Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Weird Science

The Brave New World Of Genetic Engineering
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

If you listen to Monsanto, DuPont, and even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), genetic engineering is merely an extension of traditional plant breeding. These companies and regulators say it is the same thing that farmers and plant breeders have been doing for generations, and thus FDA does not require any tests for these crops. But traditional plant breeders have never crossed wheat with chickens or rice with human genes.

Genetic engineering permits scientists to manipulate genetic materials in ways that were once inconceivable. But the technology relies on methods that result in haphazard insertion of genetic elements into a plant's genetic code. This in turn may lead to disruption of complex gene interactions and unintended, potentially catastrophic results. It is a technology that has the power to transform food and the food supply in ways not possible with traditional breeding. Genetic engineering is very different, very powerful, and worth a great deal of caution.

Currently, the process of introducing genes is done through a limited number of relatively crude methods resulting in haphazard placement that in no way can be described as precise. The imprecision of genetic engineering was dramatically revealed in May 2000, when Monsanto disclosed that its genetically engineered soybeans – the company’s best selling genetically engineered crop – contained gene fragments that scientists had not intentionally inserted. Neither Monsanto nor government regulators had any idea the supposedly inactive pieces of genetic material were inserted during the process of engineering the crop. After that embarrassment, one year later Monsanto again had to admit it did not fully understand the genetic makeup of the product it brought to market, as further research uncovered additional unexpected DNA.

The science of genetic engineering as applied to agriculture has other fundamental differences with traditional plant breeding. One is that scientists insert marker genes, frequently one that codes for antibiotic resistance, in addition to the gene with the desired trait. This process raises serious questions since these genes may exacerbate the problem of antibiotic resistance in the general population. Another difference is the use of powerful “promoters,” usually disabled plant viruses, to increase the expression of the gene in the new plant. These promoters may create problems of their own, such as turning on or off genes in the host plant, or they may become a major source of new viruses arising from recombination.

There also have been unexpected results in the field testing of genetically engineered plants. A field test of genetically engineered petunias designed to produce one color wound up having wildly fluctuating results in the field. An experiment on a plant in the mustard family found that a species that was normally self-pollinating and had very low rates of cross-pollination changed dramatically when it was genetically engineered. And after being commercialized, both genetically engineered cotton and soybeans have had unexpected problems, including massive crop failures.

Using genetic engineering, scientists can, for the first time, insert genes from different species, families, or even kingdoms, something inconceivable in traditional breeding. Despite all of the unknowns, proponents of genetic engineering continue to push forward with previously unheard of combinations. Previous research found that between 1987 and October 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorized 14 field tests of crops engineered with animal or human genes.1 Between 2001 and mid-2003, USDA had authorized 29 additional field tests of crops engineered with animal or human genes, or more than double the total authorized during the first 13 years of USDA record-keeping.2 Some of these combinations that have been field tested in the U.S. include:

• Chicken genes in corn, wheat, and creeping bentgrass; 
• Human genes in barley, corn, tobacco, rice, and sugarcane; 
• Mouse genes in corn, along with human genes; 
• Cow genes in tobacco; 
• Carp genes in safflower; 
• Pig genes in corn; 
• Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) and Hepatitis B genes in corn;
• Jellyfish genes in corn, rhododendrons, Bermuda grass, pink bollworms, and rice;
• Fruit fly genes in potatoes; and 
• Rat genes in soybeans.

Genetic engineering is an imprecise and haphazard technology—something completely different from traditional plant breeding. Since the inception of the technology, biotechnology companies have clearly demonstrated that scientists cannot control where genes are inserted and cannot guarantee the resulting outcomes. Unexpected field results highlight the unpredictability of the science, yet combinations previously unimaginable are being field tested and used commercially.

To protect public health and the environment, genetically engineered food ingredients or crops should not be allowed on the market unless:

• Independent safety testing demonstrates they have no harmful effects on human health or the environment;

• They are labeled to ensure the consumer's right-to-know; and

• The biotechnology corporations that manufacture them are held responsible for any harm. In addition, scientists should not engineer food crops to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals and should not conduct such experiments in the open environment.

Notes

1 Richard Caplan and Ellen Hickey, Weird Science: The Brave New World of Genetic Engineering. October 31, 2000. Available at http://pirg.org/ge/reports/weirdscience10_31_00.pdf.

2 Analysis of data obtained from Information Systems for Biotechnology, a part of the National Biological Impact Assessment Program at Virginia Tech. Query system available at http://www.nbiap.vt.edu/cfdocs/fieldtests1.cfm.

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