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Biotechnology
In Reply To:
AgriBiotech: Bill Moyers on PBS

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By bjanssen
October 14, 2002

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Hi Folks

I wanted to repost this without the stuffed up italics and thought I'd remove the unnecessary stuff as well.

Here's what RSH originally said and suggested, and here's what I think about each point.

Some of the problems, either already occurring or feared:
Tight linkage between GE seed and pesticide companies (Monsanto makes a soy or corn seed, forget which, GE'd to not be affected by Roundup
, an herbicide it also makes and sells)

This problem centers around a distrust of big companies in general, and Monsanto and Roundup� in particular. BTW [By the way] Monsanto does not do the majority of the research, it is just the only company that has focused all it's business on GE [genetic engineering.]

The first point is that I'd love transgenic technology to be a cottage industry, but the problem is that it costs a ton of money to do this work, and only governments and big companies have that money. I work for a government. If you want to abolish big business and the corruption involved therein, then do that; but don't oppose GE simply because big business is involved in some of that research, that is unreasonable.

Regarding Roundup� in particular. The first point is that glyphosate is off-patent, so any chemical company can make glyphosate, and they do. So equally any farmer growing Round-up ready Soy can spray with glyphosate from a cheaper source.

The second point is that of all the herbicides we use, glyphosate is the safest. It is less toxic than table salt and it has no known breakdown products that are toxic. In short, if you wanted to encourage the use of any particular herbicide, glyphosate is it.

Spread of GE pollen to non-GE fields

Ok this happens. But so what? The only problem is that some folks have staked their likelihood on selling "GE-free" products and have conned the public into believing that "GE-free" in and of itself is somehow better. The problem is that that claim is not true.

I just don't believe the spread of GE pollen is an issue. It is a distraction from the real question, which is are any GE products unsafe? As yet the answer to that question is no, none of the products are unsafe. So why care about the spread of a safe product? If a GE crop is dangerous it should not make it to field release. If it does, then the regulatory authorities have failed and thus far, they have not failed. By all means lobby to improve the regulatory authorities. If a GE crop is safe then what the heck does it matter if the pollen gets away? So someone grows Bt corn when they didn't expect to ... so what? Heck, organic farmers are spraying with Bt the bacteria, so an extra copy of the gene in the corn isn't going to make any difference whatsoever. If you are talking about crops that have not passed regulatory authorities, then sure they need to be contained, of course.

Risk of allergic reactions from unexpected proteins

OK here's the problem. GE is just another form of breeding. It is almost exactly the same as any other form of breeding, except we know which genes are added. So if there is an allergenic reaction, we know what happened.

Cliffs' example of brazil nut allergen is a perfect example. Finally we know what the brazil nut allergen is because when we moved the protein to another species, we discovered that during testing of the new crop, people who were allergic to brazil nuts are now allergic to the GE modified plant. The crop never made it out of the lab and never would have. The testing worked dammit, stop beating us up because the testing worked. (BTW having identified the protein responsible they've now engineered a brazil nut free of this allergen :))

Contrast that with celery breeding, where classical breeding was used to improve celery. It was only when someone noticed the rashes on the hands of the folks putting the celery on the supermarket shelves that they realized that they'd introduced an allergen into the new cultivar. And they still have no idea what that allergen is! Testing??? What testing.

The point here is that if you argue GE should be stopped because you might introduce an allergen, then you better be consistent and argue that all plant breeding should cease. Never mind that because we inherently have a far better idea of what we are doing with GE than we do with classical breeding (which is basically a crap shoot) that you could argue quite logically that GE should now be the only approved form of plant breeding.

Higher prices for seed

So if the seed is improved and the result of years of expensive research we should just give it away? If the seed is better then why shouldn't it cost more?

Risk to organic farming

So organic farmers define GE as bad with no logical reasoning behind that decision. Then we should ban the technology because we might risk their business.

The above is a business argument. Organic farmers are bleating because their business is at risk. Their business is at risk because of a bad business and bad scientific decision of their part.

Bear in mind that organic farming can never hope to do anything to feed those in the world who really don't have enough to eat, and bear in mind that if the US switched to organic farming, you'd all starve to death. I really don't think much of this complaint against GE. You could just as equally oppose the motor car, based on the logic that it would put horse and cart drivers out of business.

Loss of genetic diversity in our seeds and crops, increasing risk of a single pest or disease or climatic event wiping out a major crop

This has nothing to do with GE. It is an objection to large-scale monocultures. One reason we have large-scale monocultures is that there are sod all plants that can be cultivated with the efficiency required to produce the food we need.

Far from exacerbating this problem GE is being applied to a huge range of plants to try and introduce characters that allow large-scale cultivation. So that weird fruits, unusual grains, all sorts of food crops can be grown with high efficiency. This will increase diversity and reduce the risk of a monoculture being wiped out. Furthermore, it is the same people who are doing GE research that are "mining" the diversity in nature for valuable traits. These people are protecting native species. Get out there and talk to GE researchers, these people are uniformly conservationists and care more about the environment than most of the public. Far from reducing diversity GE will create a much greater diversity of crops that will be available to a much larger number of people ... not just those that can afford to shop in specialist delis.

(My [RSH] insertion)
Making it easier for some terrorist creep to bioengineer and tailor a pest or disease to attack specific crops and wipe them out specifically, namely, especially, the USA


So, we should halt all research of any kind because eventually some terrorist will use that knowledge to do harm? I don't think that approach is optimal.

My notions:
Grow all trangenics containing non-plant genetic material in enclosed, negative pressure areas (a la X-Files)


Why? Do you think somehow that non-plant genes are inherently more dangerous than plant genes? I guess you do. Then I'm sorry, but you are wrong. I can't say that any nicer and I don't mean that as an insult, it is just a fact. Plant genes are not in any way safer or better for you than non-plant genes. If you are implying that having non-plant genes in plants is "unnatural" and hence more dangerous, then you are wrong on two counts.

First, plants contain all sorts of non-plant genes; viral genes, bacterial genes, fungal genes, and almost certainly animal genes, so it is not "unnatural." Second, it's not any safer to have a plant gene than an animal or even human gene in a plant. It may sound weird, but it isn't more dangerous.

That is not to say that particular genes might not be dangerous, but that is a function of the specific gene, and not a function of the source of that gene, or the method used to get it into the plant. The point is, by all means oppose specific genes or genetic changes based on the characteristics of that gene or that change. But do not oppose all animal genes because some animal genes might cause problems, or because you think that it is unnatural.

Aggressive approaches to improving our seed bank / preservation programs and to help other nations (like Mexico, who has the largest corn seed bank in the world) with their programs

Done, feel free to donate money or time to any of the organizations doing that, or lobby to have your taxes increased to do that.

Ensure all transgenics have at least 3 "kill genes" responsive to three diverse triggers

Why? You have no evidence that any of the GE organisms are any risk at all. You never wanted this ability for traditional breeding, which is more dangerous than GE. In fact it is only because of GE that you can even ask for this.

Should all handguns have an explosive device placed in them that can be triggered by remote control by the police? This is like the insane safety warning on our American stepladder that instructs us to keep both hands on the ladder at all times. It is a safety measure completely out of proportion with the risk involved. Never mind that such a restriction would make most, if not all, GE work impossible. Oh maybe that was the point.

Ensure that you throw in a gene in all transgenics that makes them distinguishable from non-transgenic species, like making corn leaves purple, that the milk coming from GE animals is a funny color, etc, to ensure the pharmaceutical plants and animals don't end up in our food supply, so I don't end up eating cheese with smallpox vaccine in it

I'm sorry but I think you are taking caution to an extreme that is not justified. It is already possible to use PCR to detect engineered organisms. GE goes through extensive regulatory control to make sure it is safe before is enters the food chain. If you don't want to eat GE food then eat only fresh fruit and veggies that you grow yourself, which is entirely possible and probably better for you than buying anything from a supermarket.

What you suggest is to force everyone to consume some marker because you don't trust the regulatory system. Well fine, you are entirely within you rights to distrust that system. We know it will make mistakes. But in the main, it does a pretty damn good job and the system usually learns from mistakes. What I don't think is reasonable is to force everyone else to adopt your level of distrust. Of course, such a marker would brand GE foods as "different" and probably be a marketing disaster for GE. But that has nothing to do with the suggestion ... sorry, but in this case I'm cynical about the motivation for this suggestion. I believe it is simply an attempt to destroy the GE market.

Educate the public better, instead of "trust us, we're Scientists, we know what we're doing", so people don't have these knee-jerk reactions out of ignorance

It irritates me when people claim that the public is not educated, and imply that it is our (the scientists) fault. This couldn't be further from the truth. There is literally a mountain of info out there. Beyond that, most scientists in this field are only too happy to teach what they know. The problem is that most folks don't want to take the time to learn. They won't read the in depth pieces in the middle of the newspaper. They won't watch the nerdy science shows on TV. Their eyes glaze over and they won't pay attention when a scientist tries to explain the science to them personally.

BUT they will listen to lies and stupid nonsense that make the headlines. They will listen to urban legends about someone's cousins wife who got the flu after the council sprayed Roundup� on the weeds outside their house. They will accept an organic farmers word for it that organic food is "better for them" and that GE is "bad." With no evidence at all! You ask that you be not forced to "trust scientists", but you are willing to trust others who have little or no knowledge to back up their claims.

Actually I think people have two choices here

1) they learn enough to make an informed decision themselves, or
2) they trust someone

Frankly I think they should trust the scientists doing this work. We have done nothing to earn the level of distrust that is shown.

cheers
Bart


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