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Seeds of contention

Biotechnology is full of promise, but can it deliver the goods?


PARSING MYTHS Dr. Dan Peterson believes the benefits of genetic engineering technology are enormous and can be readily seen in many current applications.

The field is huge.

The science. The profits. The promises. The potential.

Biotechnology promises to make the world a better place with its potential to end hunger, cure diseases — and make lots of money.

But toying with the very genetic coding that shapes living organisms also evokes images of monster mutations and ecological devastation.

In a sense, the debate that has raged over whether genetically modified organisms in our food and medical supplies are safe is like a two-headed monster.

On one side, you have glowing reports from biotech firms like Monsanto that claim to have developed technology that will safely transform agriculture, ensuring plentiful, pest-free yields with products such as Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton.

On the other side, you have farmer and environmental activists who argue that genetically modified organisms threaten to devastate the environment and our food supply, if not the entire evolutionary order of life, and should be banned completely.

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, between the two Hydra heads in the debate over genetic engineering.

“I got into genetics because I wanted to know how life works,” says Susan Elrod, a fungal geneticist who teaches at Cal Poly and has extensive research into genetic engineering. “It’s all about DNA.”

Biotechnology “offers a lot of promise and hope in a lot of areas,” she says, “but where there’s concern we should listen and get good data. When science is done right, it works.”

Elrod came to Poly in ’97 after working as a post-doctoral fellow at Novozymes, a company based in Denmark that produces industrial enzymes, some of which are genetically engineered.

She received her doctorate in genetics from UC Davis. She prefers to call the science of inserting a gene from one species into another to create a desired effect recombinant DNA technology.

When pieces of a foreign DNA are spliced into another cell or organism, that cell can then become a “factory” for the proteins coded by the newly inserted gene.

A fine example of this process, notes Elrod, is Baxter Bioscience’s recombinant technology to treat hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder in which there is profuse and sometimes nonstop bleeding.

Baxter cloned a gene for clotting Factor VIII, which is necessary for blood clotting. They put the gene into a cell culture system. The cells create the protein that is later infused into the bloodstream.

This technology, she says, has given hemophiliacs new freedoms never thought possible. Cuts, bruises, and other once life-threatening injuries no longer pose the enormous threat they once were.

“These people can live amazing lives now. … I’d hate to tell them, ‘We’re sorry, we’re not going to make this product anymore because there’s a ban on genetic engineering.’”

Companies like Baxter, she says, work from a platform of health, of improving human lives. They’re using cell culture systems rather than crops to develop technologies that aid health


WEED LOVER Dr. Scott Steinmaus, a weed scientist, appreciates the difficulty of understanding the impacts of genetic engineering.

Ventria marks SLO County

Ventria Bioscience, however, does want to use crops to develop pharmaceuticals. Ventria is positioning itself to be “a scientific leader in the biopharmaceutical industry,” in which the market is estimated to exceed $2 billion.

When the Sacramento-based biotech firm listed SLO County as one of 10 non-rice-producing counties in the state for establishing test plots to grow its genetically engineered rice, local activists jumped into action at state and county levels. The activists argued that Ventria’s experimental crop posed too much of a risk to California’s lucrative food rice market.

The 10 counties were chosen for their current lack of rice production, thereby eliminating the risk of contamination by the engineered rice.

Ventria sought to test its pharmaceutical rice varieties in the production of lactoferrin and lysozyme, proteins from human genes that are inserted into the experimental rice.

Under ideal circumstances, the GM rice is harvested for its protein content to produce infant formula for babies unable to get these vital nutrients from breast milk.

While laudable, the plan puts at too much risk the economic security of the rice industry, threatens the ecology of rice growing areas such as the Sacramento Valley, and would likely compromise the integrity of the food supply, argues Californians for GE-Free Agriculture in its briefing paper submitted to the California Rice Commission’s Advisory Board on March 5.

“We were the ones who brought Ventria to light,” says Ryan Rich, an organic farmer in Atascadero who is a founding member of the statewide farmer activist organization.

The California Department of Agriculture received thousands of faxes protesting the testing of pharmaceutical rice in the state, says Rich, and eventually turned Ventria down because there weren’t enough adequate controls to ensure that the “pharm” rice wouldn’t contaminate rice grown for human consumption.

There’s no way to guarantee that GMOs, no matter how controlled, won’t taint other rice varieties, Rich says.

“The shit falls off the trucks,” he says. “The grains this small flying off trucks — you see the rice growing on the side of the road in the Sacramento Delta all of the time.”

Who’s to say it wouldn’t contaminate other varieties?

The risk is too great, he says, especially since the state’s primary rice market, Japan, not only refuses to buy GMO rice but any California rice if it becomes tainted with GMOs.

Japan is the state’s largest exporter of rice, he adds, estimated at $500 million a year.

Yoshimichi Hasebe, chairman of the Japan Rice Retailer’s Association, said in a letter to California’s rice commission that he would urge his country to refuse rice imports from the state if GM crops were grown here.

“As you know, most Japanese consumers react quite negatively to GM crops. If GM rice is actually commercialized in [sic] U.S., we shall strongly request the Japanese government to take necessary measures not to import any California rice to Japan.”

“The bottom line for farmers,” says Rich, “is markets. If you can’t move your produce, you’re not going to grow it.”

PROCEED WITH CAUTION Pam Heatherington, ECOSLO’s executive director, worries that the science of genetic engineering is still too young. “How would you know at this point [if there were impacts?]”


Local action

Teresa Campbell and Mike Zelina, who earlier this year introduced the Apple Pie resolution to repeal the unconstitutional provisions of the USA Patriot Act, spun into high gear as soon as they heard that SLO County was being considered as a site for GMO experimentation.

The pair composed an ordinance banning GMOs from SLO County. They got support from and attended a two-day workshop with the organizers of the GM-Free Mendocino County campaign, which resulted in the passage of the nation’s first countywide ordinance banning GM crops.

They kicked off SLO County’s campaign to similarly ban GM crops with support from ECOSLO. They organized an April 19 showing of a video titled “Food for Thought,” produced by Ed Schel, cofounder of Earthvision International Environmental Film Festival in Santa Cruz.

The video warned that biological pollution from genetically engineered organisms is more insidious and potentially more damaging than polluting factories.

It reported the harmful impact that Bt corn has had on the Monarch butterfly.

Bt is a naturally occurring insecticide used by organic farmers. Bt was genetically inserted into corn, which then produced its own insecticide. When eaten, it kills worms and caterpillars — including the Monarch, say environmentalists. That claim, however, was later disputed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But, as Campbell notes, “biotech companies are in bed with the federal government.” Most of the government regulators have been recruited from the biotech industry, she says. They can hardly be trusted.

So much of the activism to ban GMOs, in fact, centers on the idea that the biotech industry has usurped power away from consumers, placing an unproven technology in the marketplace without consumer input.

An estimated 70 percent of the processed foods on grocery store shelves contain ingredients and oils from biotech crops, but you’d never know it because the products aren’t labeled.

Schel’s video concluded: “The truth is: We don’t know enough about genetically engineered foods. The only sure way to know that your foods are GMO-free is to buy certified organic foods.”

Adds Campbell: “If people knew that they’ve got this stuff in their food, they’re not going to eat it.” That’s why it’s not labeled. “They’ll choose the bag of chips that says, ‘GMO Free.’”

When she and Zelina brought the issue before the county board of supervisors and requested a moratorium on GM crops, a committee was formed to study the matter and return with a report in June.

Meanwhile, she and Zelina are going forward with their ordinance, collecting signatures to get it on the November ballot. If that fails, says Campbell, “a moratorium is still a possibility. … Agriculture is a huge resource in this county. I think we need to protect that in our county and our state.”

No need to worry?

As she munches on a Frito Lay corn chip, Cal Poly’s Elrod notes that it’s quite possible the corn used to manufacture the chip was genetically modified.

“I’m a vegetarian,” she says. “I’m not worried about eating genetically modified corn. I’d be more concerned about super-sizing our fries,” she adds, referring to the risks posed by obesity and excess fats in our diets.

She says there really isn’t that much difference between GMO corn and non-GMO corn, noting that the insertion of one gene amid tens of thousands of genes isn’t going to radically alter the species.

Nonetheless, she adds, “I don’t think we should accept any technology wholesale. I think we should continue investigating” before we release technology for common use.

Matt Ritter, who received his doctorate in genetic studies from the University of California San Diego and has been teaching botany for two years at Cal Poly, agrees that caution is needed before introducing this technology into the marketplace.

Ritter studied genetically engineered corn with the goal of “trying to figure out how a plant makes branches.”

The majority of transgenic studies, he says, are done to see how plants function. “This science is really just a tool to understand how life works.”

His own research, conducted in a field in La Jolla, was sabotaged by “bio-terrorists,” who discovered where his GE corn was growing and pulled out the crop.

The perps, he says, called themselves “Children of the Corn.” The action got him thinking about the social and political implications of genetic engineering.

“This technology has to be judged on an application basis,” he says. “What is it going to be used for? There needs to be a risk versus reward assessment. Anybody who tells you that it’s all good or all bad probably doesn’t have much else to say about it.”

The real issues as he sees them aren’t health-related but political and environmental. “The anti-GMO movement has failed by trying too hard to show how genetics impacts health.”

A more pressing concern would be to ask how a biotech company such as Monsanto can patent life forms and claim ownership over the biodiversity of life.

Monsanto’s genetic research isn’t to improve agriculture as much as it is to control the world’s seed stock and sell more Roundup. In fact, the biotech industry’s research is mostly product-driven, he says.

Author Jeffrey M. Smith, whose book “Seeds of Deception” hit bookstores in September, argues there’s plenty to be worried about when it comes to GM foods and their impact on human health.

Smith readily admits that he’s not a scientist but has done his homework. He started working on the book 10 years ago when he first learned of the dangers of GMOs.

“I felt compelled to spread the word,” he says. “The goal was to insert the health dangers of GMOs into the debate.”

He suggests in his book, for example, that an increase in food-related illnesses in the United States in the last seven years “roughly corresponds to the period when Americans began eating GM food. … Diabetes rose by 33 percent from 1990 to 1998, lymphatic cancers are up, and many other illnesses are on the rise. Is there a connection to GM foods? We have no way of knowing because no one has looked for one.”

One reason American consumers don’t consider the dangers, he says, is because the media have failed to look critically at the issue.

“There’s a lot of bias in the major media in the U.S.,” he says. “The media haven’t really touched the story. They’ve marginalized anti-GMO groups.” Otherwise, “the U.S. media are pretty closed-lipped.

Part of the blame belongs to the subterfuge and slick advertising campaigns of the biotech industry, he says, which continues to pump out half-truths and outright lies.

“All you have to do is parse the myth,” says Smith. “It’s really simple. One, the FDA approved these foods to be safe. Never happened. Two, modified crops decrease the use of chemicals. Not true.”

With respect to pharmaceutical rice, he says: “Other serious dangers have not yet been identified. Early claims of safety have already been disproved.”

To go forward without more information and more aggressive regulation “is gambling with people’s health in a serious way. The brief history of genetic engineering is littered with human error.

“The more people know about GMOs,” he adds, “the less support there is for them,” as in Europe, “where there’s a more skeptical press.”

Smith’s efforts appear to be working.

A Vermont state legislator recently used his book to question Monsanto regarding its production of genetically modified crops that are resistant to Roundup.

In late April, Vermont’s Gov. James Douglas signed the nation’s first GMO labeling laws, requiring manufacturers of genetically modified seeds to label and register their products.

“People are finally starting to debate the health dangers of GMOs,” Smith says.

Parsing the myths

Dan Peterson received his doctorate in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University. He gained his expertise in molecular biotechnology through the direct analysis and manipulation of gene function and might like to parse some myths of his own.

Peterson, who is an assistant professor in Cal Poly’s animal science department, says “the benefits of this technology are enormous and can be readily seen in many current applications.”

He lists examples such as the production of insulin for diabetics through genetically engineered bacteria, and the advancement of research into heart disease through genetically engineered mice.

“I have not seen any credible evidence that supports concerns relating to human health,” he says. “Many of the concerns raised have been done so without sufficient consideration of basic biology that would easily and adequately address them.”

Contrary to claims of potential genetic disorders, there’s no scientific evidence that transferring genes from one species to another is going to create monster mutations, he says. “There’s no fur, big fangs, and green spikes” growing on genetically modified animals.

In fact, he notes, “there are more similarities between organisms than most people are aware.”

And he debunks the myths circulated about the “evil” intentions of the biotech industry.

“I’ve heard the countless ridiculous stories about Monsanto,” he says, referring to frequent references that Monsanto is out to control the world’s food supply.

“Monsanto has great people. Yes, Monsanto wants to make money. Yes, they’re good at making money, but does that make them evil? I don’t think so. There are a lot of companies in the world that I don’t care for, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad.”

Finding the truth

Misinformation continues to be a huge problem in the debate on genetically modified organisms. One of the most notorious examples is offered by Scott Steinmaus, a weed scientist who also teaches at Cal Poly.

Unlike farmers and gardeners, Steinmaus loves weeds. “I’m really into weeds. The selection pressures they face are incredible, especially in cropping systems” like agriculture.

Weeds must adapt themselves to survive in the unfriendly agricultural environs created from herbicides and competition for nutrients and water, he says.

“The stresses in farming are great. In such an environment, there’s a lot of genetic change. The pressures in a cropping system are so specific, that you’ll find a narrowing of genetics. That, in a sense, is evolution. So, weeds are really my game.”

Steinmaus has thoroughly investigated the impact that genetically modified organisms might have on other plant species. The greatest risk, he says, is introgression, when genes from one species invade another over a broad geographic area.

That, he says, is “highly unlikely.”

Yet, UC Berkeley assistant professor Ignacio Chapela and graduate student David Quist reported in the Nov. 29, 2001, issue of Nature that DNA from GM plants had turned up in wild maize in Oaxaca, Mexico — it had introgressed into traditional corn.

That, says Steinmaus, would have been hugely significant, cause for much alarm. If true, introgression of genetically modified DNA in this corn would threaten the genetic diversity of Mexican maize, where corn is said to have originated.

“They definitely didn’t prove introgression,” says Steinmaus. “Hybridization, maybe, but not introgression.”

The responses to the article were furious. Scientists argued back and forth over whether Chapela had truly found something. Nature editor Philip Campbell took the unprecedented step in the journal’s 133-year history of retracting Chapela’s article.

And the debate rages on. Scientists on both sides of the issue are still fretting over whether Chapela’s argument was sound.

“It’s tough stuff,” says Steinmaus, “finding the truth.”

Confusion over the nature of genetic engineering has led to needless sabotage, resulting in the destruction of countless hours of hard science. Anti-biotech activists destroyed a research project Steinmaus was conducting on Roundup Ready sugar beets at UC Davis.

It didn’t help their cause at all, he says: “You know what? You just killed your message.”

With transgenics, he says, “there’s nothing really to be scared of. You know, the cure for cancer’s very likely to come from this stuff.”

Pam Heatherington, ECOSLO’s executive director, begs to differ. There’s plenty to be alarmed about.

“We haven’t been splicing the gene of one species into another long enough to know what the long-term effects will be,” she says. The science is still relatively young.

“How would you know at this point” if there were impacts?

“We always have the tendency to do risk benefit analysis in the U.S., rather than test things out first before putting them out into the public market. Splicing pesticides into foods? There’s got to be a moral question there.” ³

Stacey Warde is the managing editor of New Times. He can be reached at


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