Corrections or additions?

Author: Barbara Figge Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

January

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

activists,

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

relationship.)

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

Genetics

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

obstacle,

has been passed and exceeded. So I have unqualified faith and

confidence,

based on what we know, that there is nothing deleterious in the

genetically

enhanced products."

"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

(http://www.wildoats.com/news/fda_gmo.cit.html).

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

University’s

John Losey, published in the June issue of Nature, from which they

conclude that "Bt corn" could kill monarch butterfly

caterpillars

because the corn pollen might blow onto milkweed plants. (Milkweed

is the monarch butterfly’s egg-laying plant of choice, and it

sometimes

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

website

(http://www.junkscience.com), points out that even Losey warns against

jumping to the dour conclusions that environmental activists have

made.

Activists have moved into acts of vandalism against genetically

engineered

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

Biological

Diversity (http://www.tao.ca/~ban/).

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

corn.

Says Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO),

"Whatever the threat to monarch butterflies posed by Bt corn

pollen,

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

qualitatively

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

Unterman,

senior vice president of Envirogen, the Quakerbridge Road-based firm

(http://www.envirogen.com).

Like Horn, Unterman does not think the anti-g.m. studies are

conclusive.

"That is the difference between scientists and others in our

society.

We think that nothing is certain," says Unterman. In contrast,

the public wants to believe that something is absolutely true or

absolutely

false.

But if the probabilities were different, Unterman says, he would

change

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

ecology."

— Barbara Fox

The House has the Genetically Engineered Foods Right to Know Act,

House Bill H.R. 3377


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