassment for Scanio, who had to promise to investigate so he could gain a little time. How will he be able to justify allowing real mutant food from Italy?

to top

Environmental Scare Stories

Let's move on to the environment.

We mentioned earlier a concern that some genetic engineered crops could cross breed with wild relatives. To the pseudo-environmental groups (those who like to call themselves green even though much of what they advocate would harm the environment), this absolutely rules out any permissible use. Their argument goes as follows: ``We don't have any idea what plants could cross breed with what other plants, and we don't have any idea what effect the unusual genes would have in the wild plants. Therefore we should take no chances.''

In fact, hybridization between different species is extremely uncommon and it has never been observed between distantly related species. A tomato won't cross with a potato, even though they are both members of the nightshade family. Yet the GE opponents would have us believe that just about any plant can hybridize with any other. And they have quotes from PhDs to prove it.

Actually there is exactly one controlled experiment showing a hybridization between a genetic engineered crop and a wild species. The crop was a transgenic canola (oilseed), with that same herbicide tolerance gene we have encountered before. Here is what PhD Jeremy Bartlett, of the John Innes Plant Research Center of Norfolk, England, wrote to the Manchester Guardian. He said we don't know what plants will hybridize with what other plants. He said that there is a documented example of transgenic canola hybridizing with a wild mustard. He went on in the same letter to talk about the possibility of gene transfer to soil organisms.

Dr. Bartlett is a PhD in biology. He surely knows that there is little basis for speculating that plants will pass genes on to soil organisms. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt where a speculation is concerned. Still he must have known that the documented case he was referring to was observed at a test plot of the John Innes Research Center, his own institution. The transgenic canola was planted in the center of the plot and various other species were planted at various distances to measure the rates of hybridization. There was only one case observed. The canola hybridized with the wild mustard.

Jeremy Bartlett means for you to think that if an oilseed can hybridize with a wild mustard, then anything can hybridize with anything. Fortunately, the John Innes Center puts its research reports on the world wide web, so I read the actual report. Guess what?

Canola is a hybrid itself, a cross between Brassica rapa and Brassica napus, two closely related wild plants in the same genus. Brassica rapa is wild mustard! So we don't have evidence for a transgenic crop hybridizing with just about anything else imaginable, beyond the capability of man to anticipate. We have evidence of a plant crossbreeding with its closest relative, placed in the test plot because it was so likely to crossbreed, and it was the only case observed. When the biotechnology opponents write or talk about this, they always say wild mustard and canola, never Brassica rapa and napus. Dr. Bartlett means to play with our minds, to mislead us. Hybridization with wild plants is a concern, but it is a managable concern.

to top

Vandalization of the Fields

This doesn't just happen in India. In 2000, eight test plots of transgenic oilseed developed by the AgroEvo Company were torn up in the British Isles. One more was sprayed with petrochemicals and another was mowed with a reaper, in broad daylight with TV news alerted. The last attack was organized by Greenpeace and the action was led by Lord Peter Melchett, head of England's chapter of Greenpeace. He was arrested and faced a trial, which he used to present the case against transgenic foods. He was acquitted! Greenpeace claims that these crops are a threat to the environment, yet Greenpeace organizes the vandalism that destroys the test plots which could prove and quantify this threat if there is any.

Incredibly, in the aftermath of such vandalism, the protesters were able to successfully demand that the British government make public the locations of all future test plots. Not surprisingly, many British farmers have therefore decided not to take part in such experiments.

Test plots of Bt corn were vandalized in California, Maine, Minnesota and Vermont that summer.

So-called direct action has not been limited to action against the plants. A university biology laboratory in Michigan was fire-bombed. Activists have attacked numerous research facilities to break windows and slash tires.

Most of this vandalization is committed by sincere people who have been stirred up by stories spread by groups they have come to trust. But in a surprising number of cases, the fields vandalized have had nothing to do with genetic engineering. Protesters in Britain who tore up a test plot of tomato plants in the night thought that they were frustrating GMO research, but they actually pulled up research plots of ordinary tomatoes. The genetically modified tomatoes were growing somewhere nearby.

In March of 2001, a forest of 800 aspen trees in Oregon was cut down by an unknown group, who then sent a letter to forest geneticist Steve Strauss, whose experiment they had destroyed. The letter claimed that his experiment was a menace to the environment. How? The trees were sterile. They could produce no seed, or pollen. Then in May, it was probably the same group that burned down a plant research center. Calling themselves Earth Liberation Front, they may not have known that scientists there were trying to save a rare plant, the showy stickweed, from extinction, using a cloning technology called tissue culture. A hundred of the plants perished in the fire. Approximately three hundred remain alive somewhere in the wild.

The Earth Liberation Front's members no doubt consider themselves virtuous for their love of the environment. Perhaps they justify the accidental eradication of one quarter of the population of an endangered species as a necessary casualty of their war against biotechnology. So far, the objective record has biotechnology helping to protect the environment while the Earth Liberation Front has set fires and killed trees.

There are internet sites which encourage this vandalism. Potential activists are offered advice on how to find likely targets by looking in the lists of projects carried out in universities. All a project needs to be targeted are sponsorship by industry or some key words like genetic in its title.

Bills have been filed in several agricultural states to make it clear, as if it weren't already clear, that destruction of research is criminal activity. The staff of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee had documented forty cases of such destruction in the United States during the three years ending in April 2001.

to top

The Monarch Butterfly Story

ADULT MONARCH GE opponents had a field day when Cornell Professor John Losey reported that pollen from Bt corn killed the larvae of the monarch butterfly. What fantastic publicity to herald the danger to the environment of a GE crop. Many a child has collected a beautiful blue chrysalis and protected it until its black and orange butterfly hatched and flew away. The report of Dr. Losey's experiment was in hundreds of newspapers the very next day. Two days later, the European Union announced a moratorium on all future approvals of genetic engineered crops because of the monarch butterfly.

Scarcely a week goes by without someone dressing up in a butterfly costume to protest genetically engineered food.

Dr. Losey's experiment was as follows: He sprinkled Bt corn pollen onto milkweed leaves, then put monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) in a jar with only the pollen dusted leaves to eat. He observed high mortality.

Now here is some background to help you decide what this means. Monarch butterflies eat only nectar, not pollen, and caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves. Farmers don't let milkweed grow in cornfields, although it may grow on roadsides near cornfields. Corn pollen is heavy and seldom drifts more than ten meters from the tassel. Because of the refuge strategy, each field of Bt corn is surrounded by several rows of conventional corn. Very little Bt pollen gets to the edge of the corn field. Furthermore corn pollen is shed for only a few weeks and monarch butterfly larvae do not hatch until after most of the pollen is gone.

Dr. Losey told reporters that his experiment was inconclusive because he had not controlled for the amount of pollen dusted onto the milkweed leaves. But, a controlled experiment two years earlier had shown negligible mortality of monarch caterpillars under realistic conditions. This study had been submitted to the EPA as part of the regulatory process.

Corn which is not Bt protected is grown with insecticides which kill any insect the spray reaches, including beneficial insects. Bt corn is now 30% of the US crop and the monarch butterfly population is on the increase.

The most advanced variety of Bt corn produces the Bt toxin only in its stalks and leaves, and does not produce any toxin in its pollen. The company which sells this variety is Monsanto.

While the organized opponents of transgenic food were using Professor Losey's preliminary experiment as ammunition in a propaganda war, Dr. Losey was doing what scientists are supposed to do, gathering more data. He and other scientists have found that under realistic conditions, monarch caterpillars would almost never be exposed to enough corn pollen to harm them. Even when the caterpillars are force fed large amounts of pollen, only one variety of Bt corn contains enough toxin to matter. That variety, called Event 176, was never planted on more than two percent of American farmland, and has since been withdrawn from production. Several other teams carried out additional experiments to quantify the effects of Bt pollen on monarchs and other butterflies. These studies all reported negligible effect. These controlled studies were mostly ignored by the media.

A very good case is made by Dr. Losey that a monarch butterfly is better off near a Bt cornfield than near a cornfield which is sprayed to control the European corn borer. Of course, the butterfly would be better off still near an organic cornfield. But without chemicals, the borer can cause losses of approximately one third of the corn crop. It is simple arithmetic to see that if we relied on organic corn, we would need to use fifty percent more land. The more land we use for farming the less land is available for wildlife habitat. So the propagandists, gleefully pushing the monarch butterfly story for all it is worth, may be making life worse for the butterflies and eventually for all wild things.

to top

Blocking Famine Relief

The moral divide between responsible and irresponsible critics of transgenic food was made very clear in the fall of 2002. There was a terrible famine in Southeast Africa, the worst ever recorded. In eleven countries, the shortfall in harvest threatened up to fourteen million people with starvation. The United Nations' World Food Program began to ship and distribute thousands of tons of food to Africa, mostly corn from America.

Incredibly, the leaders of three African countries, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, told the World Food Program that they could not distribute American corn in their countries because it might be genetically engineered.

Why would African leaders prefer that their people starve rather than eat American corn? No African could possibly believe that his country's food safety standards are better than America's. But organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth had warned the Africans that some of their farmers might save the genetically engineered seed for the next year's planting. Then those organizations would lobby the European Union to require that all of Africa's future agricultural exports to Europe would have to be traceable to prove that they were traditional crops. Of course, Africa doesn't export corn to Europe, but it does export products like coffee, and cut flowers. The connection between corn and cut flowers is a mystery to me. This was just a kind of blackmail.

The World Food Program is not interested in political or philosophical disputes, only in providing famine relief. They knew that they simply could not find enough corn to feed fourteen million people without accepting American corn. The United States contributes sixty percent of the WFP's food aid. They pointed out that if the corn was milled to flour it would be impossible for farmers to save seed for planting. After considerable negotiation, Zimbabwe and Malawi agreed to accept American corn to feed their people if it was milled.

Zambia, however, refused to budge. President Levi Mwanawasa said that he would not allow his people to be poisoned. He was cheered by some of the opponents of genetic engineered food, like Friends of the Earth, and Vandana Shiva. Greenpeace, with a keener sense of public relations, said that it would be better for Africans to eat transgenic corn than to starve, but blamed the United States for using Africa's famine as an opportunity to dump its surpluses.

American transgenic corn was distributed in Zambia during four previous famines without any problems. In some places the WFP had stored supplies of corn in warehouses. Mwanawasa at first said that those supplies could be used to feed Angolan and Congolese refugees living in Zambia, but then he changed his mind and insisted that it be taken out of his country. Before this could happen, starving peasants overpowered warehouse guards and seized tons of corn.

This was not the first time that GMO zealots tried to prevent relief supplies from reaching refugees. In 1999, a cyclone devastated the Indian coastal state of Orissa. America contributed food relief. Dr. Shiva had it tested, found that some was genetically modified, and demanded that it not be distributed. Fortunately she was ignored then. Now, however, many Africans are dying of starvation because of the anti-GMO movement. It is immoral to use starving families as pawns in a propaganda battle.

to top

Using the Courts

If you can't suppress transgenic crops by saying that they are deadly to eat, or that they are bad for the environment, there are always the courts. Jeremy Rifkin, the perpetual opponent of scientific advances, filed an antitrust suit against the five largest companies with genetic engineered products, including Monsanto and Dupont. Another perpetual gadfly filed a suit in Federal Court whose plaintiffs were a rabbi and a mullah. Their claim is that cross breeding of different species is an affront to their religion. (Both of these suits were eventually dismissed.)

In 2007, GMO opponents successfully sued to restrain Monsanto from selling seed for a herbicide-resistant variety of alfalfa, even though it had been subjected to the usual round of regulatory approvals, until after the Environmental Protection Agency issues an Environmental Impact Statement - the claim was not that the environmental impact had not been studied, only that the EIS had not been issued. No previous crop introductions, even transgenic crop introductions, had ever needed an EIS. By that time, farmers had already planted 200,000 acres of GMO alfalfa. Judge Charles Breyer issued an injunction against future seed sales, but he also ruled that the GMO alfalfa already planted was OK to grow and harvest.

Using the courts is particularly effective in Europe. The rules of the European Union require all countries to agree before a new product can be imported. Since all the European Union members are democracies, they all have courts, so there are lots of chances to sue to keep the new product out of at least one country and therefore out of all of Europe. Even if you can't win a lawsuit, you can always appeal, and when the appeal is lost, you can sue again with a different complaint. Someone in the government in every country is disposed to protect the local farmers from foreign imports. Europe has kept almost all genetic engineered food out. We are very close to a trade war with Europe over American agricultural exports, many of which have nothing to do with transgenic crops, but the US Commerce Department is working behind the scenes to give Europe the message that our patience is wearing very thin.

to top

The Precautionary Principle

When the GMO opponents are presented with criticism of their facts and falsehoods, they fall back on the following argument: ``We can't prove any particular problem with genetically engineered agriculture, but until we can be sure that there is no possible problem, it is necessary to err on the side of caution.''

As for productivity increases which biotechnology might make possible, the critics say that there is plenty of food available, and that hunger is caused by poverty, not scarcity.

In the US and Europe, where standards of living are high, this point of view is at least defensible. In the third world, where food is scarce and agricultural productivity is poor, such an argument is rightly regarded as elitist. But even in prosperous countries, the ``precautionary principle'' can be taken to foolish extremes.

I grew up in New York City at a time when just about every public health expert advocated adding fluorides to the water supply to prevent dental decay. This public health measure was delayed by decades by people who were persuaded that fluoridation might cause anything from tooth discoloration to epilepsy. As a result, I have a mouth full of fillings. My children, who grew up with fluoridated water, have never had a single cavity. The misuse of the precautionary principle has cost me many thousands of dollars and dozens of hours in the dentist's chair.

In my grandparents' generation, goiter, a disease of the thyroid gland, was common. Victims had a disfiguration of the neck, and were frequently cold and listless because the thyroid gland is involved in regulating the body's energy production. Goiter is caused by iodine deficiency. Adding iodine to table salt has made the disease rare today. But at that time, it was resisted fiercely with just the same sort of campaign as was conducted about fluoridation, the same sort of campaign that is today being conducted about genetic engineered food.

When choosing between alternatives it makes no sense to let an unlikely and hypothetical problem outweigh an actual important current problem.

The logical flaw of the precautionary principle is that it fails to recognize that doing nothing is also a choice.

to top

Have the GMO proponents been Honest?

While it is true that the major blame for misinformation has to lie with certain opponents of genetic engineering, the other side is not without its faults.

Proponents are fond of saying that genetic modification is as old as agriculture, implying that there is only a minor difference between selective breeding and transferring genes. It is absolutely true that there can be unanticipated consequences from older methods of crop modification, but that should be taken as an argument for strict regulation of all new crop introductions. It is not a valid argument to support safety of GM crops. There are special concerns when a gene is introduced that had never been in a species' repertoire.

The companies who have developed major transgenic crops have also tried to use ``golden rice'' as a poster child. But this is not fair. The companies made little if any contribution to the development of vitamin A enriched rice, apart from allowing the use of their patents. Considering that the poorest farmers in Asia don't have the cash to pay for expensive seeds, these patents would not have netted the biotech companies any income anyway. Besides, golden rice is meant to benefit the consumer who eats it, whereas almost all the biotech companies' products have been meant to bring advantages to farmers.

In the same way, the companies have been less than completely honest about the environmental advantages. Cotton pesticide use has been dramatically reduced, but for most other crops the reductions have not been huge. For example, Bt corn resistant to the European corn borer doesn't reduce pesticide use very much, for the simple reason that corn borers are too hard to control with pesticides, so little was used. Virus resistant crops have increased yields, but viruses were never controlled with pesticides.

There has also been a tendency for proponents to exaggerate the promise of genetic engineering to reduce hunger. Other technologies can do much more in the short and intermediate term. A huge amount of food rots before anyone can eat it. Rats and insects spoil much of the rest. Investments in refrigeration and plastic wraps could save vast amounts of food in the very parts of the world where it is scarce. Sometimes, just after a crop is harvested, heavy rains make roads impassible and the farmer can't get his crop to market before it spoils. Decent roads would do much to combat scarcity.

However, these examples are just not comparable to the gross misrepresentations that have come from the opponents of transgenic farming.

to top

Who is to Blame for Problems with Food?

A great deal of negative propaganda has had an interesting effect. The image of genetic engineers is now so negative that some people are beginning to attribute whatever they don't like about food to genetic engineering.

For example, when the debacle of Starlink corn was first reported, hundreds of people reported that they had suffered allergic reactions caused by eating it. It happens to be quite easy to check that claim. If Joe has had an allergic reaction to X, his blood must contain antibodies that react to X. Dozens of the people who reported these allergic reactions were tested by the Center For Disease Control. None of them had antibodies to the Starlink protein. Something had made these people feel ill, and genetic engineered food became their scapegoat.

Not long ago, I was listening to the Boston area public radio station. An invited commentator was presenting his opinion that modern food is inferior to the foods of the past. He gave an example. ``Tomatoes used to taste good, but they have now been genetically engineered so that they can be picked while they are still green. This makes them easier to ship, but they taste like cardboard.''

I very much doubt that this commentator had any axe to grind about genetic engineering. But his comment was startling. There are no genetically modified fresh tomatoes for sale! He had almost certainly never tasted one. The green tomatoes are indeed picked green to permit easy shipping, but they aren't genetically modified. But there was once a genetically engineered tomato offered for sale. It contained an antisense gene so that it wouldn't rot so quickly after it got ripe. The idea was to allow growers to ripen it on the vine and get it to the store before it began to rot. In other words, the only genetically modified fresh tomatoes ever sold were meant to avoid exactly what the commentator was complaining about. Consumers loved the modified tomatoes, which were prominently labelled, and they bought all they could get, but the company producing the tomatoes lost heaps of money because so many tomatoes were ruined in shipping.

The commentator had gotten everything totally backwards.

to top

Some Future Possibilities

This section is not about reality, but speculation. What might genetic engineering bring us in the future?

As we've seen above, there are many opponents of the technology who imagine all sorts of catastrophes. In the hands of true mad scientists, biotechnology could be used for great evil. New bacteria or viruses could be developed, capable of causing diseases which medicine could not treat. Modern nations have abandoned germ warfare with the possible exception of a few rogue states, but what is to prevent an individual or a terrorist organization from such a course?

The future could also bring us improvements in our lives, or in how our technologies impact the other beings who share our planet.

LIMULUS POLYPHEMUSIn the waters off the coast of North America there is a peculiar animal called a horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). Horseshoe crabs are regularly captured and their blood is used to make a substance used to sterilize medical supplies. There are certain bacteria, called gram negative bacteria, hard to detect, but which will cause clotting in a mixture of biological chemicals called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (L.A.L.), found only in the horseshoe crab's blood. Horseshoe crabs are not yet considered an endangered species, but their numbers have declined precipitously in recent years. Obviously the crabs would be better off if we could copy their genes into a convenient plant or yeast and make whatever L.A.L. we need without bothering them anymore.

We make many useful things like plastics from oil. Someday, there won't be much oil left in the ground and we will need to use substitutes for energy and for chemical feedstocks. There is no reason why plastics could not be made by plants if we could somehow engineer their genes to control the necessary chemical pathways. In fact, plants ought to be able to make petroleum.

Bayberries are a wild shrub, usually growing near the ocean, which bear waxy berries. They are used to make candles which burn with a delightful fragrance. Paraffin candles are much less expensive. They're made from petroleum. Why could not the genes that let the bayberry make wax be transferred into a more convenient crop plant?

Many of our medical drugs are now produced by genetically engineered bacteria or yeasts, but could instead be produced by genetically engineered plants. In fact, they could even be produced in the parts of plants which are now unused, like stalks of corn or wheat. One scientist is even working on a way to deliver edible vaccines in bananas.

There are endangered species whose decline has nothing to do with human exploitation. Two such are the American chestnut and the American elm. Before the twentieth century, chestnut trees were one of the keystone species of America's eastern forests. They were then decimated by a fungus. Many of these chestnut trees are still alive as roots, which still send up saplings, but they never grow to maturity before the fungus reinfects them. Elm trees, once the most popular shade tree lining streets of American small towns, are highly susceptible to a different fungus, carried by a beetle. Few elm trees have survived. But scientists in Scotland have transferred genes into elm trees that should make them immune to the Dutch elm fungus. Why couldn't we transfer genes that would enable the chestnut to thrive again, so that in a hundred years this species could again enrich our forests?

Blue jeans are made from two plants. Cotton provides the fiber and indigo provides the color. Why not engineer the cotton plant with some indigo genes so that it produces navy blue cotton?

Can we get wool from a plant? Can we get silk from a plant?

Citrus fruits are grown in Florida and California, where the weather is warm. Could they be engineered to grow in Maine or Minnesota?

These are imaginary applications, and you can probably think of many others. But there are reasons why at least some of them won't happen soon. First, we have not learned enough, in most cases, to successfully transfer whole complexes of genes and make them function. We could feasibly identify every gene that helps the horseshoe crab make Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, and every protein involved, but that would not be enough. We need to know the whole complex synthesis pathway, and how each chemical involved would interact with other processes in the target species.

Second, there's simple economics. Private companies do most of the genetic engineering. They need to be motivated by a prospect of large future profits. They are in no hurry to develop products for a niche market. Such products are developed, instead, by university researchers, but they usually can't get the capital necessary to comply with all the safety regulations.

Third, as long as the movement to frustrate genetic engineered agriculture remains effective, investors will seek other directions, and young scientists will choose to work on less controversial research.

to top

Transgenic Products from Off the Farm

Very little fuss has been made about the non-agricultural applications of genetic modification. Perhaps people are simply unaware of just how many products there are, or perhaps there is some special gut reaction (no pun intended) when the product is something we eat.

Most detergents are now made by transgenic microorganisms. Fifteen years ago, lakes and rivers were being overloaded with phosphates which originated as detergents. Today's detergents are based on enzymes. Not only are they non-polluting, but they work in cool water, saving significant energy.

Diabetics must have regular injections of insulin. The only large quantities of insulin available used to be derived from pigs. Insulin is a protein and the amino acid sequences of pig insulin and human insulin are not quite identical. Diabetics had to make do with the product available. But no longer. The gene for human insulin was isolated and transferred to yeast, and today perfect human insulin is easily available, and much cheaper to produce.

An even more dramatic medical improvement has affected the lives of people with defective pituitary glands. The pituitary has been called the body's master gland because it secretes so many hormones that control basic body activity. These are all proteins. Such proteins used to be available only from human corpses. Today they are made by bacteria with human genes.

A closely related development does not involve moving genes but recognizing them. Even very tiny amounts of DNA can be amplified and analyzed. Since every person's DNA is different from any other person's (except for identical twins), the analysis of minute traces of skin, blood, hair, etc. can be used to prove that a particular person either was or was not involved in a crime. This technology has actually been used to exonerate innocent people who would otherwise have been executed, and it has even more frequently been used to convict people of crimes which couldn't have been solved by any other means. (DNA evidence did not persuade one California jury that O. J. Simpson had killed his wife and her acquaintance, but it was persuasive enough to convince another jury to punish him with a massive civil damages penalty.)

It is even possible, although not easy, to transfer human genes into a human being with a genetic defect. Suppose a person was born with two defective copies of a critical gene. Scientists can transfer a functional copy of that gene into a relatively harmless virus related to the virus that causes the common cold. This virus is then used to infect the patient and, with luck, some of the virus' genes, including the all-important human gene, can be transferred into some of the human body cells. If the transferred human gene functions, the genetic disease is cured. So far this kind of therapy has worked only a few times, and in one tragic case the patient died as a result of his body's reaction to the virus. Nobody can predict whether this human genetic engineering will some day be able to cure genetic diseases like diabetes, sickle cell anemia, phenylketonuria, Tay Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, etc. Genetic engineering has even given us some new tools in the medical battle against the most important genetic disease, cancer.

to top

Summary

The story is not over, but it is time to summarize.

Science has brought us to the point where we can transfer genes from one species to another, so that we can change the traits of agricultural crops. Assuming that these changes are done with great care, we can have crops which are more productive, more nutritious, tastier, and better for the environment. It is also possible to proceed carelessly and do damage to the environment and to people's health. The objective record so far is that the scientists developing transgenic crops have been very responsible and the regulatory agencies have been very cautious. No damage has been done to the environment. Millions of liters of pesticides have been left in their barrels instead of sprayed on fields, and millions of cubic yards of topsoil have stayed on the fields instead of choking streams and rivers. Nobody has gotten so much as a zit from eating transgenic food.

But opponents of transgenic food have arguments against it. Some are valid, but too many of the opponents are not content to base their arguments on facts. They have spread lies and they have stated facts in a way that is meant to mislead. They have also resorted to ``direct action'', more explicitly to vandalism, and they have allied with the United States' economic competitors to disadvantage American companies and American farmers. Their campaign of vilification is clearly bearing fruit. It is time for people to stand up to this campaign by educating themselves. Knowing a few facts serves to immunize us from propaganda.

to top