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March 15, 2000


Critical Questions in Agricultural Biotechnology


- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

It is a long read, but I think many will find it rewarding. About 5
hours to compose, if you read nothing else please read my very last
sentence. Below are my answers to Mr Barun Mitrra's 30 questions:

Matt Metz
241 Koshland Hall
UC Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720
(510) 643-7133

**Are you a Bio-Bigot? Well I'm and Eco-Heretic!**

>From Barun Mitra
> Prakash:
> Here are some critical questions that keep coming up during discussions on
> biotechnology.
> Barun
> Q 1. Is genetic engineering the only way of increasing food production?

Surely not... The 'Green Revoution' made huge gains in this area. GE is
one valuable tool in this arena (and others). To be most productive we
should explore all of the tools avaliable to us, not excluding
biotechnology. "To be smartest we should utilize both the left and right
hemispheres of our brians."
> Q 2. Is it possible to deal with widespread malnutrition with genetic
> engineering?

Again, biotechnology is one tool in that can be put to use to address
this problem. Providing farmers with crops that are nutritionally
enhanced, or that can perform better under pest pressure or harsh
environmental conditions can help alleviate food insecurity. Ironically
advocates of equality in food access come out in strong opposition to the
very technologies that could help free poor populations from handouts or
'redistribution' of the food supply, which seems to be their choice
solution. "Shall we give them a fish, or teach them how to fish (give
them the technology)?"

> Q 3. How can GE ensure environmental sustainability as well as increase
> food production when pressure on environmental resources like land and
> water is growing?

Increased yield per hectare is an important factor in containing the
sprawl and thirst of agricultural land that encraches on wild
ecosystems. Traits such as pest resistance can contribute to yield
increases. Problems such as erosion can be reduced in herbicide tolerant
fields where reduced tillage is enabled.

> Q 4. How can GE deal with possible environmental threats such as "super
> weeds"?
> Q 5. How can undesirable "genetic drifts" be controlled?

The ecological impacts of GE crops is the most complex issue
(opinion). Both proponents and opponents of biotechnology often seem to
overlook the need for a case by case evaluation of crops and
biogeography. Some examples:
1. Corn has no sexually compatible relatives in areas outside of Mexico
and southward it the Americas. In such areas the possibility of genetic
drift of transgenes does not exist. In this case there is no problem.
2. In Canada many wild relatives of canola exist near and in agricultural
lands. The drift of genetic traits such as herbicide resistance
(transgenic and non transgenic varieties exist) that are selected for in
an agricultural setting pose a real threat in such a case. If field
trials and farmer practices cannot be shown to contain the drift of such
traits, then certain varieties (transgenic or otherwise) may have to be
outlawed in CERTAIN areas.
3. Wild relatives of rice exist in many parts of the world where
agricutural varieties are grown, and genetic drift is prevalent. The
movement of (trans)genes could bring genetic material for nutritional
enhancement or increased seed production into weeds, but this would
provide no selective advantage to the weeds that could make them 'super'
and should not cause concern.
--See also #31.
> Q. 6 What about the health risks from GE, such as antibiotic resistance?

Opponents of biotechnology argue vehemently that species barriers that are
never and should never be crossed are crossed with genetic
engineeering. I will concur with them only on the 'are never' part. The
arguments turn self contradictory and fallacious as they tell people that
antibiotic resistance genes will move from the GMO's into other
organisms. Even if it were possible, the clinical implications of the
resistance markers moving into pathogens would be null; kanamycin and
hygromycin are poisonous to humans and not preferred as antibiotics for
treating illness.

>Q 7. Shouldn't it be possible to demand zero risks from GE?
>Q 8. What is the sound scientific basis for considering GE to be safe?

Zero risk cannot be promised by any technology, or lack thereof. The
important point is that biotechnology poses risks that are equal to or
LESS than the risks encountered in conventional breeding for agriculture.
Conventional breeding mixes tens of thousands of genes from two (or
more) organisms together, and involves sorting through many progeny for
the desired characteristics. The functions of many if not all the genes
being introduced to each other are not known. The risk/benefit assessment
of this experiment (the last 10,000+ years of agriculture) can be
examined: our population has enjoyed substantial biological
success. There have been some unwanted traits; e.g. wheat, a hexaploid is
allergenic to many people; but an overall success can be tallied.
Genetic engineering can be said to be as safe or safer that conventional
breeding; it is unequivocably more precise. Consider the genes that are
being introduced to eachother in two hypothetical cases:

Conventional Breeding-- 40,000 unknowns x 40,000 unknowns
Transformation-- 40,000 unknowns x 1-10 known gene functions

A process that is safer shouldn't be given up because it cannot be
elevated to a mythical standard of absolute safety.

>Q 9. How can modern profit driven agro-biotechnology meet the basic needs
> of the poor?

A most exhasperating trend is the misconception that the products of
ag-biotech are being developed solely in the private sector. To cite only
three examples: such products as nutritionally enhanced rice, virus
resistant cassava, and vaccine carrying bananas are under development in
the PUBLIC sector. These innovations are specifically targeted at
reducing the ills of poor populations. Mention of these genetic
engineering efforts is blatantly omitted/dismissed by anti-biotech
activists (it does not serve their political agenda to speak the whole
truth). This is not to say that poor farmers could not also benefit from
public sector innovations --see #10.

> Q 10. Would not the poor farmers in developing countries become dependent
> on commercial biotech corporations?

Technology may also help to make these farmers less poor. Indeed the
corporations become dependent on their customers in a commercial
relationship as much as the reverse is true. Alliances between groups of
farmers (the customers) can help ensure that they benefit from the
technology in a financially fair arrangement. A system of collective
purchasing like the griange organizations used by US farmers could be
implemented in these markets. If a technology is banned, people can get no
benefit from it (except by smuggling as in Brazil, which inflates the
> Q 11. How can the interest of developing countries be safeguarded?

The biggest threat is preventing developing countries form being able to
use biotechnology. The dogmatic ideology of acitivist groups are
currently contributing more to this end than corporate greed. Public
sector developments will be free to these nations, the private sector can
be negotiated with --see #10.

> Q 12. Won't GE crops accelerate the trend towards fewer varieties of crops?
> Will not such a loss of crop diversity make agriculture more vulnerable?

Actually the reverse is more likely to be true. With conventional
breeding a particular trait of interest has to be melded with other
desired triats, to the exclution of unwanted traits over many generations
of selective breeding. With genetic engineering a single desired trait
can be added to any already optimized breed in a much more directed and
quicker manner. This will make it easier to diversify crops.
> Q 13. What are the social and ethical implications of GE?

Should we use this new technology? Consider the fable of Prometheus
giving us fire: When she gave the fire did we extinguish it or attempt to
learn how to use it to the best of our ability?
> Q 14. Shouldn't the consumers have the right to know whether they are
> consuming GE?

Consumers should have the right to be informed. Activists stand in the
way of this as much as labeling opponents when they pormote
misconceptions such as Frankenfood rhetoric. Agencies responsible for
regulating food labeling now have the monumental task ahead of them of
devising a labeling protocol that promotes understanding in the face of
rampant political granstanding.
> Q 15. Shouldn't GE crops be labeled? If not, why not?

Labels seem now to be inevitable. The question now is not if, but
how. Government regulatory agencies will need to enforce a labeling
protocol that gives consumers pertinent information, free of political
manipulation. This will be a big challenge.
> Q 16. Shouldn't biotech companies bear total liability for any harm to
> environment and public health?

Such responsibilities should be the same as they have previously
been: inventors should be liable for the safe operation of their
products (checking for allergens and environmental impacts should
continue, and be advertized); growers should be responsible
for following guidelines to safeguard the environment; processors should
be responsible for safe, hygenic handling of materials; and CONSUMERS
should be responsible for knowing their own health concerns
(e.g. allergies to foods like wheat or dairy) and consuming prudently, as
well as minding the expiration dates on their purchases. Each party
shares in the responsibility. No one party has 'total' responsibility.
> Q 17. If food security is primarily a question of distribution insecurity,
> then how can increased production using GE address the question of food
> security?

The avialiability of crops that can grow in more places and produce
more nutritious food can help people become independent of
redistribution or handouts advocated by many food security activist
groups. --see also #2
> Q 18. Is it fair to grant patent on GMOs?

Patents are necessary (and fair) to drive private sector development of
products that serve well off consumers (most activists fall into this
category). And public funding is necessary to drive public domain
develpoments. In fairness to the private sector, some of the biggest
public sector sources of funding come from philantrhopic agencies such ad
the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Howard Huges Mecical Institute; we
should not dismiss the potential for patented products to be made
available to poor populations, while they are sold to wealthier ones.

> Q 19. Doesn't patenting life forms encourage violence, first by treating
> life forms as mere machines and denying their self-organising capacity, and
> secondly, by denying self-reproducing capacity (by allowing patents on
> future generations of plants and animals)?

Human cultures have claimed ownership of plants and animals they bred for
eons; from livestock given as dowries to grains held as tribal
property. For those who view such ownership as a violent injustice rather
than a consequence of our species' evolution to expect biotechnology to
bear responsibility is (doubly) ludicrous.
> Q 20. When patent is granted on GMO being novel and not occurring in
> nature, how can the IPR holders then seek to escape the responsibility of
> consequences of releasing the GMOs? How can they treat the issue of
> biosafety as unnecessary?

All parties using a technology, including the inventors are
responsible for its proper use. --see also #16

> Q 21. Won't herbicide and pesticide resistant GE crop lead to intensified
> use of agro-chemicals?

Herbicide resistance enables the use of fewer types of herbicides
(reducing usually to one) and reduces the numer of applications
needed. Fewer, higher doses of the resisted herbicide are possible
without damaging the crop. The end result is that close to the same
amount of the resisted hebicide is used but many other herbicides are
eliminated; and overall reduction. (There is doccumentation on this, and
I apologise for not having the time to provide it. Can any one help?)
> Q 22. Won't IPR put restrictions on creativity of nature (i.e., inherent
> to living systems that reproduce and multiply in self-organised freedom) by
> shifting common rights and excluding intellectual commons' knowledge, ideas
> and innovations? Apart from corporate control over minds, IPR may become
> intellectual theft or bio-piracy?

Evolution ('natures creativity'?) will not halt with the introduction of
biotechnology. Preventing a technology from being developed will not
insure that 'knowledge, ideas, and innovations' are shared, but rather
that they will never be discovered by any one. A moderate system of IPR
helps to stimulate innovation by rewarding innovators.
> Q 23. Doesn't the emergence of GE threaten to change the meaning and value
> of biodiversity from life-support base for poor communities to raw-material
> base for private corporations?

Corporations and communities alike have a long history of viewing
biodiversity as a raw-material. Biotechnology does not itself do anything
to exacerbate or alleviate this important problem. How we use technology
will contribute to this question. Prohibition is a null respons and will
provide no improvements.
> Q 25. If GE does not direct benefit to consumers, why should they bear
> any possible risk?

There are benefits, whether consumers consider enhanced nutrition (--see
#2), environmental improvements (--see #3), or reduced prices from
increased supply (--see #1) biotechnology has something to offer.
> Q 26. Isn't biotechnology, such as rDNA techniques, substantively
> different from conventional breeding methods?

Different in one respect: it is precise and fast (--see #8). In principle
it is like conventional breeding in that new combinations of genetic
material are created. Different in a second respect in that millions of
fewer variables (genes) are involved each time it is performed. "If
different is bad then perhaps people should not have any desire to go to
> Q 27. In conventional breeding within species, it is said that "vertical
> transfer" of genes takes place. However, biotechnology allows
> "horizontal transfer" of genes across species. To quote a prominent
> critic of biotechnology, "Did any ask the tomato before changing its
> gene?" Isn't such horizontal transfer unnatural, and therefore possibly
> unsafe, as well as unethical?

No one asked the tomato whether it wanted to be bred so that its fruit
was not deadly poison to humans either. By said critics assessment we
should not use any of the fruits of selective breeding. Can we find
enough 'natural' grubs and berries to feed the world?
> Q 28. Is there a difference between applications of biotechnology in
> agriculture and medicine? Why are the two perceived differently?

Undernourishment is a disease that needs treatment with food. Only the
well fed think differently about 'medicine' and food.
> Q 29. Applications of biotech ranges from development of vaccines, to
> pollution cleaning bacteria, biodegradable plastics, coloured cotton,
> herbicide and pest resistant crops, to vitamin enriched crops. Isn't it
> possible to draw a line between permissible and unpermissible
> application of biotechnology?

Mainly unpermissable should be the extinguishment of all the potential
benefits of biotechnology. Applications that should be porhibited do not
appear in those listed above. Prudent measures to safeguard both the
environment and the cotinued efficacy of the technology (--see 4 & 5) need
to be followed. This is not the same as prohibition
> Q 30. Is there any possible benefits of the so-called "Terminator
> technology"? Or is it a means to exercise control over farmers' right to
> grow their own seed?

Terminator technology specifically prevents the gene flow that #4 & #5
raise concern about. Sterile pollen does not transmit genes to any
plant. The fallacious scenario of terminator genes escaping and
sterilizing wild populations requires people to forget in the same
sentence that the terminator plants ARE sterile and can't spread their

Q 31. Isn't the credibility of regulatory agencies influencing the popular
perception of genetic engineering? Is it a failure of the regulatory
agency or is it a failure of the market and corporate ethics as such?

Credibility has had a strong influence: Loss of it in the UK has resulted
in a pronounced fear of biotechnology; maintenance of it in the US has
coincided with the majority of consumers worrying little about genetigally
engineered foods. Corporate ethics has also been influential: trade
protectionism has motivated many european food producers to help fuel fear
of biotechnology products made by their competitors overseas. The failure
in the market is more of a failing in our education system that has left
many people so scientifically illiterate that they are easily manipulated
by the misinformation and antics of Bio-Bigot activists.