Unfounded fear of genetics

Elton Wong

On Tuesday, representatives of food, biotechnology and agriculture industries met with the Environmental Protection Agency. These representatives pressured the EPA to approve the use of a certain genetically engineered corn in food meant for humans. This kind of genetically modified (GM) corn was previously approved for use in animal feed, but not for human consumption. This fall, however, taco shells and other food products were found to contain some of this corn called StarLink.

Fears that StarLink corn could cause allergic reactions in people prompted a recall of products and have forced the corn’s developer, Aventis CropScience, to buy all of this year’s StarLink crop and stop licensing the seed.

Aventis wants the EPA to approve Starlink for human consumption for mostly economic reasons: recalls are expensive and sales of U.S. corn to foreign markets are already suffering. In addition, the cost of testing corn could drive up prices, further hurting suppliers and farmers.

Genetically engineered plants are created when genes from one organism are “spliced” into the genome of a crop plant. Each gene codes for a protein that can confer pest resistance, cold resistance or some other desired property.

The protein in question with respect to StarLink corn is called Cry9C, and is produced by a bacterial gene. This protein protects the corn from insects. There is no evidence that this protein is harmful in any way to humans, but it has shown itself to be stable in stomach acids. Proteins showing this characteristic have a higher likelihood of causing allergies (certain peanut proteins, for example). However, even if Cry9C is an allergen, it is found in such small concentrations in food products that it would almost certainly be harmless.

Environmental groups as well as consumer advocacy groups are raising a great deal of fuss over “contamination” of consumer foods by this genetically modified corn. Unfortunately, such fears are based on little more than ignorance.

For instance, StarLink corn is not only resistant to pests, but is also less likely to carry Fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the pest insects. Fusarium fungus produces a toxin called fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in humans. Thus, StarLink corn actually has a margin of safety that regular corn does not. Anti-GM activists generally ignore information like this. Apparently, they find the idea of deadly fungal toxins less frightening than genetically modified corn that is safe by all accounts. The fungus may give you esophageal cancer and make you die, but at least it’s “natural.”

Other examples of consumer irrationality are easily found. For instance, many people are violently allergic to ordinary peanuts. People have died from eating food products that were supposed to be peanut-free, but were accidentally contaminated with peanut oil. Activists are not nearly as concerned about peanut contamination as they are about genetically engineered crops, even though one can kill and the other has never hurt anyone. The word “genetic” alone is enough to stir up ignorant fears.

There’s more to the story. The wheat plant is not found in nature; it is a genetically modified crop created at the beginning of civilization by a primitive kind of genetic engineering: cross breeding. By crossing different kinds of wild grasses, early farmers stumbled upon a strain of grass that produced large kernels suitable for eating. This is what we now call wheat.

In fact, hybridization still occurs today. Agriculture companies often cross their grain plants with wild grasses. The resulting plants often have higher protein concentrations and sometimes increased pest resistance.

To the layman, hybridization may seem like a safer, more “natural” way to produce good crops. This is not the case.

Crossing a wheat strain with a wild grass introduces hundreds or thousands of unknown genes into the resulting hybrid strain, and no one knows what these all genes do or what kinds of proteins they make. This kind of cross-breeding is a far more risky and uncontrolled than gene splicing.

Be this as it may, the words “hybrid crops” don’t get activists nearly as excited as the words “genetic engineering.” Sensationalism is the reason for this, not science. Most people would rather cling to scary “Frankenstein” imagery than educate themselves.

In contrast to hybridization, gene splicing allows scientists to carefully insert single genes into crop strains, thereby increasing control and reducing unknown variables. Therefore, it is safer. Hybrid wheat commonly makes its way to grocery stores without any kind of government scrutiny, labeling, or testing, while genetically engineered crops are exhaustively studied before they can be released. This discrepancy makes no sense.

In spite of all this, it is a bad idea for the EPA to approve StarLink corn for human consumption under these last-minute circumstances. The corn is almost certainly fine, but this kind of emergency approval would undermine the integrity of the EPA If it lets the corporations smack it around this time, it will erode consumer confidence and give the biotech companies too much power in the future. Aventis made a mistake and the EPA shouldn’t bend over backwards to clean it up for them. Aventis should handle recalls, reimburse farmers and take responsibility for the mistake.

In the meantime, is it a good idea to avoid taco shells? Possibly, but only because they have the nasty habit of breaking into sharp pieces and stabbing you in the soft part of your mouth when you eat them. This is why you should do what I have always done: stick to fajitas.