AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org
'A Report on Genetically Engineered Crops'
Dr. Charles M. Rader, an electronic engineer at MIT
has just posted on the Web a very comprehensive
essay on the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Using a very simple
language he describes many examples of its applications, and addresses
many technical, societal, ethical and risk issues related to this
technology. You can look at the complete report at:
While consenting to my request to post sections of his report on
Agbioview (see below), Dr. Rader wrote me "I should acknowledge that
many of the things in the report came first to my attention by reading
material posted on your forum" . ....CSP
A Report on Genetically Engineered Crops
- Charles M. Rader
This report is about two closely related subjects. One subject is the
considerations for and against genetic engineering of our food.
Although I will freely admit to a bias in favor of engineering, I have
tried very hard to make this part of the report neutral and objective.
The other topic is more important. Genetic engineering gets to the
very core of how life works and people are inclined to have very
strong feelings about it. Because the public knows so very little
about science, some opponents of transgenic agriculture have been able
to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion. As Donna
Shalala told a group of scientists, speaking about genetic
engineering, ``My concern is if we don't have a broadly educated
public ... that charlatans out there will be able to play on public
fears.'' Exactly that has happened. Almost everything the general
public has been told about genetic engineering of food has originated
in the deceptive presentations by skilled propagandists, many dishonest.
Although the science behind genetic engineering is very complex, it is
not so difficult for laymen to make reasonable choices based on very
basic information. That doesn't mean that people who posses the same
scientific understanding would necessarily make the same choices.
Different people have different values. Nothing in this report is
meant to demean anyone's value system. I hope to change some minds by
presenting accurate information.
Legitimate Concerns about Transgenic Agriculture
There are problems with genetic engineering. As an engineer myself,
even though I work with electronics instead of genes, I am naturally
disposed to be sympathetic to genetic engineering, but that doesn't
mean that it should be practiced without a concern for its dangers.
So the next part of this report is devoted to a survey of some of the
legitimate concerns about genetic engineering of crops. Later we will
mention some other concerns that are not realistic at all.
Monkeying with Mother Nature
Some people think that this is an enterprise that should be left to
God or to Mother Nature, that man was never intended to monkey around
with other species' genes. I respect this point of view, even though I
don't agree with it. But it can't be the basis of an argument. Whoever
claims to know what God intends usually can't prove it, and can't be
talked out of it.
Some people have religious or ethical concerns. They might point to
Leviticus 19:19 , which prohibits crossbreeding. Vegetarians may
reasonably decide that their food should not contain genes derived
from animals. Jews and Muslims may reasonably decide that their food
must not contain any genes derived from a pig. Some religious
scholars believe that a gene loses its identity when it is copied and
the copy is inserted into a target species. That point of view would
remove some, but not all, of the religious objections to genetically
Other advances in biotechnology have drawn most of the attention of
clerics and ethicists. These include cloning, organ transplantation,
research using foetal tissue, etc.
Crops modified in any way might not be safe to eat, so any major
change in the food supply should be tested. This applies to changes
made by genetic engineering but it ought logically to apply even more
to changes made by other techniques. To a great extent, genetic
engineers know what they are doing. There can be unanticipated
consequences, but by comparison, all other methods of improving crops
involve an element of luck. The conservative approach is to test all
crops whose genetics has been modified in any significant way.
An example of a possible safety issue was brought out clearly several
years ago. Although soybeans are a good source of protein, soy protein
is low quality. It doesn't have enough of the essential amino acid
methionine. So scientists in Nebraska planned to transfer a gene from
a Brazil nut to a soybean to get better quality protein from soybeans
for use as an animal feed. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to
Brazil nuts and it turned out that the better quality protein was one
of the Brazil nut allergens. Since this fact was quickly revealed by
testing, the genetic modification project was abandoned. This example
shows that testing for safety is necessary. It also shows that such
testing is being done and is working. But can new foods ever be tested
enough for complete assurance of safety?
Another way to develop crops with new traits is to cause random
mutations and select for them. Breeders have induced mutations using
radiation, chemicals and high temperatures. Since the effect of
mutation is random, it makes sense that crops developed by mutation
ought to be even more thoroughly tested than crops developed by
genetic engineers since the genetic engineers are not relying on luck
to get their improved traits. Yet there is essentially no regulatory
process for plant breeding.
Even conventional breeding techniques can accidentally create harmful
foods. In a famous example, an improved variety of celery caused farm
workers who picked the celery to become hypersensitive to sunlight .
In another example a potato variety, Lenape, was withdrawn from the
U.S. market in the 1960s when it was found to contain dangerously high
levels of potato toxins (solanine glycosides).
Even without mutations, there is a large pool of genetic variability
in every variety or species. This means that unfavorable combinations
are possible. In every instance of sexual reproduction the child gets
some genes from each parent, in a random assortment. If John and Jane
have a few hundred different genes (and about 30,000 that are
identical), their children will each inherit a different subset of
John's genes and a different subset of Jane's genes. Nobody can
predict the characteristics each child will inherit from its parents.
Sometimes, two apparently healthy parents have a child with a genetic
disease. Similarly, sometimes two plants which bear nutritious food
can have offspring which are more toxic. This is not an argument
against having children or against breeding crops, so it ought not to
be an argument against transferring genes by biotechnology.
Conditions of growth can also affect food properties. Certain
inconspicuous fungi can turn a wholesome food into a poisonous food.
Every year there are deaths from ergot, a fungus that infects wheat
and rye, and from aflatoxin, caused by a mold that infects peanuts and
In summary, genetic engineered crops need to be tested for safety. In
the US, transgenic crops are tested much more strictly than crops
developed by traditional breeding. So far the testing that has been
carried out has been sufficient to protect the public. During the ten
years that we have been eating transgenic foods, nobody has ever been
exposed to unsafe genetic engineered food. Meanwhile there have been
many thousands of deaths because of unsafe conventional food. So
it seems to me that the issues of food safety are being better managed
for genetic engineered foods than for conventional foods.
The third thread of concern is for the wild environment. Suppose a
gene from an unrelated species is transferred to a crop species and
then the modified crop produces pollen which fertilizes a wild plant.
Or suppose some of the crop's seeds are carried by birds or by wind
into the wild. The wild plant could reproduce and the gene could
become fixed in the wild population. If it conferred an advantage, a
wild plant that had been barely making it in the struggle for
existence could turn into a dominant species. There are many examples
of plants taking over an environment. Usually they are natural plants
introduced from a distant continent. In the American south, kudzu is a
decorative plant that escaped and is spreading out of control. In the
northeast we see the same thing happening in marshes, being taken over
by purple loosestrife. Pastureland in the American west is being
invaded by cheat grass. These plants have no natural enemies and can
overrun an ecology and devastate it.
So suppose a genetic engineered crop has been given a gene which makes
it hardier. Suppose it gives the plant a tolerance to salty soil, or
to cold, or to dryness. It is reasonable to fear that if the crop's
pollen fertilizes a wild relative, that relative could produce a race
of super weeds. The solution to this concern is, again, testing.
Scientists must study the plants growing wild in the area, determine
which are closely related to the modified crop, experiment to see if
hybridization is possible, and require that the crop be grown only in
conditions for which hybridization is very unlikely. Or else,
determine that the trait, in the wild relative, will not matter much.
Sometimes this is fairly easy. You can be pretty sure that soybeans
will not hybridize with wild relatives because they self-pollinate and
because the wild relatives live only in Asia. Corn can only hybridize
with its wild relative, teosinte, found only in Guatemala and southern
Mexico. But for some other crops the testing should be much more
extensive and in some cases it will not be allowable to grow the
genetically modified crop in localities where wild close relatives are
Not every species that escapes into the wild will be a problem. Most
crops will simply die out because they can't compete with hardier wild
plants. In one experiment, rapeseed plants, both transgenic and
conventional, were grown in a field but never harvested. Scientists
then followed the subsequent history of the field for ten years. All
the crops declined in numbers from year to year. After the fifth year,
none of the genetically modified crops could be found at all, and
after ten years there were only a few crop plants of any type
remaining in the field.
In a more colorful example, during the nineteenth century, a wealthy
and eccentric man brought to the United States populations of each
type of bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Only one species
was able to establish itself. That species, however, was the starling,
now found in large numbers in every part of the United States.
The previous discussion has shown us that there is a new technology,
proven to deliver advantages to farmer, consumer, and the environment
but that there are reasons to be concerned because, like any new
technology, it could be misused. Since the US has been the leader in
adopting genetic engineering for agriculture, our government agencies
have developed some standards for assuring food safety and
environmental safety. Any genetic engineered product must meet these
standards before it can be grown commercially.
The Moratorium / Ethics of Genetic Researchers
I would like to mention something of the history of this research.
During the 1970's, without any government regulation whatsoever, all
the researchers in the field of genetic engineering adopted a
self-imposed moratorium on further research for one year. They spent
that year in developing and agreeing to a set of standards for
experimental work to assure that the public would be protected from
danger. To the best of my knowledge this is the only example of its
kind in the history of technology.
At the beginning of the public funding of the human genome project, it
was the scientists, not the politicians, who decided to devote five
percent of the funding to a study of its legal, ethical and social
implications. These events show that concerns for safety and for the
social consequences of their research were on the minds of genetic
engineers from the beginnings of their field, and that they have, as a
group, exceptional ethics. Now we shall see examples of the ethics of
some opponents of transgenic agriculture.
A Movement to Frustrate Transgenic Agriculture
Although there are legitimate reasons to oppose genetic engineered
agriculture, or at least to demand the most careful controls, there
are a community of opponents who have taken their opposition beyond
what is ethical. I am not talking about a reasonable opposition
expressing the concerns summarized earlier, but rather about an
opposition for which the ends justify the means, including lies,
I need to stress this point. There are many people, sincerely opposed
to genetic engineered crops, whose ethics I do not question. I believe
that most of the opponents of biotechnology would fall into that
category. Yet, in too many cases, those sincere concerns are based
entirely on misinformation which originated in deliberate lies and
fear-mongering. We are here exposing the ethics of the people who have
created the lies. These opponents must have some motive, and it seems
that an alliance has emerged between at least four groups, each with
its own agenda.
First there are people who sincerely believe that genetic engineering
is ethically wrong, and that anything they do to stop it from
happening is therefore right. Second there are foreign governments
and their constituencies who are worried about American domination of
agriculture. Closely related to this are advocates of organic
agriculture who seem to be engendering public fear to make their own
products more salable. Third, there are environmental groups who have
been misled by a radical fringe and have become willing to do anything
to stop genetic engineering agriculture. The most conspicuous among
these groups is Greenpeace . Finally, there are people opposed to
capitalism or to large businesses dominating agriculture.
Opposition from environmental groups is particularly frustrating to
me. Most measures which benefit the environment require people to give
up something, and they don't like to do that. Recycling is nearly
painless and saves money, but many people won't make the effort. A few
degrees adjustment of a thermostat could save vast amounts of energy,
but most people would rather be comfortable. We end up settling for
half measures. But here is a technology that benefits the environment
without asking people to give up anything, and its biggest opposition
comes from environmental groups.
Now let us visit some examples of deliberate mischief.
Misinformation about Food Safety
There is a deliberate campaign to frighten people about the safety of
the food supply. This campaign has worked successfully in England and
in much of Europe.
Dr. Arpad Pusztai, who worked at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen,
Scotland, performed an experiment. It began when a gene was
transferred from a poisonous plant, the snowdrop, into a potato. The
transferred gene specifies the production of a poisonous compound
called lectin . Dr. Pusztai proceeded to experiment with rats. Some
rats were fed with the raw potatoes which were genetically engineered
to contain the poison. The rats in the control group were fed ordinary
raw potatoes and were also given the amount of lectin poison which the
first group of rats would have gotten from eating the transgenic
potatoes. Both groups of rats developed malformed organs, and there
was no statistically significant difference between the rats who
consumed the poisonous potatoes and those who consumed the poison.
wed that the rats who ate the genetically modified potatoes had more
deformed organs. No scientific journal would publish Dr. Pusztai's
interpretation, and his institution would not However, Dr. Pusztai
claimed that his data shosupport him. He hired an independent
statistician to review his data, who also considered the data to show
no difference between the two groups. Eventually the disagreement
became serious enough that his connection with the Rowett Institute
The opponents of genetic engineering, mostly in England, have blown
this result into a cause celebre. Dr. Pusztai is portrayed as muzzled
by the scientific establishment, although the British medical journal
Lancet eventually published Pusztai's paper over the recommendations
of its reviewers because of the widespread public interest. The
British tabloid press covers this story continuously, with lurid
photographs of deformed rat organs. The potatoes genetically
engineered to be poisonous became synonymous with all transgenic food,
called Frankenstein food in the tabloids.
There are numerous other varieties of potatoes, bred to be eaten, but
engineered to resist insects, viruses and fungi. All these varieties
have been fed to rats and have never harmed them. The opponents of
transgenic food have no explanation for that - they are content to use
one probably misinterpreted experiment with potatoes nobody will ever
eat, to stir up doubts about food safety.
As another example, perhaps some of you in August 1998 read an op-ed
article in the Boston Globe by Paul Billings, a member of the board of
the Council for Responsible Genetics. The gist of the article is that
dangerous untested foods are being foisted upon an unsuspecting
American public, by mad scientists. As we have seen, this is at least
an exaggeration. Every genetically engineered crop has been tested for
safety. The testing has been much more extensive than that for any
other foods, including foods developed by radiation induced mutation.
Dr. Billings knows this. He knows about the government testing rules
that establish the safety of each individual crop.
Billings' op-ed article contains only one `fact' - the rest is either
his opinion or just wrong. He says that transgenic soybeans have been
shown to be deficient in a certain unidentified nutrient. It is not
easy to track down the source of this `fact', but I did it. The
nutrient in question is a phyto-estrogen (also known as a
phytosterol). Although phyto-estrogens are not essential to human
health, there is some indication that they help prevent cancer. The
study that indicates that transgenic soybeans are deficient in
phyto-estrogens comes from Dr. Marc Lappe, who wrote the book
``Against The Grain'', a polemic against genetic engineering and
especially against the Monsanto Co., the leading company in the field,
which developed the soybeans in question.
Here is how Dr. Lappe established that genetic engineered soybeans are
defective. Understand that there are dozens of varieties of soybeans
with the herbicide tolerance trait and over a hundred varieties of
conventional soybeans. Dr. Lappe compared one conventional variety
with one transgenic variety. He found a 12% difference. But individual
soybean varieties vary by more than 100% in their phyto-estrogen
content. The FDA normally doesn't even measure the phyto-estrogen
content of foods, but they have published one measurement each for
green soybeans (young), which had 50 mg per 100 grams and for mature
soybeans, which had 160 mg per 100 grams. Also phyto-estrogen content
is not stable. It declines with storage, by much more than the 12%
difference. But Lappe at least reports his data along with his biased
interpretation of it. Dr. Billings reports only the interpretation
without any indication that it comes from a biased scientist whose own
data show insignificant variations in a nutrient whose role in human
health is not even firmly established.
Dr. Billings seeks only to mislead people. Not one reader in a
thousand would do what I did, track down the data. His purpose is to
plant a little seed of doubt about food safety, hoping that it will
fester in our minds, mingle with similar misinformation, and
eventually become accepted fact.
Earlier I mentioned a problem with a soybean with a Brazil nut gene.
People allergic to Brazil nuts should not expect to have to avoid
soybeans, but the allergen was identified by testing and therefore the
modified soybeans were never created. That should be seen as evidence
that the genetic engineers are responsible people, and that testing is
working well. But the unethical opponents of biotechnology routinely
present this episode, carefully worded, as if there was a near
disaster, revealing gross problems with the current regulatory system.
One of the most active anti-transgenic groups is Mothers For Natural
Law which spreads the following half-truth - that, in 1989, 37 people
died and thousands were paralyzed by consuming tryptophan made by
genetic engineered bacteria. Half-truth because there were deaths and
illnesses (eosinophilia myalgia syndrome) caused by tryptophan, sold
by the ``health food'' industry.
Tryptophan is one of the twenty amino acids which are needed by every
living thing. All bacteria already contain genes to make tryptophan.
The problem was that the health food industry, which has avoided many
food safety regulations, manufactured and sold contaminated
tryptophan, which made people sick. The responsible company, Showa
Demko Ltd., genetically engineered bacteria to make more tryptophan
that it needed for their own life cycle. But Showa Demko tried to cut
costs by leaving out an important purification step. The problem had
nothing to do with genetic engineering. (Some cases of eosinophilia
myalgia syndrome were traced back to Showa Demko's tryptophan
manufactured as far back as 1983, years before the company used
genetic engineered bacteria.) It would have been detected by
elementary chemical tests, even without animal experiments. This would
make a very good argument for more scrutiny of the health food
industry. Presenting it as an indictment of transgenic food is a huge
It's Unlike Anything in Nature
Advocates of genetic modification of crops often say that it is not
significantly different from ordinary breeding techniques. They say
that virtually every crop is genetically modified and that people have
been genetically modifying plants and animals for several thousand
years. This is, of course, true, but are the genetic transformations
now possible through biotechnology different from classical breeding
in some fundamental way?
The opponents say that the new gene transfer techniques are completely
different from anything that nature has ever allowed. Since this is
only a matter of how the two sides define fundamental, it really isn't
a case that illustrates an unethical behaviour by either side. There
is one minor exception.
The opponents like to illustrate their case by pointing to a tomato
with a gene from a fish. This example seems to be selected from all
the myriad possibilities because it strikes a chord of negative
emotion. We just don't think that anything from a fish belongs in a
tomato. This poster child for the opponents is played up endlessly.
Their flyers and posters show a tomato with fins, or sometimes a whole
fish with a stem and a few leaves. Sometimes the tomato is a
strawberry. One is supposed to think that these are typical examples
of genetic engineering. They are not!
It is possible to transfer a gene from a fish to a tomato plant. It
was tried by DNA Plant Technology of Oakland, California. The fish, an
arctic flounder, can tolerate very cold water because its blood
contains a natural antifreeze. The hope was that a tomato plant would
also be cold tolerant. When the resulting plant was tested, it was a
failure. The company abandoned the project and has no plan to try
again. All the posters portray is a just-so-story, a product that
doesn't exist. In fact, no plant product on the market today contains
a gene from any kind of animal, with one exception - there is a gene
from a luminescent jellyfish used as a marker, an indication that
the gene transfer has been successful. (Images courtesy of Steven
Haddock, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)
But the story still bothers people even when they know it doesn't have
much to do with anything we already eat. There is a feeling that it
somehow goes against nature to make such huge changes in an organism's
It might be useful to examine a few cases from nature, which can be
more complex than most of us imagine. At the very least, it will be
interesting. There are natural examples of genetic engineering, and
they are actually quite close to our lives.
Wheat is sometimes called the staff of life. Yet wheat has a complex
genetic story. It is the result of three separate instances of natural
genetic engineering. To introduce these changes, we need to explain
that wild grasses similar to wheat have their genes dispersed among
seven pairs of chromosomes. One of the earliest known domestic wheat
varieties is einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum), which has seven
chromosome pairs, like a wild grass. But another variety of wheat,
emmer wheat, has 14 chromosome pairs. It resulted from an
``impossible'' cross species mating with another wild grass (Aegilops
speltoids). This cross preceded modern biotechnology by several
thousand years. It either happened by itself or with the help of a
Sumerian farmer. This new plant had new characteristics that breeders,
with ordinary breeding and selection, exploited to produce many modern
varieties, such as duram wheat, which has grains that are easy to
separate from the hulls. But natural genetic engineering was not
finished with wheat. Around the time of the Roman empire there was
another ``impossible'' cross species mating with a third wild grass
(Triticum tauscii). The resulting new variety of wheat, bread wheat
(Triticum aestivum), has twenty one chromosome pairs, the complete
genomes of three separate species of grasses. This last mating brought
in the genetic recipe for gluten, which makes dough springy and lets
it hold together when yeast makes it rise.
The record of these crosses is written in the genomes of wheat
varieties and in analyses of grain from archaological sites. But the
latest step in the series is a grain plant with twenty eight
chromosome pairs. It is the result of a wheat-rye cross that happened
with human help only very recently, but which made no use of the new
gene transfer technology. Wheat has been involved in three
``impossible'' cross species matings during its history as a human
food, none relying on the modern DNA technology.
We need to look no further than our own bodies for a very ancient
example of a cross species mating. Within each of our cells there are
tiny bodies called mitochondria, which produce the cells' energy. Each
mitochondrion is the descendent of what must once have been a free
living bacterium. The mitochondria have their own DNA and they make
their own enzymes, In fact, they would have all the machinery needed
to run a cell, except that they, eons ago, transferred most of their
genes into our nuclear genome.
These and other examples of natural DNA mixing across species and even
between plants, animals, bacteria and viruses, show that nature
invented genetic engineering before mankind did.
Nature even goes to the exact opposite extreme. There is a species of
fish that cannot reproduce except by a cross species mating. The
Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa), a tiny fish just a few inches long,
is a species with no males. Every Amazon molly is a female. It bears
its young alive, like its better known relative, the sailfin molly
(Poecilia latipinna), which is commonly kept in home aquaria. How can
a fish reproduce with no males? The Amazon molly borrows the services
of a male sailfin molly. She mates and the sailfin's sperm enter her
eggs, causing them to begin development. But the male sailfin molly
makes no genetic contribution to the developing embryo. The DNA in his
sperm is wasted, which is why we can consider the Amazon molly a
totally different species. There are numerous other species all across
the animal kingdom which have dispensed entirely with males, and
reproduce by parthenogenesis, but it is certainly a surprise to find a
species which relies on males of another species to fertilize its
eggs. But not so much of a surprise as to learn of a species of
cypress in North Africa (Cupressus dupreziana) which plays the trick
in reverse. The pollen of the cypress requires the female parts of a
different tree to produce its seed cones. The structural and
nutritional parts of the seed cones are built by the female, but the
genetic component of the seeds comes entirely from the pollen. (In
medieval times, it was supposed that humans reproduced in this way,
with all heredity carried by the sperm while the mother provided only
nutrition and living space for the growing child.)
It is true that modern methods can speed up the processes which
transfer genes between species, genera, families, even kingdoms, by
millions of times and channel them into directions of our own
choosing. Ultimately what we consider to be natural is a personal
decision. But that decision should not be affected by street theater.
Nature can give you examples of almost anything you can imagine.
Vandana Shiva vs. Monsanto
Let us consider a widely circulated story about Indian farmers who
committed suicide. This story comes from Dr. Vandana Shiva. The
Monsanto company is supposed to have lured these farmers into
borrowing heavily to grow genetic engineered cotton. When their crop
failed, they were unable to repay their debts and hundreds committed
Actually, India has not yet licensed transgenic cotton, but there are
some sites where transgenic cotton was grown in test plots, to
determine scientifically whether the variety under test would be
successful and whether any problems might be detected. The farmers who
tended these test plots were not paid for the cotton, which was meant
to be destroyed. They took no risk. But the truth is much worse.
Although the suicides are a complete fiction, Dr. Shiva is correct
when she says that the cotton crop failed. It failed because nearby
Indian farmers were incited to raid the fields and burn up the young
cotton plants. Now why would they have done that? It was because they
were told, by this same Ms. Shiva, that the test plots were growing a
variety of cotton with the terminator seed technology. This was a lie.
So now we need to talk about the terminator technology. The fact is
that it doesn't yet exist. It's just an idea. Suppose you are a
company that develops seed varieties, at great capital expense. If you
sell your seeds to a farmer and he grows a crop, next year he will
have a large number of seeds which he can sell. He will be your
For decades, seed companies have dealt with this problem in various
ways. For hybrid seed, the next generation's seeds do not have the
same traits and therefore the seed company keeps control of the
trait and can sell seeds year after year. For non-hybrid seeds,
the seed companies make the farmer sign a contract, sometimes
requiring that he not supply seed for others, sometimes requiring that
he not even save the seed for replanting. But farmers can cheat.
Terminator technology, patented as the ``Technology Protection
System'', is a rather complex genetic engineering technology. Several
different control genes are transferred into the target crop variety.
When they all work together, the plant produces infertile seeds.
The crop is edible, but its seeds will not germinate. But the genes do
not all work together unless the seed from which the plant is grown is
treated with an antibiotic, tetracycline. As long as the parent seeds
are not treated with tetracycline, the next generation's seeds are
fertile and can grow new plants. Terminator technology is only
suitable for plants that self-fertilize, like cotton, soybeans, or
wheat. One would not want to make one's neighbor's crop sterile.
There are numerous stories worldwide that Monsanto originated this
technology with the purpose of gaining control of all the world's
seeds. These claims are so widely circulated that many fervent
advocates of genetic engineering believe that they are true. Ms. Shiva
actively peddles this story. The truth is that the patent (5,723,765)
on terminator technology is held jointly by the USDA and the Delta and
Pineland Cotton Company. According to that company's quarterly
stockolders' report of February, 1999, commercial exploitation of the
patent is seven years away. If you can be incited to burn a crop to
destroy terminator seed, you have until 2006 to save up for a flame
The only connection of the terminator technology with Monsanto
appeared in May 1998, when Monsanto offered to merge with Delta and
Pineland, over two years after Dr. Shiva's false story appeared. The
proposed merger has since been called off. Also, Monsanto has stated
categorically that it will not commercialize terminator technology.
Why do the crusaders connect the terminator seed to Monsanto? It's
because Monsanto is a large multinational corporation, and can be seen
as threatening. Delta and Pineland is a small company that would
frighten nobody. There are several ways to scare people about
terminator technology. We are supposed to be worried about poor third
world farmers forced to buy seed, from a rich multinational
corporation, which they used to get for free by saving some of last
year's crop. It is never explained why they would stop saving
their own seed.
Another scare story is: -- What if these genes were to escape into the
wild and make all living plants, worldwide, infertile. Frankly, it
takes a rather determinedly ignorant person to believe that a gene for
infertility would become widely distributed in the environment. What
are we to think when this sort of speculation is spread by a PhD?
There is one truly bad aspect to the terminator technology. If it led
to the widespread use of seeds treated with tetracycline, we could
reasonably expect that micro-organisms resistant to tetracycline would
evolve and become widespread. This would deprive us of a useful
medicine. I would hope that if any company ever proposes to
commercialize the technology, they will first do further development
to correct this disadvantage.
I have talked to many people about their attitudes toward genetic
engineering in agriculture and the issue of sterile seeds is the one
issue most frequently raised. I thought at first that it would be
useful to show people other examples of plants that farmers cannot
reproduce. We eat seedless grapes without hesitation. Hybrid crops'
seeds are not worth saving because they don't breed true. Many fruit
trees are grafted onto a vigorous rootstock so their seeds can
never grow into hardy trees. But these examples changed nobody's mind.
To many people, the sterile seed technology crosses a line between
what man may or may not do to other living things.
One argument made against transgenic crops is that they will lead to a
loss of biodiversity. It is hard to see how this can be believed.
Exactly the opposite may be expected.
The argument goes as follows. ``All over the world, there are farmers
growing local varieties of crops, all different from one another. But
transgenic crops are all identical. They will crowd out the local
varieties and each basic crop will be the same worldwide. By bad luck,
some fungus or other disease may come along that will wipe out that
variety. The other varieties might have included some with resistance
to the disease, but by adopting transgenic crops we would have lost
the basic crop completely and finally.''
The argument starts with a true statement. There are numerous local
varieties of most crops, called landraces, especially in the region of
the world where the crop originated. For example, Peru has hundreds of
varieties of potato. These are a reservoir of biodiversity.
Traditional breeders have regularly mined this genetic diversity to
improve the characteristics of crops.
The rest of the argument is untrue and nonsensical. First, transgenic
crops are not all identical. Once a gene has been transferred into one
variety of, say, potato, that potato is crossbred with many other
varieties and dozens or hundreds of genetic combinations are created.
Just as there is no best potato, there is no best transgenic potato.
There is not going to be a worldwide uniformization of crops, period.
Second, local varieties may be crowded out, or not, according to the
decisions of individual farmers. There are many varieties of crop that
are more productive than many local landraces. This isn't unique to
transgenic crops. The danger of landraces being lost is real, but has
nothing to do with genetic engineering. In fact, transgenic seeds are
usually more expensive than other commercially available seeds, so
they would be less likely to be adopted by traditional farmers. But
the real solution to the preservation of landraces is to establish
``germ banks''. A few hundred seeds of each variety can be
institutionally preserved. This is already happening. There are
landrace banks for most major crops. Many of these landrace banks were
established decades before there were any transgenic crops.
Third, thanks to biotechnology, there is no longer the threat of
complete extinction of anything! It has now become possible to take
DNA of a single cell of a plant or animal and reproduce its genes
indefinitely. Endangered species might be saved from extinction, or
even recovered from extinction by genetic engineering.
A typical plant might have 40,000 genes, including perhaps 1,000 that
differ from one variety to another. It is these 1,000 that constitute
the biodiversity of the species. Genetic engineering can introduce new
genes to the species' gene pool. That represents increasing
biodiversity. This is so obvious that in order to claim the exact
opposite, unscrupulous propagandists have had to weave in four
separate untruths, that all transgenic crops are identical, that
landraces are more in danger from transgenic varieties than from other
commercial breeds, that landraces are not being preserved, and that
the danger of extinction of any crop is increased by genetic engineering.
The Reaction to Golden Rice
Earlier we mentioned rice with vitamin A, developed by Swiss scientist
Ingo Potrykus and his German colleague Peter Beyer. Nicknamed golden
rice because the beta carotene gives the rice grains a distinctive
golden color, this achievement posed a huge problem for the crusaders
against transgenic agriculture. It seems to be a really good thing and
they couldn't say anything bad about it.
Consider. First, it's meant to provide a nutritional benefit to poor
people suffering from a severe vitamin A deficiency. Preventing its
use could be seen as depriving the third world poor of much needed
help. In fact, for each month of delaying its introduction by
insisting on excessive testing, the crusaders could be blamed for an
average of 50,000 cases of blindness.
Second, much of the crusaders' case against GMOs is about domination
of the third world by multinational corporations, dependence of
farmers on large companies, concentration of profits, etc. But golden
rice was developed without corporate money. Potrykus and Beyer were
funded by the Swiss government, the European Union and the Rockefeller
Foundation. They are making golden rice available free to the poor
Third, the crusaders loudest claim was that GMOs were insufficiently
tested for safety. But this was a preliminary product, still being
Fourth, there was no conceivable environmental problem. Rice plants
already produce beta carotene, although not in their grains. So the
escape of the transferred genes into wild rice relatives could not
possibly matter. Besides, rice pollen never travels more than a few
millimeters. All the usual complaints about genetic engineered crops
were either not applicable to golden rice, or were vastly outweighed
by the humanitarian advantages.
It might have been better strategy for the crusaders to treat golden
rice as a special case, an exceptional case of a bad technology put to
a good use. But instead, they decided to denounce it. Greenpeace
threatened to interfere with the research but they were unable to do
anything because Potrykus' research facility was too secure, even
Still, Potrykus received threats and hate mail. The rumor was spread
that golden rice would cause impotence and hair loss. In 1995, the
researchers tried to send samples of their new rice strain to the
International Rice Research Institute. A graduate student, sympathetic
to Greenpeace, passed them shipping information and Greenpeace stole
the samples from the package delivery company, putting on its usual
street theater with protective clothing and gas masks.
Dr. Potrykus then arranged a meeting with Greenpeace campaign director
Benedict Haerlin. He attempted to explain why the golden rice project
was beneficial and innocuous and asked Haerlin to explain Greenpeace's
objections to his work. But Haerlin said that Greenpeace opposed his
work as a matter of principle.
In the spring of 2001, the biotechnology industry finally began a
slick propaganda campaign of its own, launching television ads
featuring golden rice. This, even though industry's only contribution
to the project was allowing Potrykus free use of its patented
techniques. In response to this campaign, Haerlin briefly changed his
mind, stating that despite Greenpeace's objections to genetic
engineering, they would not stage raids to vandalize the test sites
planned in the Phillipines. But a few days later, he retracted the
statement, reserving the ``right'' to attack the test plots.
Soon, Vandana Shiva got into the fray. She issued a report calling
golden rice a gigantic hoax. She claimed that its vitamin A content
was so miniscule that a child would need to eat many kilograms per day
to get the recommended daily requirement of vitamin A. But her
calculations were based on the least favorable choice of each possible
factor. She used a recommended daily allowance (RDA) instead of a
minimum daily requirement (MDR), mixed up the weight of dry rice with
that of cooked rice, used Potrykus' published research results about
the first plants to display vitamin A, rather than the best, and
assumed that there was no other source of vitamin A in the eaters' diet.
Shiva claimed, correctly, that industry was using golden rice to
present transgenic agriculture in the most favorable light. Soon the
other parties to the campaign began spreading her calculations,
ignoring Dr. Potrykus corrections.
Finally, in January 2001, the rice seeds were transferred to IRRI and
are being used for experiments by over twenty research institutes,
crossing golden rice with other varieties. There is still plenty of
testing to do before the rice can be released to farmers. Nobody knows
whether the amount of vitamin A can be increased by selective
breeding. After correcting Ms. Shiva's exaggerations and errors,
today's best strain of golden rice is still only able to provide about
15% of the RDA, enough to prevent blindness but far from an optimum.
Another question is whether the third world consumers will accept
golden rice. There is some reason to think not.
Greenpeace and the other critics have frequently stated that the money
spent on developing golden rice could better have been spent on
distributing capsules of vitamin A to the poor worldwide. Such
distribution has already been happening for about fifteen years,
funded by the World Health Organization, costing about $100 million
annually, but it hasn't solved the problem of vitamin A deficiency.
Pills often don't make it to the poor. Besides, a constant theme of
the protesters has been that the poor of the third world need to break
out of their dependence and become self sufficient.
Faced with a development like golden rice, the extremists choose to
Where the Transgenes Go
Remember that genes are analogous to sentences in a document. Critics
like to claim that the process of gene transfer could put the new gene
anywhere randomly in the document, possibly messing up other genes. By
analogy, if a document had read, in part, ``don't drink the water!''
and the inserted sentence were ``be happy!'', one might get the
construct ``don't be happy! drink the water!'' Of course, such a
random insertion could change the meaning of either or both genes.
Since almost anything could happen, goes the argument, it would be
impossible to test enough to discover the problems caused by gene
There are several reasons why this criticism is misleading.
To begin with, although the genetic engineers do not have perfect
control over where a transferred gene will go in the genome, they
know, after the transfer, exactly where it did go. A plant for which
the gene was transferred into the wrong place would be discarded and
the engineers would try again. Besides, not having perfect control is
a far cry from having no control and there are many more sites for
safe gene insertion than for disruptive insertion.
Yet there is some leftover truth to the assertion that a gene
transferred to a different species could have unanticipated
consequences. It's just that genetic engineering, while not perfect,
is much more precise than any other breeding technique. In every act
of sexual reproduction, there are millions of possibilities for
unanticipated consequences. Whereas genetic engineers transfer only
one gene, conventional breeders use the sexual process, which mixes
together thousands of genes. ``don't be happy! drink the water''
happens all the time in conventional breeding.
It is also misleading to imply that the genome is such a stable
document in the first place. In nature there are at least four
separate mechanisms at work to mix up genomes.
The critics of genetic engineering mean to leave you with the
impression that nature has evolved a finely tuned but fragile system
of inheritance but that genetic engineers have no good idea what they
are doing. But actually, the genetic engineers make only small well
controlled modifications to a genome, whereas nature often makes large
and random changes. The likelihood of unexpected effects in transgenic
technology is small. Unexpected changes in conventional breeding are
Labeling Transgenic Food
This brings us to the issue of labeling.
Once the opponents instigated a doubt about the safety of genetic
engineered foods, and remember that there has not, in ten years, been
even the slightest evidence of that, the next step was to agitate for
labeling. Why, after all, shouldn't consumers have a choice?
I agree people who want to avoid transgenic food should be able to
make that choice. But labeling can take two forms. One could label
food which is not transgenic, or one could label food which is
transgenic. I can't imagine anyone objecting to labeling foods which
are transgenic-free. But the anti-transgenic demand is adamant for the
other choice. We can say that the difference is between those who
would label the non-transgenic food with a smiley face and those who
would label transgenic food with a skull & crossbones.
Labeling sounds so reasonable. How could anyone oppose it if they
didn't have something to hide? But labeling has a down side. It costs.
The cost is not in the ink to print the label. It is in keeping the
products separate. We are talking now mostly about soybeans and corn.
These grains are harvested by the hundreds of tons, shipped in
railroad cars, stored in grain silos, sold in futures contracts.
Approximately 70% of processed foods in the US have some ingredient
derived from biotechnology. This includes most milk and cheese, sugar,
soy products, corn and corn sweeteners, vegetable oils, etc.
63% of US grown soybeans are now transgenic. Neither buyers nor
sellers distinguish between transgenic and conventional soybeans. Your
tofu is a mixture of both kinds. (In my local supermarket, there is
only one brand of tofu available and the manufacturer has recently
decided to use only organic soybeans, which are specifically labeled
non-GMO. At the same time, the package size changed from sixteen to
fifteen ounces and the price was raised by $.25.) To keep the two
kinds separate, we would need, at a minimum, to have two separate
distribution channels, two storage systems, two futures markets.
In my opinion, the pressure for skull & crossbones labeling is really
a pressure to increase the cost of the genetic engineered food. So
far, the transgenic food has had only producer advantages -- it is
cheaper to produce. Take away its cost advantage and it is no better
than the conventional foods. Never mind that corn with the Bt trait,
one third of the US crop, is grown without pesticides. Never mind that
the transgenic soybeans prevent soil loss and global warming. The
Economist magazine estimated that segregation of grains would add a
25% premium to the price of some processed foods, like packaged
cereals. This is probably an over-estimate, but we should remember
that these costs will fall inordinately on people with low income.
But if this were the only problem with labeling, the food industry
giants would quickly adopt grain segregation and labeling. They are
being forced into grain segregation anyway by the labeling regulations
of nations that import US grain. The industry is really concerned that
the labels will make it easier for groups like Greenpeace to boycott
their products. Stop the scare campaigns and the resistance to
labeling will disappear overnight.
If you doubt that demands for skull & crossbones labeling can be used
to purposely create a disadvantage, imagine what your reaction would
be if someone were to propose that products assembled by hispanic
workers must be so labeled. The public demand for labeling would be
justified by a ``right to information'', but just below the radar
screen you would not be surprised to hear that hispanic workers might
be illiterate, or might be illegal immigrants, or might be drug users.
But you would recognize that the demand for labeling was meant to
We have established a precedent in this country about labeling. The
government does not mandate labeling without a very good reason. The
main exception is when safety (skull & crossbones label) is involved.
Once the government decides that, say, a certain chemical pesticide is
safe, nobody can require the food grown with that pesticide to be
labeled. When a segment of the consuming public wants a label (smiley
face) about a trait that it cares about, the market provides such a
label and it is reflected in the cost of the product. For example,
there are people who prefer to eat food grown with no chemical
pesticides. They buy ``organic'' food. Everyone understands that the
label ``organic'' means that the food was grown without pesticides.
Everyone also knows that they have to pay more for the food labeled
Similarly, orthodox Jews have certain religious rules about what they
eat. These include a requirement that cows and chickens must be
slaughtered in a particular way. This is a requirement for the Kosher
label. Jews do not expect all meat to have a label detailing how the
animal was slaughtered. Even in Israel, the people who want the label
pay for the privilege, and kosher meat is often quite a bit more
expensive that ordinary meat.
One has to be skeptical when the demand for giving consumers more
information comes from the same people who are so blatantly
Labeling as a Trade Barrier
Foreign governments are motivated to oppose genetically engineered
food as a trade barrier. The United States sells one third of its
crops overseas. Europe used to buy $200 million worth of corn and
soybeans per year from American farmers. This year it will probably
buy none because we are unable to supply a segregated product. Even
farmers who grow traditional grains cannot sell them to the European
Common Market because the ECM has not yet specified a clear lower
limit on how much transgenic content would require a transgenic (skull
& crossbones) label -- e.g. one bean in a pound, in a ton, in a
shipload? Even such a clear limit would leave room for confusion and
an excuse for excluding the imports. Do you consider food to have
transgenic content if it contains oil pressed from transgenic corn or
soybeans? No test can tell the difference. Sugar made from transgenic
sugar beets cannot be differentiated from other beet sugar. Do you
consider a chicken transgenic if it ate transgenic chickenfeed, ever?
This is one of the demands of the most vociferous opponents.
(Parenthetically, Europe has decided on the criterion for a
non-transgenic (smiley face) label, 1%. So we have the paradox that a
product made with only a few transgenic grains could be labeled as
either transgenic or as transgenic-free, but cannot be sold in Europe
without any label.)
It happens that Europe sells a great deal of cheese to the United
States. Almost all of it is made using chymosin from genetic
engineered yeasts. None of the transgenic food opponents call for
cheese to be labeled for genetic engineered content. The governments
of the European countries do not want this even to be revealed. They
are trying to keep American agricultural products out of Europe, not
vice versa, and one of the major ways they do it is by requiring the
transgenic crops to be segregated. This is a ploy. They have already
found several transgenic crops to be safe, but by requiring them to be
segregated, they can get around the World Trade Organization rules, at
least for a while longer.
The most blatant campaign against American imported food has been
managed by Italy's minister of agriculture, Pecoraro Scanio, a Green
Party member of the ruling coalition. He has vocally denounced
transgenic products as ``mutant'' food, withheld research funds from
Italian plant scientists who say transgenic food is adequately tested,
and seized imported food and seeds in warehouses based on the rumor
that they might have some transgenic content. But recently a German
magazine published an expose revealing that Italy's most popular
variety of spaghetti wheat was developed using mutations induced by
radiation. (Never mind that this had happened decades ago.) It was a
huge embarrassment for Scanio, who had to promise to investigate so he
could gain a little time. How will he be able to justify allowing real
mutant food from Italy?
Environmental Scare Stories
Let's move on to the environment: We mentioned earlier a concern that
some genetic engineered crops could cross breed with wild relatives.
To the pseudo-environmental groups (those who like to call themselves
green even though much of what they advocate would harm the
environment), this absolutely rules out any permissible use. Their
argument goes as follows: ``We don't have any idea what plants could
cross breed with what other plants, and we don't have any idea what
effect the unusual genes would have in the wild plants. Therefore we
should take no chances.''
In fact, hybridization between different species is extremely uncommon
and it has never been observed between distantly related species. You
can't cross a tomato with a potato, even though they are both members
of the nightshade family. Yet the GE opponents would have us believe
that just about any plant can hybridize with any other. And they have
quotes from PhDs to prove it.
Actually there is exactly one controlled experiment showing a
hybridization between a genetic engineered crop and a wild species.
The crop was a transgenic canola (oilseed), with that same herbicide
tolerance gene we have encountered before. Here is what PhD Jeremy
Bartlett, of the John Innes Plant Research Center of Norfolk, England,
wrote to the Manchester Guardian. He said we don't know what plants
will hybridize with what other plants. He said that there is a
documented example of transgenic canola hybridizing with a wild
mustard. He went on in the same letter to talk about the possibility
of gene transfer to soil organisms.
Dr. Bartlett is a PhD in biology. He surely knows that there is little
basis for speculating that plants will pass genes on to soil
organisms. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt where a
speculation is concerned. Still he must have known that the documented
case he was referring to was observed at a test plot of the John Innes
Research Center, his own institution. The transgenic canola was
planted in the center of the plot and various other species were
planted at various distances to measure the rates of hybridization.
There was only one case observed. The canola hybridized with the wild
Jeremy Bartlett means for you to think that if an oilseed can
hybridize with a wild mustard, then anything can hybridize with
anything. Fortunately, the John Innes Center puts its research reports
on the world wide web, so I read the actual report. Guess what?
Canola is a hybrid itself, a cross between Brassica rapa and Brassica
napus, two closely related wild plants in the same genus. Brassica
rapa is wild mustard! So we don't have evidence for a transgenic crop
hybridizing with just about anything else imaginable, beyond the
capability of man to anticipate. We have evidence of a plant
crossbreeding with its closest relative, placed in the test plot
because it was so likely to crossbreed, and it was the only case
observed. When the biotechnology opponents write or talk about this,
they always say wild mustard and canola, never Brassica rapa and
napus. Dr. Bartlett means to play with our minds, to mislead us.
Hybridization with wild plants is a concern, but it is a managable
Vandalization of the Fields
This doesn't just happen in India. In 2000, eight test plots of
transgenic oilseed developed by the AgroEvo Company were torn up in
the British Isles. One more was sprayed with petrochemicals and
another was mowed with a reaper, in broad daylight with TV news
alerted. The last attack was organized by Greenpeace and the action
was led by Lord Peter Melchett, head of England's chapter of
Greenpeace. He was arrested and faced a trial, which he used to
present the case against transgenic foods. He was acquitted!
Greenpeace claims that these crops are a threat to the environment,
yet Greenpeace organizes the vandalism that destroys the test plots
which could prove and quantify this threat if there is any.
Incredibly, in the aftermath of such vandalism, the protesters were
able to successfully demand that the British government make public
the locations of all future test plots. Not surprisingly, many British
farmers have therefore decided not to take part in such experiments.
Test plots of Bt corn were vandalized in California, Maine, Minnesota
and Vermont that summer.
So-called direct action has not been limited to action against the
plants. A university biology laboratory in Michigan was fire-bombed.
Activists have attacked numerous research facilities to break windows
and slash tires.
Most of this vandalization is committed by sincere people who have
been stirred up by stories spread by groups they have come to trust.
But in a surprising number of cases, the fields vandalized have had
nothing to do with genetic engineering. Protesters in Britain who tore
up a test plot of tomato plants in the night thought that they were
frustrating GMO research, but they actually pulled up research plots
of ordinary tomatoes. The genetically modified tomatoes were growing
In March of 2001, a forest of 800 aspen trees in Oregon was cut down
by an unknown group, who then sent a letter to forest geneticist Steve
Strauss, whose experiment they had destroyed. The letter claimed that
his experiment was a menace to the environment. How? The trees were
sterile. They could produce no seed, or pollen. Then in May, it was
probably the same group that burned down a plant research center.
Calling themselves Earth Liberation Front, they may not have known
that scientists there were trying to save a rare plant, the showy
stickweed, from extinction, using a cloning technology called tissue
culture. A hundred of the plants perished in the fire. Approximately
three hundred remain alive somewhere in the wild.
The Earth Liberation Front's members no doubt consider themselves
virtuous for their love of the environment. Perhaps they justify the
accidental eradication of one quarter of the population of an
endangered species as a necessary casualty of their war against
biotechnology. So far, the objective record has biotechnology helping
to protect the environment while the Earth Liberation Front has set
fires and killed trees. There are internet sites which encourage this
vandalism. Potential activists are offered advice on how to find
likely targets by looking in the lists of projects carried out in
universities. All a project needs to be targeted are sponsorship by
industry or some key words like genetic in its title.
Bills have been filed in several agricultural states to make it clear,
as if it weren't already clear, that destruction of research is
criminal activity. The staff of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee
had documented forty cases of such destruction in the United States
during the three years ending in April 2001.
The Monarch Butterfly Story
GE opponents had a field day when Cornell Professor John Losey
reported that pollen from Bt corn killed the larvae of themonarch
butterfly. What fantastic publicity to herald the danger to the
environment of a GE crop. Many children have collected a beautiful
blue chrysalis and protected it until its black and orange butterfly
hatched and flew away. The report of Dr. Losey's experiment was in
hundreds of newspapers the very next day. Two days later, the European
Union announced a moratorium on all future approvals of genetic
engineered crops because of the monarch butterfly.
Scarcely a week goes by without someone dressing up in a butterfly
costume to protest genetically engineered food. Dr. Losey's
experiment was as follows: He sprinkled Bt corn pollen onto milkweed
leaves, then put monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) in a jar with
only the pollen dusted leaves to eat. He observed high mortality.
Now here is some background to help you decide what this means.
Monarch butterflies eat only nectar, not pollen, and caterpillars eat
only milkweed leaves. Farmers don't let milkweed grow in cornfields,
although it may grow on roadsides near cornfields. Corn pollen is
heavy and seldom drifts more than ten meters from the tassel. Because
of the refuge strategy, each field of Bt corn is surrounded by several
rows of conventional corn. Very little Bt pollen gets to the edge of
the corn field. Furthermore corn pollen is shed for only a few weeks
and monarch butterfly larvae do not hatch until after most of the
pollen is gone.
Dr. Losey told reporters that his experiment was inconclusive because
he had not controlled for the amount of pollen dusted onto the
milkweed leaves. But, a controlled experiment two years earlier had
shown negligible mortality of monarch caterpillars under realistic
conditions. This study had been submitted to the EPA as part of the
regulatory process. After Losey's work was reported several other
teams carried out additional experiments to quantify the effects of Bt
pollen on monarchs and other butterflies. These studies all reported
negligible effect. These controlled studies were mostly ignored by the
Corn which is not Bt protected is grown with insecticides which kill
any insect the spray reaches, including beneficial insects. Bt corn is
now 30% of the US crop and the monarch butterfly population is on the
increase. The most