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Frankenfoods: has genetically altering food created a monster -- or just fed our fears of the unknown

09.oct.99, Doug Powell, Kitchener-Waterloo Record

Since 1995, farmers in Ontario and throughout Canada have increasingly chosen to pay extra for genetically-enhanced corn, soy, canola and potato seed because, quite simply, it works: increased yields on the same amount of land, reductions in chemical use, more efficient farming systems.

09.oct.99, Doug Powell, Kitchener-Waterloo Record
In 1991, author Michael Crichton wrote in the novel, Jurassic Park, (which begat the film which begat the sequel), that, “The late twentieth century has witnessed a scientific gold rush of astonishing proportions: the headlong and furious haste to commercialize genetic engineering. This enterprise has proceeded so rapidly—with so little outside commentary—that its dimensions and implications are hardly understood at all.” While not entirely accurate, Crichton certainly captured both the angst and ambitions that characterize public discussions of genetic engineering. Today, as farmers throughout North America embrace the tools of agricultural biotechnology -- in Ontario, for example, 15 per cent of the field corn in 1998 was genetically enhanced to reduce losses from the pesky European corn borer, increasing to 35 per cent of the harvest in 1999 -- ripples of discontent from Europe are now reverberating with Canadian consumers. In addition to corn, 20 per cent of soybeans, 60 per cent of the canola crop and a small per centage of potatoes are genetically engineered and in the ground this year. But with the harvest in full swing, several environmental and activists group have launched a campaign to arouse what they say are complacent Canadians, convinced that if they only knew, the citizenry would reject the new foodstuffs the way Europeans have. Maybe. Or maybe, beyond the shrilling soundbites, there is a way to extract whatever benefits genetic engineering can bring to food production and minimize the unknows that come along with any new technology. Genetic engineering has now replaced nuclear energy as the primary example of science-out-of-control in North American society, as reflected in popular culture such as books, movies and science fiction. Food biotechnology is often presented as “Frankenfood”, a metaphor that is based in the deep ambivalence many individuals express toward any technology that manipulates deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), sometimes referred to as the “code of life.” At the same time, distrust in government and in technology has reached new heights. Since the turn of the century, scientists have been cataloging and trying to understand how the 100,000 or so genes in human cells interact with the biochemical environment to create individual human beings, each with their own specific traits such as hair and eye color, fingerprint patterns, and so on. The emergence of recombinant DNA technology -- the ability to move and manipulate genes, often across species' boundaries -- in the early 1970s has spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. The techniques of engineering are routinely used in human medicine. While relatively rare genetic diseases and curative gene therapies garner public attention, many of the pharmaceuticals routinely ingested by humans -- including the first product of genetic engineering, human insulin -- are the result of genetic engineering. Many of the diagnostic tests used in human medicine, forensics and even food safety largely rely on the gene splicing tools of molecular biology. Food, though, is somehow different. As technologies become increasingly ensconced in daily routines, many in affluent North America reach for a connection to the past -- a past routinely described as better, safer, purer, and most importantly, more natural. The thought of somehow tampering with that image -- even if largely the creation of advertizing gurus -- is to tamper with the soul itself, a soul seeking nourishment and purity from the foods of nature. Health concerns For the past 20 years, scientists have used the tools of molecular biology to move and alter specific genes to bolster crop productivity, extend the shelf-life of fresh fruits and vegetables, and reduce the environmental stresses of food production. Since 1995, farmers in Ontario and throughout Canada have increasingly chosen to pay extra for genetically-enhanced corn, soy, canola and potato seed because, quite simply, it works: increased yields on the same amount of land, reductions in chemical use, more efficient farming systems. However, the attempt to improve any food can possibly lead to unexpected consequences. For example, in the laboratory, in one instance, a human allergen was transferred from one crop to another. During the preliminary assessment process, the company immediately discontinued the experiment. For the critics of biotechnology, the experiment proved that allergens could be transferred, and therefore, untold risks lay in the manipulation of food structure. For the fans, the incident showed that the regulatory system worked. Indeed, molecular work in agricultural biotechnology has contributed significant knowledge to the database of food allergens. In 1994, the FlavrSavr tomato became the first whole, genetically engineered food to be approved by the FDA and, subsequently, Health Canada. Results of rodent feeding trials, submitted as part of the data set that regulators reviewed, showed no difference between conventional and genetically engineered tomatoes. It also showed that rats do not like tomatoes. The experiment highlighted one of the difficulties in assessing the safety of genetically engineered foods. For example, the genetically-engineered field corn grown in Ontario contains a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and is known as Bt-corn. Regulators and several international scientific panels reasoned that because humans have been ingesting Bt without effect for decades -- it is also widely used as an organic spray -- and because the Bt toxins (in this case specific to the European corn borer) are proteins, and because any toxin protein remaining after processing would be quickly digested in the human gut, Bt-corn is safe; or, in the words of the language-challenged, the Bt-corn was found to be substantially equivalent to traditional corn. Any commercial concern wishing to sell a genetically engineered food, or indeed any new or novel food, must demonstrate substantial equivalence, based on molecular, nutritional and toxicological data, to the appropriate regulatory body. If substantial equivalence is more difficult to establish, then the identified differences, or new characteristics, would be the focus of further safety considerations. The more a novel food differs from its traditional counterpart, the more detailed the safety assessment that must be undertaken. Future products of agricultural biotechnology, where complex pathways within a plant are altered to produce more nutritious foods, may require a more elaborate safety assessment. The genetically-engineered foods available today are the realties of relatively simple gene transfers, harnessing systems that are based in nature. Traditional plant breeding involved the mating of related species with desirable traits to enhance the quality and quantity of food production. Throughout the 20th century, additional techniques have been employed to create gene changes, or mutations that could hopefully produce desirable traits in plants. Radiation and mustrad gas have been commonly used to create plants widely consumed today. Genetic engineering is a much more specific process, involving the transfer of only a few genes at a time, yet where the gene becomes established in the plant remains a random process. Because of this, scientists in the laboratory need to identify which individual seeds or plants have successfully incorporated a desired gene and use what is called a marker gene -- usually a gene for antibiotic resistance. When exposed to the specific antibiotic, only those seeds or tissues that have successfully incorporated the desired gene will survive. The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria presents a significant public health challenge. Increasingly, the agricultural contribution to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is being scrutinized, by scientists, policy-makers, and the public in general. There is concern that the antibiotic resistance gene could pass from a plant or food into a microorganism which may then become resistant to a specific antibiotic. Various government regulatory agencies have reviewed the use of antibiotic genes as markers and concluded that while such a transfer could theoretically occur, the possibility is quite small, especially when compared to those mechanisms which are known to spread antimicrobial resistance, such as overuse or inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine animal agriculture. Nevertheless, marker genes have been developed and increasingly used in agricultural biotechnology.
Environmental concerns Biological systems are fluid and dynamic. Farmers have known for decades that when they overuse a particular agricultural tool, they are creating an evolutionary selection pressure which, in many cases will lead to resistance, rendering the tool ineffective. The tools of genetic engineering are no different. Weeds in an agricultural setting can significantly reduce yields. Canadian farmers have a number of options to control weeds in a cost-effective manner, including the use of approved and registered herbicides, crop rotations, and most recently, genetic engineering. In particular, several soybean and canola varieties are now available that contain genes, found naturally in bacteria, that confer herbicide-tolerance, and which may allow producers to grow a bountiful crop with fewer chemicals. One concern with herbicide-tolerant crops is that the gene responsible for such tolerance could move or transfer to neighbouring weeds, thereby allowing such a weed to flourish as it becomes resistant to a particular herbicide (in which case the weed could still be controlled using other management practices such as tillage or alternative herbicides). The development of resistance is a common phenomenon in agriculture, and the transfer of genes from one plant to another is also known to occur, either through pollen, or viruses which can naturally infect one plant and then move on to another. Any genetically engineered food to be grown in Canada must go through a series of experimental trials, including controlled field trials, where new genes are prevented from entering the surrounding environment so they can be characterized and studied. Evaluators at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency assess the potential environmental impact of traits moving from plant to plant by examining what the novel trait is and does, the ability of the novel plant to successfully outcross to a relative and produce viable offspring, and the significance of that relative in managed and unmanaged ecosystems. Some 3,500 field trials have been conducted in Canada alone since 1988. The same concern about resistance apply to insect-resistant crops, such as Bt-corn. That is why Ontario corn producers who grow genetically engineered Bt-corn are, for example, required to devote 20 per cent of their acreage to non-Bt varieties. Recent research conducted in my laboratory found that 95 per cent of the larger corn growers in the province were complying with such science-based guidelines. There has also been recent conern about the effects on non-target species, in particular, the effect of Bt-corn on Monarch butterfly larvae. Regulators and insect scientists knew that the Bt-toxin could effect Monarch caterpillars but reasoned that milkweed, the exclusive food of the caterpillar, was rarely found in cornfields, and that the larvae were not known to feed on corn pollen. Earlier this year, a scientist from Cornell University found that larvae feed a diet of pollen from Bt-corn were negativley effected, raising the possibility of risk. Yet, the lead researcher himself warned that they effects of indiscriminate chemical spraying and drift may be more detrimental to Monarch larvae than Bt-pollen consumption and that the results were extremely preliminary. The Canadian government subsequently announced field experiments to attempt and repeat this laboratory study under field conditions. The challenge for all concerned is to maximize the benefits of a particular agricultural tool or product while vigorously minimizing known risks based on the best available science. Consumer choice Even more important is a regulatory system that can incorporate new scientific findings and render decisions in an open, accountable manner. Canada and the U.S. have such systems. Of course, critics will contend the science was biased, the science was bought, the science was the wrong science, and other nefarious goings-on. At a time of nutritional bounty, when food is both affordable and plentiful, there is a serious crisis of confidence in the way food is produced, and an even further lack of faith in science itself. Fair enough. Consumer choice is a fundamental value for shoppers, irrespective of science. Foods in Canada are labeled on the basis of health and nutritional data, but there are a variety of other voluntary labeling systems based on religious preference (kosher, halal), growing preference (organic) or nutritional preference (low-fat, low-salt). A market for biotechnology-free foods, labeled as such, may also emerge to meet consumer demand. However, many consumers will continue to make food selections based on taste, price and nutritional content before other considerations. Labeling guidelines must accommodate all of these values. Business and control Perhpas of greater public and yes, even scientific, concern, is that the scientific and technological competence related to agricultural biotechnology has become concentrated within the private sector, particularly within multinationals corporations such as Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont and Cargill, and that such a concentration of expertise will advance the research priorities of industrialized countries while sacrificing the public good. Biotechnology, and food production in general, has a long history of corporate involvement. On June 29, 1912, following extensive newspaper advertisements, a prospectus for a new company, The Synthetic Products Company Ltd., was launched in Britain. A global rubber shortage from 1907 to 1910 had prompted European researchers to search for a synthetic source and that process, company backers believed, was on the verge of being discovered. A group at the Pasteur Institute in France had discovered a bacterium that converted starch into a fusel oil rich in both amyl alcohol and butanol. When the process was scaled up to industrial quantities by British scientists, the fermentation was altered, producing butanol, which had just been recognized as a key component of synthetic rubber manufacture, and acetone, a valuable component of explosives which had previously been imported. As recounted by Robert Bud in The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology, the work had enormous commercial potential, and the scientists, far from being unworldly, "exploited the breakthrough to the hilt." The prospectus, which greatly exaggerated the scientific achievements, netted £75,000 despite stiff opposition from plantation rubber interests. Predictably, the process for converting starch from potatoes proved cumbersome and the plant never realized the hopes expressed in the 1912 prospectus. But a pattern had been established, coupling scientific enthusiasm with the public's willingness to believe -- at least the financial public -- that would characterize efforts to profit from biology over the next 87 years. In a capitalist society, such involvement is to be expected. The challenge again is to find a balance between private profit and public good, and to come to such conclusions in an open and democratic manner. Farmers, processors, distributors and others in the farm-to-fork continuum are constantly striving to improve the safety, quality and efficiency of the Canadian food supply. Genetic engineering is one additional tool that, with vigilance and oversight, can help achieve those goals.