The Rest Of The Story Behind Genetic Engineering


The Edmonds Institute is
an organization that studies the social and environmental effects of
technology, particularly genetic technologies. At its recent annual board
meeting in Seattle, I had the chance to talk with one of the Institute’s board
members, Brian Tokar, who has just finished his third book, Redesigning
, which was published in February 2001. Brian is a long-time
environmental and social activist, has degrees in biology and biophysics, and
has written two prior books, The Green Alternative and Earth for
. Tokar lives in rural Vermont, where he teaches at the Institute for
Social Ecology and Goddard College, and keeps an organic garden.

OSHINSKIE: What spurred you to write this book and what is it all about?

I’ve been working for a number of years on the problems of biotechnology and
genetic engineering (GE) and it’s been clear to me that there are many
scientific, social, economic, and political issues connected with these
technologies, issues that many people were having a hard time sorting out.
There was no comprehensive overview of the full range of implications of
biotechnology. Rather than attempting a thorough overview myself, I thought it
would be more useful to find some of the most articulate people on each
specific topic and ask them to write about their areas of greatest expertise.
Overall, there are 32 chapters, written by 26 different authors, including me.
In the first section, for example, we examine industry claims regarding
genetically engineered foods, particularly the false claim that these
technologies are the solution to hunger in the world. We examine the wide
range of health and environmental consequences of genetically engineered
products currently on the market.

Many people
know of genetic engineering but don’t know how it’s done. Can you briefly
explain this?

engineering involves the artificial transfer of genetic material, or DNA,
usually between unrelated species of plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, and
humans. The two most common methods for gene transfer are biological and
electromechanical. Early experiments all involved changing DNA using bacterial
vectors. Many bacteria have part of their genome located on “plasmids,” which
are small loops of DNA outside their main chromosomes. These plasmids were
first used as means of transferring DNA. Later, to get foreign genes into
plant cells, scientists started using bacteria that infect plant cells. In
mammalian cells, they often used genetically engineered viruses; in some of
the most publicized experiments, modified cold viruses are used. More
recently, the move has been away from biological vectors, which place some
constraints on gene transfer, and toward the use of a “gene gun” which shoots
high speed projectiles of gold or tungsten that are coated with the DNA
fragments of choice. By their very character, these technologies create
inherent uncertainties. These uncertainties are at the heart of the wide range
of health and environmental problems that have been discovered. When you use
these technologies, you have no idea where the foreign DNA is going to land if
it’s taken up by the DNA of the recipient cells. You also have no idea how it
will interact with regulatory genes, as well as the genes that code for
various proteins.

The success
rate for all application of genetic engineering is vanishingly small. That’s
why they use antibiotic resistance genes as markers to see if the intended
transfer occurred. So, along with genes they seek to insert, they’re injecting
genes for antibiotic resistance. Those cells that didn’t take up the foreign
DNA won’t survive antibiotic treatment. Additionally, they’re injecting
promoter sequences, usually from viruses, that facilitate the disabling of
genetic regulation in the host organism and, therefore, facilitate the
invasion of the host cells DNA by foreign DNA.

What do you
tell people who say these technologies are no different than old fashioned

I tell them
that the analogy between genetic engineering and field crossing is a false
one, and a deliberate misrepresentation of what’s inherently unique about this
technology. For example, natural breeding only occurs with a species or across
species—in the case of some plants—that have very close evolutionary
histories. Genetic engineering completely overrides these natural constraints.
But a subtler and more significant difference is that in the natural world,
genes aren’t randomly inserted into a new location in the genome, as they are
in genetic engineering. Genetic fragments that share the same location on the
chromosomes, but may have very different properties, can be exchanged. Such
genetic crosses are governed by complex genetic and biochemical controls. The
various molecular checks and balances that exist to facilitate a gene’s proper
expression aren’t overridden by traditional breeding. In contrast, they are
overridden by genetic engineering. That’s why you get some of the bizarre
effects that have been reported, such as the silencing of genes that have been
genetically modified. For example, researchers tried to make petunias twice as
colorful by doubling the pigment gene. They ended up producing some plants
with no pigment at all. No one knows how it works but it clearly has to do
with overriding the processes that regulate gene expression. There are many
such examples. There were early attempts to get pigs to express human growth
hormone, in the hope of raising pigs with leaner meat. Instead scientists
found themselves with experimental pigs whose whole metabolism and organ
development was so distorted that they could barely stand up, were cross-eyed,
and couldn’t live normal lives, even though the only change intended was to
add the one gene that coded for human growth hormone.

Are the low
success rates just a function of lack of experience? Will genetic engineers
get better with more practice?

Possibly, but
it’s important to understand that these failures are a function of the
inherent limitations of genetic engineering and a reflection of the fact that
in order for complex organisms to grow and function properly, they’ve
developed an incredible array of genetic controls. For example, there are
specific mechanisms to prevent invasions by foreign DNA. It is as if, on the
genetic level, there is a counterpart of the immune system. Instead of acting
as an immune system, these systems act to keep DNA intact. Genetic engineering
has to override the regulatory processes at the cellular level in order to
produce its intended effects.

Should we
expect to see this industry fail over time because it is inherently,
biologically untenable?

Well, it might.
They’ve had a very hard time getting genetically modified organisms to
successfully express more than one or two traits, even though they’ve been
working on it for years. Further, the vast majority of genetically influenced
traits are not the product of a single gene. You learn in introductory biology
that DNA is translated into RNA and then into protein. There’s supposed to be
a simple linear relationship. But in most complex organisms it often takes
many genes acting together to allow a certain quality to be expressed. At the
same time, a single gene may affect numerous cellular processes. So, it’s many
to one, and one to many. With those kinds of traits we haven’t seen even the
beginning of success. This industry has had billions of dollars of venture
capital pumped into it, and the research is very narrowly driven by the
imperative of product development. Virtually all the effort is going into
identifying qualities that can be turned into commercial products. We’ve had
numerous developments that the industry considers successes even though we’ve
shown that the negative consequences far outweigh the benefits. While there
appear to be inherent limitations, we have to remain vigilant to keep an eye
on where the industry is heading, so we can anticipate what the next
generation of political and social battles around these products will be. For
example, it looks like the next generation of products might be using animals
and plants as “bio-reactors” to produce pharmaceutical and industrial
chemicals. Of course, it remains to be seen if this can be done properly.

In what ways
are genetically engineered foods in U.S. markets modified?

genetic engineers have focused on three plant characteristics. First, they
attempt to make crops tolerant to herbicides so fields can be sprayed with
weed killers and only genetically engineered plants can grow. Of course, it
turns out to be much more complicated than that. Farmers often end up having
to use more chemicals than before. Second, crops have been engineered to
produce a bacterial pesticide toxic to specific types of field pests. The
problems associated with this approach would take too long to discuss here but
pests can develop resistance to these pesticides. They can harm beneficial
insects like ladybugs, honeybees, and monarch butterflies. The third area is
viral resistance. Of course, a plant that develops viral resistance may lead
to a natural backlash through the development of newer viruses that can
surmount the genetically engineered resistance. Research on genetic
engineering in every case confirms what opponents have been saying all along
about the likely negative ecological consequences. But the problem is that it
is taking a long time for research on the negative consequences to catch up
with 15-20 years of research that has been rather narrowly focused on the
development of products. Corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola are the main
genetically engineered crops. Over 60 percent of processed foods have one or
more of these products as ingredients. So, to get these products out of our
food supply is an ongoing battle.

What health
effects are likely to be caused by the use of agricultural and human
applications of genetic technologies?

This isn’t an
easy question to answer, not because there aren’t any likely effects, but
because the research on these effects has not begun to catch up with 20 years
of corporate research aimed squarely at developing new products. We do know
that the likelihood of unexpected allergic reactions and increased levels of
toxins in food is very high. Millions of dollars of genetically engineered
corn were recently pulled off the market—remember the taco shell
controversy?—because a particular toxin gene spliced in from bacteria makes a
protein that was seen as likely to cause allergies in humans. Even the
generally industry-friendly scientists at the EPA agreed that there was a

There’s also a
problem with antibiotic resistance. Since the success rates of experiments in
genetic engineering are so minuscule, they have to use a so-called “marker
gene” to see which cells actually took up the foreign DNA. These markers are
usually antibiotic resistance genes—so that cells with no foreign DNA are
killed by antibiotic treatment. The British Medical Association declared in
1999 that this practice should cease immediately, because antibiotic
resistance could be passed on to pathogens in our digestive tract. But it
hasn’t ceased at all.

important thing that happened in 1999 was that a series of surprising
experiments were released in Britain—experiments that the industry had spent
six months trying to suppress. They showed that laboratory rats that were fed
genetically engineered potatoes had severe problems with their digestive
tracts, immune responses, and the development of nearly all their vital
organs. Their brains, hearts, livers, spleens, etc. were all significantly
reduced in size, and many of the endocrine glands were enlarged. Some of this
data was published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet,
but the lead scientist was fired and the research was never finished. The
suggestion is that much more extreme health effects are possible, but the
industry has a huge vested interest in seeing to it that we don’t ever know
for sure.

What kind of
economic and social impacts might we expect from these technologies?

It’s important
to point out that the data on environmental impacts are much clearer than for
human health effects. We know that genetically engineered crops can be lethal
to beneficial organisms in the environment. We know that other crops and
related wild plants can suffer genetic contamination through
cross-pollination, that we may have “superbugs” and “superweeds” due to
unpredictable patterns of gene escape. We also know that genetically
engineered Bt toxin leaches into soil and is stable for eight months or more,
where it can have serious effects on the microbes that sustain soil fertility,
etc. The next generation of genetically engineered crops, many of which are
designed as small “factories” or “bio-reactors” to produce drugs and
industrial chemicals, could have even more serious effects. Biotechnology has
been a vehicle for unprecedented concentration of corporate power over our
food and our health.

This industry
would love for farmers to become as beholden to the large processors and
distributors as, say, companies that make auto parts for Ford and GM. The
larger company completely controls the supply, the price, and the
specifications, and the subcontractors simply follow the requirements of their
contracts, buy the right chemicals, and apply them according to a fixed
schedule. That’s where many industry analysts say things are heading, and the
corporate concentration that both supports and is supported by the development
of genetic engineering is what could make this possible.

In other parts
of the world, people are protesting the loss of their ability to save seeds
due to technologies such as the Terminator seed, which is still in the biotech
pipeline. Gene “prospectors” from Northern universities and corporations have
been searching the globe for interesting plants and even human genes that they
can patent and use for their own purposes. The biotech company’s profit, and
people whose ancestors first developed a plant variety or processing method
may find that some foreign patent suddenly appropriates their traditional
practices. This has happened with neem products and basmati rice from India,
and they even tried to get a patent on the ayahuasca hallucinogenic cactus
from South America. Human genes are being patented too, and it’s clear that
all the mainstream media are wildly exaggerating the claimed medical benefits
from this kind of research.

vitamin A yellow rice and bananas that are supposed to deliver vaccines
examples of positive uses of GE?

The whole
“golden” rice phenomenon is largely driven by the biotech industry’s public
relations needs. Activists in the South have presented evidence of the
fraudulence of the claim that genetically engineered foods will solve problems
of hunger. People in the Third World have been in the forefront of resistance
to genetic engineering from the beginning. Scientists in India and elsewhere
insist that we’ve got to get away from the notion that poor people should
derive all of their nutrition from one food. There’s vitamin A in many foods:
leafy greens, squashes, and mangoes, all of which will grow in many areas of
the Third World. The answer to the vitamin A problem and to hunger generally
is to help people regain access to land to grow their own food, something
that’s been stolen by corporate agriculture. Failing that, in an emergency,
vitamin A supplements are available for literally pennies per year.

Regarding the
banana vaccine, we have no idea whether this idea will work. If you use food
to get a vaccine, how do you control dosage? Further, as a crop, what will
happen where there are other varieties of bananas or other species that can
cross-pollinate and accidentally produce the vaccine protein? Who knows what
effect this might have on the metabolism and growth of that plant, or on
people who consume these unintended vaccine-producing crops?

To what
extent have protests against rBGH (genetically engineered Bovine Growth
Hormone) or other genetically modified foods been successful?

From everything
we can tell, rBGH is not being used widely by U.S. dairy farmers partly
because of opposition and partly because there is a tremendous array of health
problems in cows injected with the drug. American farmers who grow crops such
as corn and soybeans are beginning to question the use of genetically
engineered crops as well. In 2000, for the first time, we’ve seen genetically
engineered corn being grown on significantly fewer acres of corn than the year
before. That’s the first time the acreage of a genetically engineered version
of a crop has decreased from one year to the next. Given the lack of markets,
the inability of agribusiness to force Genetic engineering down the throats of
Europeans, and the recent recall of taco shells made from corn with a
pesticide tolerance gene that was not even approved by EPA for human
consumption, farmers will become even more reluctant to grow genetically
engineered crops. Potatoes are another example of the rejection of genetically
engineered foods. Potatoes designed to combat pests were one of the first
genetically engineered foods, but the damaging effects to beneficial insects
are such that the use of genetically engineered potatoes has dropped off
significantly. Major consumers from McDonald’s to a huge Canadian company
called McCain’s have told farmers that they just don’t want genetically
engineered potatoes.

Why isn’t
opposition to genetically engineered foods in the U.S. as vigorous as in other

Schweiger, who worked for Greenpeace in Europe, has a chapter in the book
where he addresses this question. He outlines eight or nine reasons why
Europeans are more concerned than people in the U.S.

First, the
industry has succeeded in keeping this issue out of the media here. In the
summer of 1999, only one-third of the people surveyed in U.S. supermarkets
knew that there were genetically engineered products currently in our food
supply. People just don’t know what’s going on. It has to do with corporate
control of the media. Food and science writers have been intensely lobbied to
keep genetic engineering out of the public eye. There are also significant
differences in attitudes about food in general here in the U.S. Americans have
become used to the idea of food as an industrial product. Food is an area
where new products come along that have new and interesting properties that
people are interested in and want to check out. So, in a manner of speaking,
people’s resistance is down.

Besides, in
Europe, mad cow disease, dioxin contaminated chicken feed, and other recent
scandals have made it clear to people that those who regulate the food system
can’t be trusted to ensure a safe food supply. We have had many such cases
here, but people seem to have a short memory. Yet, despite all this, the U.S.
perspective on genetically engineered foods is beginning to change.