Manipulating genes requires more foresight than we have

Elton Wong

Somehow, it does not seem surprising to hear about a Frenchman going to jail for his beliefs about food. This most recent case, however, is deserving of attention.

Last week, a French farmer and activist named Jos‚ BovŠ chose to decline bond and remain in prison to highlight his “fight against globalization and advance the right of the people to eat as they see fit.”

He had been in prison for helping to trash several McDonald’s restaurants in France. These particular demonstrations were against the use of American, hormone-fed beef, but similar protests in France and the rest of Europe have begun to center around genetically modified (GM) agricultural products.

Although GM products have been grown by farmers in the United States for years, public reaction to the so-called “Frankenstein foods” in Europe has been negative.

Because DNA is universal in almost all known forms of life, genes (bits of DNA that hold codes for a single protein or polypeptide) can be spliced from one organism and neatly incorporated into the genetic code of another.

The gene in fireflies that codes for Luciferase, the luminous substance, can be used to grow glowing tobacco plants. A gene for cold resistance from a flounder can be transplanted into corn.

Herbicide-resistant soybeans and insecticide-producing corn are two crops that have been created through this technology. These products have been incorporated into a great many food products in the United States after the FDA granted approval for their general use in 1992.

As of 1998, 40 percent of America’s corn crop and 45 percent of its soybeans were genetically modified.

The problem with Europe is that it has no such central agency to approve the technology or calm public fears.

This, combined with a string of unrelated incidents (such as Britain’s 1996 mad cow disease scare) has most Europeans worried about regulators and industrial agriculture in general.

Whether these fears are well-grounded is another question. No scientific study yet conducted has shown that genetically modified foods pose any kind of health risk to humans.

No people yet have complained of health problems resulting from consumption of such products.

Some environmentalists, however, have based their opposition to GM foods on the fact that they can alter the environment in unpredictable ways.

A Cornell University study showed that pollen from insecticide-producing Bt corn is poisonous to monarch butterflies.

Yet more worrisome, according to environmentalists as well as ethicists and policy makers, are the so-called “terminator genes.”

These genes, inserted into GM seeds by biotech companies, cause the crop plant to produce sterile seeds, thus preventing farmers from replanting a portion of their seed harvest the next season (an illegal practice when patented crop strains are involved.)

This procedure is especially common in the third world, where farmers are poor and regulation is weak or nonexistent. Seeds with the “terminator” genes act as the regulation, forcing the farmers to purchase more seeds from the company the next season if they wish to enjoy the benefits of genetically altered plants.

Terminator genes could simply be viewed as a way for biotech companies to protect their products from piracy, thus generating profit and incentive for further research and better products.

Critics claim that the practice will harm agriculture in the third world. Others fear that the terminator genes will spread to other plants through cross-pollination and wipe out entire species. Most geneticists, though, dismiss this scenario as essentially impossible.

Discussions of particular genes or current biotech practices tend to leave out what is perhaps the most dangerous result of modern agriculture: the reduction of biodiversity. All corn grown in the United States, for example, has been bred and engineered to the point where it is basically homogenous.

If one particular virus or mold finds our corn to be a weak target, our entire agricultural system could collapse. The potato blight of Ireland is a good example to keep in mind. Be this as it may, few farmers would be willing to give up their profitable high-yield crops.

The good news is that consumers are ultimately in control. In response to European protests, food companies from Heinz to Gerber have decided to start labeling those foods made with GM plants.

If consumers apply enough pressure, it is possible that agriculture might adopt more sustainable methods of food production.

That is the ideal scenario, but it, unfortunately, depends on the far-sightedness of people. As any environmentalist will attest, this is not something to bet on.

Elton Wong is a sophomore in biology form Ames.