EXTRACT: the problem, according to Caruso, is that important questions about the possible negative consequences of biogenetic engineering the real risks are not typically investigated or even asked by the scientists creating the technology or by the industry that is profiting from them. Furthermore, they greatly resent having their assumptions and approach to science questioned.
Genetically Engineered Organisms Invade Our Planet - What's the Harm?
Epoch Times, 12 March 2007
A RISKY BUSINESS: Denise Caruso, innovation columnist for the New York Times, has written a new book on the risks of using genetically modified organisms.
For a long time now, Americans have been told by the scientists who developed genetically modified (GM) crops and organisms that GM is safe and wonderful.
This was done with the blessing of government regulators, such as the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It was alleged that GM crops, such as Bt and Roundup Ready, to use the best known biotech products, are good for biodiversity, increase yields, are resistant to pests, reduce the need for pesticides, are more profitable for the farmers, and less labor intensive.
But a close examination of the benefits of transgenic crops will reveal that the benefits, if they occur, are way overstated, and the costs are often ignored.
Denise Caruso devotes a chapter in her new book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet (2006), to assessing the evidence.
She cites a thorough study of Bt cotton in a state of India, funded by the government, where the results were less than stellar: farmers spent more than twice the money for Bt seeds than non-Bt seeds, and the reduction in pesticide use was only 12%.
Meanwhile, the farmers' net profits for Bt were less than non-Bt hybrids and yields were about the same. This transgenic cotton had been hyped up and so the results would be disappointing to the Indian farmers.
Potentially more disturbing than the economic side of the technology, the transgenic cotton had some peculiar "side effects." After two years, the primary cotton pests were developing resistance to the Bt toxin, which could have a devastating effect on other crops in the area.
Also, the Bt was somehow mysteriously infecting the soil so that no other crops would grow in the same soil. Apparently too, the advocates for Bt didn't consider that Indian farmers would make their own illegal hybrids of Bt, using their own seeds. This means that a substantial amount of Bt is being grown all over India with unknown consequences.
From this single example, we can ask the general question, should the scientists, the industry and the regulators have been more open to the possible problems with GM, and considered these before embarking on this course?
With so much unknown about this new technique, should there have been more caution before going pell-mell into the production and marketing of biotech products?
Denise Caruso thinks so. "There is no such thing as risk-free living, with or without genetic engineering. Progress has never been risk-free," says Caruso in Intervention. The book is written for the lay person, the non-scientist, who wants to understand better the nature and implications of genetic engineering.
Caruso is a veteran technology journalist, who from 1995 wrote the popular Digital Commerce column for the New York Times, and after leaving that position in 2000, co-founded the Hybrid Vigor Institute, a research and consulting practice. Beginning in January, she resumed writing for the New York Times.
It is short-sighted to place all the focus on the presumed benefits of Biotechnology, argues Caruso. On the surface, it sounds good to save human lives by a genetic alteration so that a pig organ could work in a human being, or a mosquito that doesn't transmit malaria, or to save human labor and expense by transgenic corn and soybeans that need less herbicide to grow.
But the problem, according to Caruso, is that important questions about the possible negative consequences of biogenetic engineering the real risks are not typically investigated or even asked by the scientists creating the technology or by the industry that is profiting from them. Furthermore, they greatly resent having their assumptions and approach to science questioned.
Biotechnology is far reaching and mind boggling in its implications. Scientists can now isolate genetic material of a cell and insert the "synthetic" genetic material into the natural genetic material of the cells of a different organism or even a different species, thereby creating genetically modified organisms living hybrids with new "desirable" traits that could not be created by traditional breeding techniques.
An example of this technique, called "recombinant DNA," mentioned in the book is transgenic pig organs that scientist want to develop for human transplants. This transgenic pig would be one whose organs presumably are best suited for human use.
This technique should not be confused with the pig and cow heart values, used frequently nowadays in human patients, as these are no longer living tissue. If this new technology succeeds, living pig cells would be exchanging proteins and genetic material with human cells.
The most immediate concern posed by transgenic pig organs inside a living human being is the very real possibility that some "dormant retrovirus from the pig's cells would somehow reactivate inside the human body" and risk of this happening are "incalculable," says Caruso.
The rewiring of genetic material of living organisms is a monumental act changing a species in the most fundamental way. This is man "intervening," to use Caruso's word in the title of her book, in a natural process at a very deep level of the organism.
To a religious or spiritual person it would seem to have tremendous moral and ethical meanings. Caruso doesn't dwell on this side much, but is content to point out the potential biological nightmare that such alterations could have for humans and the environment.
"It is not especially difficult to come up with scenarios whereby mucking around in the genes of living organisms leads to serious biological, social, and/or economic disruption," says Caruso.
When the transgenic technique of recombining DNA from different species was first discovered in the 1970s, geneticists worried that the powerful new technology might create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and enhance antibiotic resistance to make infections untreatable, says the Organic Consumers Association.
As a result, at the Asilomar conference in Monterey, Ca. in 1975, scientists imposed on themselves a moratorium on these experiments until safety protocols in the laboratory could be designed. When nothing visible regarding these dangers appeared, the technique came to be regarded as safe.
The focus of Caruso's book is not the risks in the laboratory, whose outcomes are inert, but the products of transgenesis that create new kinds of living organisms.
"Billions of transgenics have already been released into the market place and thus into our food, water and the air that we breathe, breeding and exchanging their genetic material with each other and with us." Caruso says these organisms are alive and numerous and much less predictable than what is acknowledged.
Responsible Decision Making
In the pig organ example mentioned above, Caruso and Baruch Fischoff, a risk expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, convened a "diverse" group of six experts for a meeting, lasting less than a day to consider the risks. They developed various possible scenarios that scientists working directly on the problem might not even think about.
For example, how to dispose of the carcasses of which there would have to be in the thousandsall contaminated. And what about the manure that leaves the pig, entering the environment, where pig transgenic contamination is available to insect and rodent carriers? If you could manage to somehow "sanitize" the pig, what happens when the organ resides in the "dirty" human body and its viruses, which could kill the pig organ?
This kind of open discussion of the potential problems, "a weighing of the real risks against the real benefits," is the only way a responsible public policy decision can be made on the risks of this controversial medical process.
There is no precedent, no way to ascertain an exact answer, a probability based on past experience with this biotech product. Yet, the regulators from the FDA and the USDA, and the genetic scientists are disinclined to convene such a panel and have such expanded conversations about risk.
Caruso is not saying that human intervention into biological functions is wrong, a view that she believes is too extreme. But Caruso believes no one not the scientists or the regulators knows the safety or danger of biotech products, because of the flawed methods that are used to assess their risks.
"Yet neither knowledge of history nor dark-side scenarios has tempered the zeal or the speed with which the products of genetic engineering are being dispatched into the global marketplace," Caruso writes.
It may already be too late to prevent untoward effects of biotechnology. Caruso cites USDA figures for 2006 that show that 68% of all soybeans planted in the U.S. were transgenic, as were 69% of the cotton planted, and 26% of corn acreage.
Now there are countless transgenic organisms out there, reproducing and evolving, without control or monitoring. The planet earth has become a giant genetics experiment, according to Caruso. It is troubling that this all happened without the risks of the products and processes of genetic engineering being rationally discussed and investigated.
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