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The Myths Of Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Ethical Questions

by Miguel A. Altieri
Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
University of California, Berkeley

For years academicians have assumed that agriculture poses no special problem for environmental ethics, despite the fact that human life and human civilization depend on the intentional artificialization of nature to carry out agricultural production. Even critics of the environmental impacts of pesticides and of the social implications of agricultural technology have failed to conceptualize a coherent environmental ethics applicable to agricultural problems (Thompson 1995). In general, most proponents of sustainable agriculture, driven by a technological determinism lack on understanding of the structural roots of the environmental degradation linked to capitalist agriculture. Therefore, by accepting the present socioeconomic and political structure of agriculture as a given, they became constrained from implementing an alternative agriculture that challenges such structure (Levins and Lewontin 1985). This is worrisome, especially today, as profit motivations rather than environmental concerns, shape the type of research and modes of agricultural production prevalent throughout the world (Busch et al. 1990).

Herein we contend that the key problem facing agroecologists, is that modern industrial agriculture, today epitomized by biotechnology, is founded on philosophical premises that are fundamentally flawed, and that precisely those premises are the ones that need to be exposed and criticized in order to advance towards a truly sustainable agriculture.

This is particularly relevant in the case of biotechnology, where the alliance of reductionist science and a multinational monopolistic industry which jointly perceive agricultural problems as genetic deficiencies of organisms and treat nature as a commodity, will take agriculture further down a misguided route (Levidow and Carr 1997).

The objective of this paper is to challenge the false promises made by the genetic engineering industry that it will move agriculture away from a dependence on chemical inputs, that will increase productivity, as well as decrease input costs and help reduce environmental problems (OTA 1992). By challenging the myths of biotechnology, we expose genetic engineering for what it really is; another "technological fix" or "magic bullet" aimed at circumventing the environmental problems of agriculture (which themselves are the outcome of an earlier round of technological fix), without questioning the flawed assumptions that gave rise to the problems in the first place (Hindmarsh 1991). Biotechnology develops single-gene solutions for problems that derive from ecologically unstable monoculture systems, designed on industrial models of efficiency. Such unilateral approach was already proven ecologically unfit in the case of pesticides (Pimentel et al. 1992).

The Myths Of Agricultural Biotechnology (continued)

Ethical Questions About Biotechnology

Environmentalists critical of biotechnology, question the assumptions that biotechnological science is value free, and that it cannot be wrong or misused and call for an ethical evaluation of genetic engineering research and its products (Krimsky and Wrubel 1996). Proponents of biotechnology are perceived as having a utilitarian view of nature and as favoring the free trading of economic gains for ecological damage with indifference to the human consequences (James 1997). At the very heart of the critique are biotechnology's effects on social and economic conditions and religious and moral values giving rise to questions such as:

  • Should we alter the genetic structure of the entire living kingdom in the name of utility and profit?

  • Is there something sacred about life, or should life forms, including humans, be viewed simply as commodities in the new biotechnological marketplace?

  • Is the genetic makeup of all living things, the common heritage of all, or it can be appropriated by corporations and thus become private property of a few?

  • Who gave individual companies the right to the monopoly over entire groups of organisms?

  • Do biotechnologists feel as masters of nature? Is this an illusion constructed on scientific arrogance and conventional economics, blind to the complexity of ecological processes?

  • It is possible to minimize ethical concerns and reduce environmental risks while keeping the benefits?

There are also questions that arise specifically from the nature of the technology, while others such as the domination of agricultural research agendas by commercial interests, the uneven distribution of benefits, the possible environmental risks and the exploitation of the poor nations' genetic resources by rich ones demand a deeper inquiry:

  • Who benefits from the technology? Who loses?

  • What are the environmental and health consequences?

  • What have been the alternatives forgone?

  • To whose needs does biotechnology respond?

  • How does the technology affect what is being produced, how it is being produced and for what and for whom?

  • What are the social goals and ethical criteria that guides research problem? choices?

  • Biotechnology for achieving what social and agronomic goals?

The Biotechnology Myths

The agrochemical corporations which control the direction and goals of agricultural innovation through biotechnology claim that genetic engineering will enhance the sustainability of agriculture by solving the very problems affecting conventional farming and will spare Third World farmers from low productivity, poverty and hunger (Molnar and Kinnucan 1989, Gresshoft 1996). By matching myth with reality the following section describes how and why current developments in agricultural biotechnology do not measure up to such promises and expectations.

Myth 1:
Biotechnology will benefit farmers in the US and in the developed world.

Most innovations in agricultural biotechnology are profit driven rather than need driven, therefore the thrust of the genetic engineering industry is not to solve agricultural problems as much as it is to create profitability. Moreover, biotechnology seeks to industrialize agriculture even further and to intensify farmers' dependence upon industrial inputs aided by a ruthless system of intellectual property rights which legally inhibits the right of farmers to reproduce, share and store seeds (Busch et al. 1990). By controlling the germplasm from seed to sale and by forcing farmers to pay inflated prices for seed-chemical packages, companies are determined to extract the most profit from their investment.

Because biotechnologies are capital intensive they will continue to deepen the pattern of change in US agriculture, increasing concentration of agricultural production in the hands of large-corporate farms. As with other labor saving technology, by increasing productivity biotechnology tends to reduce commodity prices and set in motion a technology treadmill that forces out of business a significant number of farmers, especially small scale. The example of bovine growth hormone confirms the hypothesis that biotechnology will accelerate the foreclosure of small dairy farms (Krimsky and Wrubel 1996).

Myth 2:
Biotechnology will benefit small farmers and will favor the hungry and poor of the Third World.

If Green Revolution technology bypassed small and resource-poor farmers, biotechnology will exacerbate marginalization even more as such technologies are under corporate control and protected by patents, are expensive and inappropriate to the needs and circumstances of indigenous people (Lipton 1989). As biotechnology is primarily a commercial activity, this reality determines priorities of what is investigated, how it is applied and who is to benefit. While the world may lack food and suffer from pesticide pollution, the focus of multinational corporations is profit, not philanthropy. This is why biotechnologists design transgenic crops for new marketable quality or for import substitution, rather than for greater food production (Mander and Goldsmith 1996). In general, biotechnology companies are emphasizing a limited range of crops for which there are large and secured markets, targeted at relatively capital-intensive production systems. As transgenic crops are patented plants, this means that indigenous farmers can lose rights to their own regional germplasm and not be allowed under GATT to reproduce, share or store the seeds of their harvest (Crucible Group 1994). It is difficult to conceive how such technology will be introduced in Third World countries to favor the masses of poor farmers. If biotechnologists were really committed to feeding the world, why isn't the scientific genius of biotechnology turned to develop varieties of crops more tolerant to weeds rather than to herbicides? Or why aren't more promising products of biotechnology, such as N fixing and drought tolerant plants being developed?

Biotechnology products will undermine exports from the Third World countries especially from small-scale producers. The development of a thaumatin product via biotechnology is just the beginning of a transition to alternative sweeteners which will replace Third World sugar markets in the future (Mander and Goldsmith 1996). It is estimated that nearly 10 million sugar farmers in the Third World may face a loss of livelihood as laboratory-processed sweeteners begin invading world markets. Fructose produced by biotechnology already captured over 10% of the world market and caused sugar prices to fall, throwing tens of thousands of workers out of work. But such foreclosures of rural opportunities are not limited to sweeteners. Approximately 70,000 vanilla farmers in Madagascar were ruined when a Texas firm produced vanilla in biotech labs (Busch et al. 1990). The expansion on Unilever cloned oil palms will substantially increase palm-oil production with dramatic consequences for farmers producing other vegetable oils (groundnut in Senegal and coconut in Philippines).

Myth 3:
Biotechnology will not attempt against the ecological sovereignty of the Third World.

Ever since the North became aware of the ecological services performed by biodiversity of which the South is the major repository, the Third World has witnessed a "gene rush" as multinational corporations aggressively scour forests, crop fields and coasts in search of the South's genetic gold (Kloppenburg1988). Protected by GATT, MNCs freely practice "biopiracy" which the Rural Advancement Foundation (RAFI) estimates it costing developing countries US $ 5.4 billion a year through lost royalties from food and drug companies which use indigenous farmers' germplasm and medicinal plants (Levidow and Carr 1997).

Clearly, indigenous people and their biodiversity are viewed as raw materials for the MNCs which have made billions of dollars on seeds developed in US labs from germplasm that farmers in the Third World had carefully bred over generations (Fowler and Mooney 1990). Meanwhile, peasant farmers go unrewarded for their millenary farming knowledge, while MNCs stand to harvest royalties from Third World countries estimated at billions of dollars. So far biotechnology companies offer no provisions to pay Third World farmers for the seeds they take and use (Kloppenburg 1988).

Myth 4:
Biotechnology will lead to biodiversity conservation.

Although biotechnology has the capacity to create a greater variety of commercial plants and thus contribute to biodiversity, this is unlikely to happen. The strategy of MNCs is to create broad international seed markets for a single product. The tendency is towards uniform international seed markets (MacDonald 1991). Moreover, the MNC-dictated provisions of the patent system prohibiting farmers to reuse the seed yielded by their harvests, will affect the possibilities of in-situ conservation and on-farm improvements of genetic diversity.

The agricultural systems developed with transgenic crops will favor monocultures characterized by dangerously high levels of genetic homogeneity leading to higher vulnerability of agricultural systems to biotic and abiotic stresses (Robinson 1996). As the new bioengineered seeds replace the old traditional varieties and their wild relatives, genetic erosion will accelerate in the Third World (Fowler and Mooney 1990). Thus the push for uniformity will not only destroy the diversity of genetic resources, but will also disrupt the biological complexity that underlines the sustainability of traditional farming systems (Altieri 1994).

Myth 5:
Biotechnology is ecologically safe and will launch a period of a chemical-free sustainable agriculture.

Biotechnology is being pursued to patch-up the problems that have been caused by previous agrochemical technologies (pesticide resistance, pollution, soil degradation, etc.) which were promoted by the same companies now leading the bio-revolution. Transgenic crops developed for pest control follow closely the pesticide paradigm of using a single control mechanism which has proven to fail over and over again with insects, pathogens and weeds (NRC 1996). Transgenic crops are likely to increase the use of pesticides and to accelerate the evolution of "super weeds" and resistant insect pests strains (Rissler and Mellon 1996). The "one gene - one pest" resistant approach has proven to be easily overcome by pests which are continuously adapting to new situations and evolving detoxification mechanisms (Robinson 1997).

There are many unanswered ecological questions regarding the impact of the release of transgenic plants and micro-organisms into the environment.

Among the major environmental risks associated with genetically engineered plants are the unintended transfer to plant relatives of the "transgenes" and the unpredictable ecological effects (Rissler and Mellon 1996).

Given the above considerations, agroecological theory predicts that biotechnology will exacerbate the problems of conventional agriculture and by promoting monocultures will also undermine ecological methods of farming such as rotation and polycultures (Hindmarsh 1991). As presently conceived, biotechnology does not fit into the broad ideals of a sustainable agriculture (Kloppenburg and Burrows 1996).

Myth 6:
Biotechnology will enhance the use of molecular biology for the benefit of all sectors of society.

The demand for the new biotechnology did not emerge as a result of social demands but it emerged out of changes in patent laws and the profit interests of chemical companies of linking seeds and pesticides. The supply emerged out of breakthroughs in molecular biology and the availability of venture capital as a result of favorable tax laws (Webber 1990). The danger is that the private sector is influencing the direction of public sector research in ways unprecedented in the past (Kleinman and Kloppenburg 1988).

As more universities enter into partnerships with corporations, serious ethical questions emerge about who owns the results of research and which research gets done. The trend toward secrecy by university scientists involved in such partnerships raises questions about personal ethics and conflicts of interest. In many universities a professor's ability to attract private investment is often more important than academic qualifications, taking away the incentives for scientists to be socially responsible. Fields such as biological control and agroecology which do not attract corporate sponsorship are being phased out and this not in the public interest (Kleinman and Koppenburg 1988).


In the late 1980's, a statement issued by Monsanto indicated that biotechnology would revolutionize agriculture in the future with products based on nature's own methods, making farming more environmentally friendly and more profitable for the farmer (OTA 1992). Moreover, plants would be provided with built-in defenses against insects and pathogens. Since then many others have promised several more valuable rewards that biotechnology can bring through crop improvement. The ethical dilemma is that many of these promises are unfounded and many of the advantages or benefits of biotechnology have not or may not be realized. Although clearly biotechnology holds promise for an improved agriculture, given its present orientation it mostly holds promise for environmental harm, for the further industrialization of agriculture and for the intrusion of private interests too far into public interest sector research. Until now, the economic and political domination of the agricultural development agenda by MNCs has thriven at the expense of the interests of consumers, farm workers, small family farms, wildlife and the environment.

It is urgent for civil society to have earlier entry points and broader participation in technological decisions so that the domination of scientific research by corporate interests is dealt with more stringent public control. National and international public organizations such as FAO, CGIAR, etc., will have to carefully monitor and control the provision of applied non- proprietary knowledge to the private sector so as to protect that such knowledge will continue in the public domain for the benefit of rural societies. Publicly controlled regulatory regimes must be developed and employed for assessing and monitoring the environmental and social risks of biotechnological products (Webber 1990).

Finally, the trends towards a reductionist view of nature and agriculture set in motion by contemporary biotechnology must be reversed by a more holistic approach to agriculture, so as to ensure that agroecological alternatives are not foregone and that only ecologically-sound aspects of biotechnology are researched and developed. The time has come to counter effectively the challenge, and the reality, of genetic engineering. As it has been wit pesticides, biotechnology companies must feel the impact of environmental, farm labor, animal rights and consumers lobbies, so that they start re-orienting their work for the overall benefit of society and nature. The future of biotechnology based research will be determined by power relations, and there is no reason why farmers and the public in general, if sufficiently empowered, could not influence the direction of biotechnology along sustainability goals.


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  • Crucible Group 1994. People, Plants and Patents. IDRC, Ottawa.

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  • Pimentel, D. et al. 1992. Environmental and economic costs of pesticide use. Bioscience 42: 750-760.

  • Rissler, J. And M. Mellon 1996. The ecological risks of engineered crops. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

  • Robinson, R.A. 1996. Return to resistance: breeding crops to reduce pesticide resistance. AgAccess, Davis, CA.

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Article by Dr. Miguel A. Altieri
"The Myths of Agricultural Biotechnology: some ethical questions"
revised 07-30-00


A Geneticist's Opinion about Genetic Engineering in Agriculture

R. H. (Dick) Richardson, Ph.D., Professor of Integrative Biology, Univ. of Texas at Austin


Is genetic engineering a good idea? In my opinion this technology is the most powerful yet invented by humankind, and our enthusiasm overwhelms good judgment and respectful caution.

I am euphoric about the new insights I can teach in my genetics classes. Examples of different genetic interactions arrive with each new journal issue. Identifying similar genes in vastly different organisms and determining their effects has been beyond the capabilities of traditional genetic analysis. With our new technology, even the genetic differences between viruses, bacteria and higher forms can be compared in their DNAs. I am astounded at how extremely different organisms are surprisingly similar in their genetic organization, yet how they can accomplish similar functions differently. Remarkably, we can identify genes in ourselves that appear to once have been in viruses that infected our ancestors, but are now transmitted along with normal genes from parents to offspring . Using genetic engineering, we have extended our range of moving genes from closely related species to the entire span of the diversity of life.

The fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) has been the principle animal of genetic experimentation for a century. Its genetic system is as well understood as any higher organism. Only this year has the complete DNA sequence of its genome been published. But, we do not know how many proteins are coded by the approximately 13,600 genes! An antibody gene can produce more than 10 million different proteins, while other genes may produce only one protein. Different DNA architectures of protein synthesis are related to modes of development and cell specialization. The genetic blueprint of an organism does not explain how it lives - this blueprint no more describes a life than a dictionary can sing a song.

In a discussion of the Drosophila genome publication, Brenner emphatically states, But there is one important piece of information that is almost totally missing: the sequence information that specifies when and where and for how long a gene is turned on or off. This switching information ... cannot be deduced from the sequence.

Gene regulation is the process that primarily distinguishes species, and lies at the root of genetic diseases and abnormal development. Mules and hinneys are sterile, but a hybrid between species less related than a horse and a donkey would die in early development. A hybrid between a fish and a tomato is unthinkable. Moving genes among species is easy with molecular technology that avoids the behavioral and developmental necessities for making hybrids. When such partial hybrids are made with molecular techniques, identifying the effects at the various scales in processes of living organisms, populations, communities, ecosystems, biosphere is overwhelming since the normal biological filtering is bypassed. The detrimental effects may be delayed, waiting for biological or environmental signals to create a cascade of responses otherwise impossible.

Even in medicine, at an individual organism scale, the revolutionary benefits promised by proponents of gene therapy have not yet been realized. And we have not resolved serious ethical questions of right to die and right to live, informed consent, social and economic justice, and humane treatment of non-human animals increased enforcement and canceled research projects.

Use of genetic technology in medicine has been regulated by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) for 25 years! Before implementation of any medical application using genetic technology, researchers must evaluate potential harm as well as benefit. Each experiment must be reviewed, and unexpected harmful results must be reported. In the past few months there have been serious repercussions when investigators neglected timely reporting of many experimental failures. The RAC is an imperfect restraint, but it is the best we have. It was formed in more cautious times.

For agriculture, which functions at larger scales of life, there is no equivalent of the RAC. However, Secretary of Agriculture Glickman convened on March 29, 2000, a new USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology. This action came only after tens of millions of acres of genetically engineered crops had been planted globally within the decade after the first was created. The complexities were well known, presented by the FDA in the Federal Register, and summarily dismissed.

The potential for environmental and population effects from agricultural uses of genetic engineering is vastly greater than for medical uses that are assumed to be restricted to the individual treated (although that can change in the future). Agricultural genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are distributed globally and grown in gargantuan (1017 more or less) populations. This greatly increases the opportunity to disrupt habitats and food security of humans directly and indirectly throughout our food web, to genetically alter other species, and to disrupt natural genetic variation of wild relatives of our crops. These conditions create serious limitations for future crop improvement, potentially jeopardize essential ecosystem services and degrade our evolutionary and ecological resources for future study of living systems. Relative to the risks and long-term consequences of mistakes, a rational position suggests even greater caution for agricultural applications of genetic engineering than for medical applications.

Sound science is a misnomer being used by politicians and corporations to direct attention toward predictions within a scientific model that are considered favorable to their agenda and to discount those that are deemed unfavorable. Any results that suggest unfavorable predictions are attacked and disputed, often by attempting to discredit the integrity of the scientist. This substitutes rhetoric for investigation. Good science is conservative, methodical, searches for understanding, and is self-correcting by refuting predictions through testing. Instead of encouraging good science, the regulations and policies of sound science were designed to deflect attention away from the potential environmental effects of GMOs. FDA memos (1991-93 internal discussions of hazards and administrative flaws) note that no risk analysis was done, and that appropriate specialists were excluded from the review process.

In 1998 in Scotland, a peer reviewed research journal paper was published. It reported evidence of toxicity in test animals after feeding trials using genetically modified potatoes. The researcher was suspended, and his results were publicly attacked by corporate connected scientists.

A key feature of such attacks is their focus on the investigators with rhetoric about the interpretation. Scientifically, the focus needs to be on experiments and on the relevance of the data presented. If the models or the data are to be refuted, new experiments are necessary. The knee-jerk reaction of the research institutions, scientists, politicians and corporate public relations staff demonstrates motives and values that are the antithesis of good science. They are disrespectful of the need for discussion of the models and available data, and of the critical need for continuing investigation. The very nature of scientific dialog is being undermined by the shift away from public funding and by the lack of accountability to both the pubic and scientific community. It is being replaced by increasing corporate manipulation of both results and interpretation.

Scientists around the world, including supporters of GMO foods, have expressed strong concerns about long-term effects . These concerns should spur extensive research. Instead, our traditional public research and regulatory institutions - FDA, EPA and USDA - have given low priority to serious research regarding the environmental effects of genetically engineered crops.

These changes have been discussed in Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science . The psychology of scientists conducting DNA research has changed since the beginning of the gene manipulation period in life sciences. Marcia Barinaga's report comparing the recent 25th anniversary meeting of molecular biologists, Symposium of Science, Ethics, and Society to the original Asilomar Conference is particularly poignant. Twenty-five years ago, leading scientists of the new discipline in biology that was to produce genetic engineering technology considered the implications to humankind and beyond. There was a sense of urgency. After much haggling, the group settled on a set of safety guidelines that involved working with disabled bacteria that could not survive outside the lab. They convinced Congress that they could govern themselves and the RAC serves in this capacity - for medicine. Even their concerns were understatements about the potential for different bacteria to share through recombination of their genomes. Now we know that even inactive bacteria can contribute their DNA to others! Furthermore, similar jumping genes (transposons) are widely found in nature, but typically lack an active enzyme to achieve transfer. However, in a recent laboratory test where an inactive salmon transposon system was activated it functioned in salmon, mouse and human tissue cells.

The recent meeting, involving several of the original members, was strikingly different. There was less urgency, safety was of little concern in spite of greater known danger, and the objectivity of the scientists was dramatically compromised. She continues, Those who gathered at Asilomar in 1975 represented a research community that was purely academic in its interests. As genetic engineering has gone commercial, academics have followed, and today most senior academic researchers have ties to biotechnology companies that would complicate any attempts at self-scrutiny. Good science judged by consensus and self correcting features of peer review are being compromised. In Great Britain, the Royal Society has gone even further to quell dissension about scientific matters, as evidenced by Parliament. News editors have been reminded that they should quote only certain scientists, whose names will be on a list supplied by the Society.

Leading scientists in many fields see monumental ethical and environmental problems posed by agricultural genetic engineering because of the self-replication capability of GMOs and ease of creating potentially dangerous organisms. They are beginning to emphatically express these concerns in the popular press in an effort to offset the corporate infomercials.

There is miniscule funding going toward research directed at finding side effects of GMOs due to the insertion of DNA, minimally containing the desired gene, a selected promoter (usually from a virus), markers (that will indicate whether the piece has inserted), flanking sequences for enzymatic insertion and attached segments of unknown function. Multiple effects (pleiotropy - each gene has multiple effects, and epistasis - all genes interact with others) occur in complex biological systems. The uniqueness of GMOs was pointed out, and disregarded in order to regulate them under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, where generally regarded as safe (GRAS) criteria would omit requirements for testing. The FDA in the Federal Register explicitly recognized these illogical connections but accepted the conclusions. Why? Testing is expensive and takes time. With the rush to market engineered crops, the profit incentive in the globalized market marginalized a scientifically rational exploration of concurrent effects. The public and the ecosystem are placed at risk due to narrowly conceived and minimally tested releases of living materials. It takes only one serious mistake to create an irreversible disaster.

An example with a fortunate ending illustrates the counterpoint. In the Oregon valley between the Coast Ranges and the Cascade Range of mountains lies a fertile agricultural plain where most of the ryegrass seed for the US is grown. The straw is a nuisance because it decays slowly in the field. Rather than burning the straw, researchers thought this would be a good source for biofuel if a bacterium were engineered to form alcohol in a digester of straw and water. The alcohol could be collected and the residue then could be returned to the fields as compost. The organism was created. The investigators realized that before the first field trials the effects of the residue on the following crop should first be tested in the lab. Potted plants were inoculated. The alcohol-forming bacteria grew around the roots, formed alcohol as designed, and the plants died. What would have been the ecological and agronomic consequences if these organisms had been field tested? What would have happened when the soil with the organisms was transported to nearby fields by wind, water, wildlife and humans. Once released, engineered organisms that survive on their own cannot be recovered, unlike many environmental pollutants that at least stay in superfund sites until decontaminated. This was a fortunate laboratory test. The scientist recognized the potential hazard before the GMO was released into the ecosystem and reported the results.

Universally well-established principles of genetics and ecology give reasons to be very cautious with GMOs. Unpredictable effects of hybridization, when possible by normal crossing, is indisputable. Drastic yet unpredictable effects of mobile genetic elements (transposons) are well established. Genetic engineering employing synthetic transposons is undeniable. Development of insecticide, herbicide and antibiotic resistance is common knowledge. That biological systems are optimized, not maximized, is elementary biology. There were many examples of complexity in genetic mechanisms that were discovered by geneticists in the first 50 years of Mendelian genetics before Watson and Crick showed that DNA could code the genetic information. Now we understand molecular mechanisms for many of these interactions. These genetic processes have profound scientific and social implications, revealed by the same molecular tools that are used in genetic engineering. We have learned not only that all genes interact with many other genes, but that they also function with intimate coordination -achieved in different ways in different organisms. The FDA discounted this knowledge. However, we know that at molecular and developmental levels a single character actually results from the action of many genes, and every gene tested is expressed multiple times in specific cells to form many characters. From theoretical studies, we know that a gene that has desirable features can also cause extinction of a species. The FDA and EPA discounted this knowledge. We have learned that a gene often affects the function of its neighbors on a chromosome, and that similar clusters of genes are responsible for determining morphological features of appendages in such diverse animals as mammals, birds and insects. We know that inserting a foreign gene can disrupt the dynamics of these coordinated systems of genes, and that the technology of inserting genes has no control of where the insertion occurs, or how many insertions occur in a cell. The FDA discounted this knowledge. The malfunctions sometimes have surfaced as cancer or distortions of normal development. We do not even know to look for malfunctions that are more subtle, or that have long delays before manifestation. They would not be recognized in any of our test conditions. We can with certainty predict from what we do know that there are serious possibilities for unwanted effects. These issues were dismissed as irrelevant by the FDA. They have been ignored by the USDA and EPA. And they are ridiculed by the infomercials.

Barbara McClintock received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for identifying natural mutations that result from natural DNA insertions, which are structurally and functionally similar to engineered insertions. We know many examples where the controlling regions of a virus or bacterial gene have spontaneously replaced the controlling regions of a normal gene. These changes are a common mechanism of mutation. Several of these examples illustrate the conversion of a proto-oncogene, which controls normal cell cycles, into an oncogene, so named because it can produce cancer . These possibilities are improbable individually. But where many possibilities have astronomically large opportunities to occur, they become almost a certainty. (A one in a million chance of a detrimental occurrence is 10-6 but when the opportunities to occur are 1017, simplistically the chances of it occurring are 1-10-11 or 0.99999999999, give or take a few decimal places.) The FDA discounted this knowledge, and set the stage for the essentially numerous inevitable detrimental outcomes year after year until we recognize how detrimental they are. Of course, recognizing them may take a few years since few people are looking for them and there is no system to track an undesirable outcome to it's source until it's seen in large numbers. (It took decades to identify asbestos as a carcinogen, for example, or pesticides that act as endocrine disrupters.) Nevertheless, I'm optimistic that many potential benefits to agriculture and medicine are hiding in the unknowns of our genetic and ecological systems. Systems is a key word. Scientific differences of opinion are rooted in perspectives of how living systems work since experiments are in greatly simplified conditions. Reaggregating the parts into the essential whole takes time and cross disciplinary understanding. The recent formation of the USDA's Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology is an opening to begin correcting our priorities. However, the committee is over representative of industry interests, in my opinion, and its charges are restricted to modest scope. For a rational use of the technology, we need to proceed with open minds, aggressive research, and reasonable caution, being ever alert for the unexpected. Full exercise of the Precautionary Principle is scientifically supported common sense, but its use is unlikely to prevail in the present situation unless there is a strong public demand.

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