THE ETHICAL EDGE
by Jon Entine
Biotechnology and Agriculture: Scourge or Revolution?
At moments, the incendiary protests that greeted World Trade Organization
representatives last fall in Seattle resembled a riot on Halloween eve.
Among the more vocal factions, the demonstrators were a potpourri of protestors
from a range of groups including protectionist trade unionists and avowed
anarchists. Among other things, the environmental groups were riled about
the use of gene modification in agriculture.
Dotted amongst a hundred chanting demonstrators was a woman dressed in
a strawberry costume topped with a fish head. Fishberry, she called herself,
as she peddled T-shirts warning of the weird and horrid new creatures
that would be created if the "multi-nationals" got their way
and genetic engineering was unleashed on the farms of the world. She was
part of a contingent that included an assortment of human-cum-vegetables,
a man dressed as a bunch of purple grapes, and a teenager with a Friends
of the Earth sign outfitted as an endangered monarch butterfly replete
It was all very entertaining. The question remains: Was this mere street
theatre or should serious people take notice?
The ethics and environmental impact of genetic engineering is of the more
explosive issues of the day, and one which could have tremendous impact
on California with its vast agricultural industry. More than half the
soybeans planted in the U.S. this year and 30 percent of the corn are
from biotech seeds. Oils and sweeteners derived from these crops are ingredients
in a host of processed foods such as soft drinks, tortilla chips and French
Anti-biotech ringleaders like Greenpeace and the Loka Institute casually
throw around words such as "polluted" and "tainted"
in their broadside. They raise a host of issues:
is inherently dangerous and can lead to "disastrous consequences,"
such as the creation of mutant and uncontrollable superweeds;
-- the long-term environmental and health effects of GMOs remains cloudy,
suggesting a moratorium;
--GMOs now being used should be labeled so consumers could make an informed
Such demands, particularly the call for labeling, have resonated in Europe,
which is prone to hysteria on science-related issues. Supermarket chains
have yanked genetically modified products off shelves. Gerber and
Heinz both announced they would try to ensure that none of their baby
foods contain gene-altered products.
But the scientific and ethical issues are not nearly as clear cut as some
activists would make them out to be. There has been no credible
scientific evidence that GMOs pose any more health or environmental risks
than traditional cross-breeding, gene-splicing, or cloning that has been
going on for decades and given us such products as the tangelo and seedless
"Plant breeders bombard crops with radiation to create mutations
in the hope that some might prove beneficial," notes Willard Thompson,
of California Grower and California Vegetables Journal in
Carpinteria. "That creates more environmental questions and
is a lot less precise than modifying genes in the lab."
Bio-tech is actually the low-risk alternative in agriculture. Moreover,
engineered microbes and enzymes produced using recombinant DNA methods
are used to make cheese, bread and household detergents, and have been
since the early part of this decade. Farmers and consumers have already
reaped huge benefits from corn and soybeans that are genetically modified
to include a natural insecticide, dramatically cutting spraying of dangerous
chemicals. Some two million fewer pounds of insecticide were used in 1998
to control disease worms than were used in 1995, before "Bt"
cotton was introduced.
Conventional and biotech breeding are not qualitatively different but
part of a continuum. That's a key reason why President Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman are resisting the anti-technology frenzy, taking the position
that severe restrictions on gene modification could hamper ground-breaking
And the research is promising. For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation
has funded studies on so-called golden rice, a crop designed to build
in nutritional supplements to counteract the epidemic of vitamin A deficiency
in the developing world. The product could be on the market in a few years.
Among other developments:
--Monsanto is developing conventional and cherry tomatoes with a built
in resistance to insects and disease, in much the way that its patented
soy seeds, now widely used in the Midwest, dramatically reduces the use
of some deadly chemical insecticides;
--Tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, and raspberries could have a longer
shelf life and disease resistance with the introduction of modified genes;
-- Genes are expected to be developed that would increase the sweetness
of many crops, such as sweet peppers.
Nevertheless, the scorched-earth tactics of some activists seems focused
on scuttling the good and the bad of the biotech revolution. Their argument
purports to cite science but is essentially religious -- don't tamper
with nature. More thoughtful activists, such as Consumers Union, which
publishes Consumer Reports, have attempted to distinguish between
the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its application
to medicine. But that distinction is lost in the hysteria, and as a result,
a toxic cloud hovers over all genetic research. Yet the benefits and dangers
in medicine and agriculture
are the same.
There are, of course, reasons to be cautious. Prickly issues remain about
to what degree corporations should be allowed to patent, and therefore
control, the use of beneficial seeds or products they might develop. Monsanto
and Novartis, among agricultural concerns, have taken the position that
they need to recoup their investment costs.
Southern California growers have avoided the controversy only because
pests such as the corner borer are not a problem here. Approximately 100,000
acres in the southern portion of Ventura County alone are devoted to agricultural
production with an annual gross dollar value of more than $800 million.
Although county farmers mostly grow fruits, nuts and vegetables -- which
have, as yet, not been the major focus of companies developing genetically
modified organisms -- the potential use of GMOs is definitely on the horizon.
Davis-based Calgene -- which pioneered the long shelf life Flavr Savr
tomato in1994 that flopped in the marketplace -- may return to the fray.
And Asgrow, based in Saticoy, has already received FDA approval to grow
virus-resistant squash, which should be a hit in the northeast and southeast.
Assuming the hysteria doesn't kill the market, scientists are certain
to address nutritional and insecticide use in strawberries and other local
Manipulating genes carries some risk, as does any promising new research.
But the potential rewards for all of society, especially for the poor,
is too encouraging to allow disinformation to rule.
"The agricultural industry made a huge mistake in allowing critics
to make it seem that the benefits of biotech accrue to the producer, not
the consumer," says Willard. But the genetic revolution can bring
enormous benefits. It's not farfetched to discuss genetically imbedding
vaccines in bananas. There is research on this going on. Let's hope reason