Friday, May 15, 2009

The Trouble with Genetic Engineering

I received an alert this week concerning President Obama’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack (former Republican governor of Iowa, a big corn state.) It said that “Upon returning from the G8 summit in Italy, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack pledged to promote Big Biotech abroad as part of President Obama's foreign policy.” The alert went on to explain that “agricultural development” for this administration seems to mean “exporting the United States’ toxic industrial agriculture model, with genetically engineered crops at the forefront.”

Big Biotech. Genetically engineered crops. To get a sense of what all this portends, read Claire Hope Cummings recent book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press: 2008). It’s an eye-opening study, only a few snippets of which I can convey here.

To begin with, no one should underestimate the problem, for as Cummings reminds us, fully 80% of the processed foods now on our grocery shelves contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) From this, and from industry hype, one might imagine that genetic engineering of crops is a successful enterprise. The truth is that it’s one of the biggest money-losing industries of all time. That’s partly because it’s hugely expensive: as Cummings points out, the old way of developing a new plant variety—which farmers and, more recently, botanists have been doing for thousands of years—can cost $52,000. The typical plant-development cost of the transgenic method? Nearly $1.5 million! So the big corporations like Monsanto who develop this stuff have a lot invested, and they will do anything to protect their investment. One early ploy was the invention of the “pseudo-scientific concept” called “substantial equivalence.” This says, without any scientific evidence, that GMO products are the same as their natural counterparts. Therefore, the biotech companies don’t have to investigate reports of the harm their products cause. No tests, no toxicology studies, nothing. As a Monsanto spokesman put it: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” The FDA passes the buck back as well, saying its policy is not to test or even label GMOs. So in the end, it’s not only that no one is responsible; it’s worse: we humans are being used as guinea pigs. As Cummings puts it, “the feeding trials are taking place at our dinner tables.”

Trials are also going on in fields worldwide. Hawaii seems to be testing central for big biotech, with corporations like Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta/Garst and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred using all five islands as sites for their GMOs. And it has not been without its cost. In one case in 1998, the University of Hawaii developed transgenic papaya trees to resist the rinspot virus. Through cross-pollination, the new variety began contaminating other, natural papaya varieties such that by 2004 “almost 50% of papayas tested on the Big Island were contaminated.” Evidence of other genetic contamination is widespread: Starlink corn, a transgenic variety meant to be used only for animal feed, was discovered in taco shells, which means it’s almost everywhere; Liberty Link 601 herbicide-resistant rice, supposedly not for human use, was found by a consumer in U.S. long-grain rice. Because of this contamination, rice futures for U.S. rice have plummeted. And what is Big biotech’s response? Why to lobby the United States Department of Agriculture to approve the contaminated rice for humans retroactively! (reminds us of the Bush Administration and its successful tactic of getting retroactive immunity for its spies and torturers.) This same tactic is being used for all other transgenic crops: the world, says Big Biotech, should simply accept the “adventitious presence” of transgenes. In other words, genetic contamination is just a natural accident, as when non-native plants turn up in soil not natural to them. The upshot is that we can expect much more of this in the future, including the spread of genetically modified trees, and the increase of “superweeds, which result when weeds develop resistance to not one, but several different herbicides (such weeds have already been found in Canada and several other countries including our own.)

In truth, the more one reads about this chemical industry posing as agriculture, the more the horror stories multiply. Cummings gives us a witches brew of potions that have already been engineered into food plants: “corn that produces the hepatitis B virus, corn with a human contraceptive, corn with rat genes, chicken genes, jellyfish genes that glow in the dark; growth hormones from carp genes in safflowers; human genes in tobacco, sugar cane, and rice; rat genes in soybeans; wheat genes in chickens.” And my favorite, goats “engineered with spider genes so that they produce spider silk in their milk.” Among the fallout from all this tinkering with seeds—the literal source of life—are a serious rise in allergies, stunted growth damage to the immune system in test animals, and a host of other ailments including liver damage and blood cell formation problems. The very first GMO food, the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato, fed to rats, caused stomach lesions, with 7 of the 40 test animals dying. But since there has been an FDA policy against testing, only a few studies have been done, with even fewer done by independent labs. One of the latter showed not only that GMOs affect the immune system, but that “transgenes can transfer out of GMO food and into bacteria in the gut at detectable levels after just one meal.”

The most sophisticated part of Cummings’ book is the material on the supposed scientific basis for genetic engineering, i.e. that DNA is the secret of life, and now that scientists have that secret, and the precision to manipulate it, they can create whatever they wish. The truth is that GMO seed construction is anything but precise. As Cummings points out, “What the successful genetic transformation of plants depends on is not design but random luck.” For though what is called a “cassette” of genes can be inserted into a plant’s cells, no one can really predict where it will end up. The key is to make multiple insertions, thousands of insertions in thousands of trials, discarding all the “monsters” that are created, and saving the few happy accidents. There is lots more in the book about the methods used to insert the desired set of genes—including, early on, using a 22-caliber rifle to shoot the DNA into the cells, and using bacteria to infect wounded plants cells so as to transfer the new DNA. And even when “successful,” the target plants are subject to unexpected mutations and modifications: Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean, for example, has been found to contain some mysterious DNA, which Monsanto, of course, said was “natural,” but was later found to have resulted from the transformation process. In short, no one knows what the results of all this diddling with the basic unit of life will be. And we’re the experimental animals.

The point of all this experimentation, for the biotech companies, is to patent, i.e. have exclusive ownership rights to each new plant product. Then farmers worldwide can be made to pay dearly for new seeds each year, rather than, as farmers have traditionally done, save their own seeds from one year to the next. The Indian physicist/activist Vandana Shiva has raised the cry about this biopiracy worldwide, about the ruination of traditional farmers who are being driven into debt and robbed of their inheritance—their generations of work developing seeds perfectly suited to a specific environment. Now, moreover, they are being inundated with so-called super seeds, and then, if they try to use the seeds on their own, sued by the huge corporations that produce them. Since this is all a bit messy for the biotech giants, their main method of patent enforcement has become “terminator technologies.” Using their DNA-insertion skills, they have now engineered seeds that will not germinate after the first crop; or produced other seeds that are kept from germinating until they are “awakened” by a specific (costly) chemical; or, most bizarre of all, created terminator seeds that are laced with antibiotics designed to turn traits off or on—guaranteeing that farmers can’t re-use them. These “suicide” seeds are labeled “technology protection systems” by their promoters, protecting, they say, plants from being contaminated by transgenes, thus helping farmers.

The conclusion by Cummings, and by anyone else not polluted by the propaganda pouring from the huge agribusiness sector, is chilling: “Seeds, instead of being a source of life, are now becoming a source of death.” And her crusade, via this book, is to wake all of us to the dangers we face, not simply from the fact of contamination of our entire botanic heritage, but from the overturning of the very genetic, moral basis of our world. Here is how she puts it: “I believe that the use of genetic technologies to re-create the world is the defining moral issue of our time. This technology, more than any that came before it, redefines who we are, what makes us human, and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural world…Now we are faced with a choice. Do we accept the triumph of the techno-elites, meaning do we let them decide what’s best for us, or do we use our common sense and moral compass to restore the public role of humanity in evaluating and governing technology?”

When we hear the Secretary of Agriculture promising to promote this technology, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, we can only hope that Cummings’ message will somehow get through, somehow attract a large enough counterforce to compel a rethinking of what we’re here for. Because if it doesn’t, we will leave ourselves at the mercy of corporations which seem driven by the idea that inserting a technology of death into that which is meant to sustain us is as good a 'raison d'etre' as any, and certainly more profitable than most.

Lawrence DiStasi

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