Need Safeguards for Gene-Tinkered Foods

Todd Hufnagel hufnagel at leland.Stanford.EDU
Mon Jun 21 19:31:01 EST 1993

In article <C8zq2I.6M8 at> wcsbeau at (OPIRG) writes:
>                        TINKERED GENES IN THE SUPERMARKET
>by Joseph E. Cummins, Ph.D.
>(Associate Professor (Genetics), 
>Dept. of Plant Sciences,
>University of Western Ontario
>London, Ontario, Canada).
>from "alive", Vol. 130, May 1993, pp 12-13. 
>[posted with permission of Dr. Cummins]
[intro deleted]
>      The main problem with biotechnology is scientific imperialism. Scientists
>are a a pampered minority, who frequently have little or no contact with
>average people...

Hmmm, sounds like flame bait to me.  I'm a scientist (albeit not a biologist),
and I consider myself a fairly average person.  For instance, I like to eat.

[more deleted stuff]

>      Scientific imperialists hold key positions in academic publishing and
>government bureaucracy.  They are ruthless.

How convenient.  Now any rebuttal offered to the anti-biotech position can be 
dismissed as an example of the depths to which such 'ruthless' people will 
stoop to advance their own, doubtless diabolical, ends.
Once we get past the flame bait, however, things get more interesting:

>The main threat from gene-spliced crops lies in the eesoteric aspects of
>genetic engineering used in producing the transgenic crops.  Essentially, all
>of the crops will be bearing antibiotic resistence genes in bacteria.  Such 
>genes are needed in the early stages of gene tinking but are unessential in
>the final crop...

This is unclear.  Does this say "Antibiotic resistant bacteria are used in the
production of genetically altered crops" or "Genetically altered crops, at
some stage in their development, require antibodies against bacteria"?

> There is every reason to believe that the wipespread
>dissemination of anti-biotic genes to crops will be followed by the transfer
>of these genes to pathogenic organisms.  Resistant forms of pathogens are
>already causing uncontrollable increases in tuberculosis, veneral disease, and
>fatal diarrhoea targeting small children.

The implied logical connection between these two sentences requires support.
The implication is that the transfer of (altered) gentetic material from crops
to bacteria or viruses will lead to further "uncontrollable increases" of
resistant strains of pathogens.

[more stuff deleted]

>      Hundreds of thousands of sensitive North Americans will die and millions
>will suffer, from gene-tampered crops...

This is clearly not true.  Even if genetic engineering of crops lead to an
increase in food allergies, if even hundreds, much less hundreds of thousands,
of people were to die, the resulting public outcry would eliminate the market
for genetically engineered foods overnight.

But on a more subtle level, what if some people were to die as a result of
eating genetically engineered crops?  Genetic engineering offers the promise
of increased quality and yield of many important crops.  If growing certain
grains was made easier (by, say, reducing water requirements or increasing
resistance to pests), the lives of untold numbers of lives (of people who would
otherwise die of starvation) would be saved.  What, then, is the arithmetic
of human lives?

[more stuff deleted]

>Transfer of wheat genes to other cereals or corn
>might greatly increase incidence or impact of schizophrenia.  Yet such
>transfers are being prepared for market.  

This statement appears to be completely unsubstantiated by anything else in
the article.  The sky might fall in tomorrow, too.  Offer support.

[more stuff deleted]

>For reasons that are rather technical, most of the crop plants are engineered
>to include gene switches (promoters) that make up a large part of the
>Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) chromosome. Ca MV is a pararetrovirus related
>to the hepatitis B virus and to HIV virus, the AIDS virus...

The E.coli bacteria which live harmlessly live in my are much more closely
related to the E.coli bacteria which killed several people in the Pacific
Northwest a few months back.  This statement merely inflames the discussion.

Despite these and other problems I have with the article as presented, a
calm discussion of these issues would be interesting.

Todd Hufnagel

More information about the Bioforum mailing list