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Author: Barbara Figge Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Genetic Modifications, Pro & Con
Thirty percent of the nation’s corn cobs contain their
own insecticide, and Europe’s rejection of such genetically modified
corn cost United States farmers more than $200 million last year.
What’s the fuss? After all, corn was genetically engineered 5,000
years ago when American Indians combined two types of wild grasses.
Genetically engineered foods are much different, counter the
because biotechnologists can take a gene for one trait and insert
it quickly, and the gene can be from a very different species. The
most common example is the gene from a flounder fish that was added
to a tomato to help the tomato survive subzero temperatures. (Never
mind that no one wants to eat a tomato with that kind of a fishy
Robert Teweles, who has two companies at 3131 Princeton Pike, is among
those who favor genetically modified (g.m.) crops. "We are in
the process of inventing a new industry," says Teweles (rhymes
with too-lees). "We are going to the world leaders in seed corn
genetics and trying to license their technology and pass it on to
others." An altered gene might make corn disease-resistant, or
improve stalk strength, or improve the protein content, or allow it
to carry a vaccine. Other g.m. plants could be made to survive drought
or become allergen free.
"I have been working with these products since their inception
and have been in this business for 42 years," says Teweles, a
Colorado College alumnus who bought MayerSeed and founded Seed
in 1989 (http://ww.mayerseed.com). "I have seen these products
pass every hurdle for safety
that the U.S. government has thrown at them. Every test, every
has been passed and exceeded. So I have unqualified faith and
based on what we know, that there is nothing deleterious in the
"On the other hand," says Teweles, "I understand the fears
of consumers, and I think it is only prudent to embrace mandatory
or voluntary labeling."
Others are less sanguine. Perhaps the most well-known activist group
is Greenpeace, but also among the protesters is the organic food chain
Wild Oats, which has a store on Nassau Street
These opponents cite
such potential health risks as the creation of new toxins, allergic
reactions, and antibiotic resistant genes. Even though genetically
engineered "Bt corn" was subjected to years of testing, they
worry that it may spur the evolution of "superbugs" resistant
to the usual insecticides.
On the environmental side, they refer to a study by Cornell
John Losey, published in the June issue of Nature, from which they
conclude that "Bt corn" could kill monarch butterfly
because the corn pollen might blow onto milkweed plants. (Milkweed
is the monarch butterfly’s egg-laying plant of choice, and it
grows near cornfields).
The study has come under serious attack. Steven Milloy, an adjunct
scholar with the Cato Institute and publisher of a noted science
(http://www.junkscience.com), points out that even Losey warns against
jumping to the dour conclusions that environmental activists have
Activists have moved into acts of vandalism against genetically
crops. The Bioengineering Action Network of North America plans to
demonstrate in Montreal later this month to support negotiations for
a biosafety protocol, part of the United Nation’s Convention on
Last week the Environmental Protection Agency added new restrictions
on how genetically modified corn can be cultivated. Farmers who want
to plant the Bt corn (engineered with a gene to manufacture its own
insecticide) must use as much as half of their acreage in conventional
Says Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO),
"Whatever the threat to monarch butterflies posed by Bt corn
we know it’s less than the threat of drifting pesticide sprays."
"My immediate reaction is that a lot of people are making a fuss
unnecessarily, and these are scare tactics," says Peter Day, head
of the Biotech Center at Rutgers’ Cook College. "Unfortunately
some of the principal orchestrators, such as Greenpeace, have a very
mixed agenda, and one big item is a total disenchantment with the
way that the agricultural industry is increasingly dominated by the
large giants." He points to a Mexican scientist who developed
a wheat that could be grown on soil with aluminum toxicity without
taking up the aluminum. "He was prevented from doing a field trial
because of Greenpeace in Mexico City," says Day.
"It’s not clear to me that genetically engineered crops are
different from the kinds of modified crops that might evolve under
natural circumstances," says Henry S. Horn, professor of ecology
and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. "One can imagine
all kinds of monstrous consequences, but the range of that imagination
comes more from science fiction scenarios than from the examples that
have already surfaced. A potentially much clearer threat to human
welfare is the overuse of antibiotics, which sets up the conditions
for the natural evolution of antibiotic resistant organisms. With
antibiotics, the problems are already here."
"It is overpopulation, not just in the world but in the United
States as well, that is the greatest threat," says Ronald
senior vice president of Envirogen, the Quakerbridge Road-based firm
Like Horn, Unterman does not think the anti-g.m. studies are
"That is the difference between scientists and others in our
We think that nothing is certain," says Unterman. In contrast,
the public wants to believe that something is absolutely true or
But if the probabilities were different, Unterman says, he would
his mind. "If you can prove to me the monarch butterfly is really
being affected, I would pull the product," says Unterman. "The
benefits of feeding the world are powerful, but I wouldn’t sacrifice
— Barbara Fox
The House has the Genetically Engineered Foods Right to Know Act,
House Bill H.R. 3377
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