Genetic engineering -- of food and other products -- has far outrun the science that must be its first governing discipline. Therein lies the peril, the risk, and the foolhardiness. Scientists who do not recognize this chasm may be practicing "corporate science" driven by sales, profits, proprietary secrets, and political influence-peddling.
Good science is open, vigorously peer reviewed, and intolerant of commercial repression as it marches toward empirical truths. The rush of genetically engineered foods is leaving behind three areas of science:
(1) ecology, often academically defined as the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms;
(2) nutrition-disease dynamics; and
(3) basic molecular genetics itself.
The scientific understanding of the consequences of genetically altering organisms in ways not found in nature remains poor.
Without commensurate advances in these arenas, the wanton release of genetically engineered products is tantamount to flying blind. The infant science of ecology is under-equipped to predict the complex interactions between engineered organisms and extant ones. As for any nutritional effects, our knowledge is also deeply inadequate. Finally, our crude ability to alter the molecular genetics of organisms far outstrips our capacity to predict the consequences of these alterations, even at the molecular level. Foreign gene insertions may change the expression of other genes in ways that we cannot foresee. Moreover, as Martin Teitel and Kimberly Wilson point out in this book "
Genetically Engineered Food", the very techniques used to effect the incorporation of foreign genetic material in traditional food plants may make those genes susceptible to further unwanted exchanges with other organisms. Still, the hubris of genetic engineers soars despite an enormously complex set of unknowns.
Corporate promoters, such as the Monsanto corporation, are racing to be first in their markets. Using crudely limited trial-and-error techniques, they are playing a guessing game with the environment of flora and fauna, with immensely intricate genetic organisms, and with, of course, their customers on farms and in grocery stores. This is why these marketeers cannot answer the many central questions raised in this book, "
Genetically Engineered Food". They simply do not have the science yet with which to provide even preliminary answers.
Selective corporate engineering, unmindful of the need for a parallel development of our knowledge of consequences, can produce disasters. Costly errors involving past and current technologies -- from motor vehicles to atomic power reactors and their waste products to antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- should give us pause.
What are the proven benefits of genetically engineered foods that would offset these multifaceted risks? As the authors point out, genetically modified foods "do not taste better, provide more nutrition, cost less, or look nicer." Why, then, would a person run the risk, however large or small it might be, of using them when safe alternatives are available?
If the countercheck of science and scientists has been impeded for the time being by the biotechnology industry, what of other precautionary and oversight forces? On this score the record is also dismal. As the engine of massive research and development subsidies and technology transfers to this industry, the federal government has become the prime aider and abettor. In addition, the government has adopted an abdicating nonregulatory policy toward an industry most likely, as matters now stand, to modify the natural world in the twenty-first century. When it comes to biotechnology, the word in Washington is not regulation; rather it is "guidelines," and even then in the most dilatory and incomplete manner. On August 15, 1999, the Washington Post reported that the "FDA is now five years behind in its promises to develop guidelines" for testing the allergy potential of genetically engineered food. The EPA is similarly negligent. To quote the Post article again, "while the agency has promised to spell out in detail what crop developers should do to ensure that their gene-altered plants won't damage the environment it has failed to do so for the past five years." Post reporter Rick Weiss then cited studies showing adverse effects developing that the industry had not predicted. Citizen pressure in the United States is growing for a thorough and open regulatory policy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been handing out tax dollars to commercial corporations, including co-funding the notorious terminator-seed project, in order to protect the intellectual property of biotechnology firms from some farmers. You can expect nothing but continuing boosterism from that corner.
The creation of pervasive unknowns affecting billions of people and the planet should invite, at least, a greater assumption of the burden of proof by corporate instigators that their products are safe. Not for this industry. It even opposes disclosing its presence to consumers in the nation's food markets and restaurants. Against repeated opinion polls demanding the labeling of genetically engineered foods, these companies have used their political power over the legislative and executive branches of government to block the consumer's right to know and to choose.
Although by the end of 2000 the FDA had still declined to require the labeling of genetically engineered food, this issue could soon become the industry's Achilles' heel. Fortunately, in December 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an organic food standard that gives consumers a way to identify fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products produced without pesticides, genetic engineering, or growth hormones, and not subjected to irradiation. Hundreds of thousands of comments to the USDA by consumers helped produce this standard against industry objections.
What about universities and their molecular biologists? Can we expect independent assessments from them? Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they have been compromised by consulting complicities, business partnerships, or fear. Although voices within the Academy are beginning to be heard more often, both directly and through such organizations as the Council for Responsible Genetics, the din of the propaganda, campaign money, media intimidation, and marketing machines is still overwhelming. As early as 1990, Harvard Medical School graduate and author Michael Crichton warned about the commercialization of molecular biology without federal regulation, without a coherent government policy, and without watchdogs among scientists themselves. He said, "It is remarkable that nearly every scientist in genetics research is also engaged in the commerce of biotechnology. There are no detached observers." There is no legal or ethical framework for evaluating this portentous science and technology.
There are more such observers now. The situation is changing. One sign is how often Monsanto has to threaten product defamation lawsuits to silence the media and critics, who, although being advised that such suits would almost certainly fail in court, cannot easily absorb the expense to get them dismissed. As bioengineered crops cover ever more millions of acres from their start in 1996, the likelihood of side effects and unintended consequences looms larger. Farmers will realize they were not told enough of the truth. And, as more foods containing genetic organisms from other species enter the market, consumers will see there is no escape other than to fight back and demand an open scientific process and response to persistent questions and miscues, with the burden of proof right on the companies. Last year, Monsanto Company CEO, Robert Shapiro, began acknowledging that his company had not listened enough to its critics and should have exercised more humility.
All this and more is why "
Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature", is so valuable for enlightening what Judge Learned Hand once described as "the public sentiment." For increasing numbers of people who want to eat, to learn, to think, and to act in concert as the sovereign people they aspire to be, the subject of an ever more wide-ranging bioengineered food supply must be subjected to a rigorous democratic process. As the ancient Roman adage put it: "Whatever touches all must be decided by all."
Food -- its economic, cultural, environmental, and political contexts -- is one of the ultimate commonwealths. The ownership and control of the seeds of life, through exclusive proprietary technology shielded by corporate privileges and immunities, cannot be permitted in any democracy. Commonwealths can neither be seized by dogmas of intellectual property nor can they abide the domination of narrow commercial imperatives driven by the lucre and myopia of wealthy short-term merchandisers in giant corporate garb.
-- Ralph Nader January 2001
This article is excerpted from Genetically Engineered Food, ?2001, by Martin Teitel, Ph.D. and Kimberly A. Wilson. The preface (by Ralph Nader) is reprinted with permission of Park Street Press, a division of Inner Traditions International.http://www.innertraditions.com
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About the Author
Ralph Nader, one of the founders of the grass-roots movement "Democracy Rising", is an example of an "everyday person" who took action and made a powerful difference. His best-selling book "Unsafe at Any Speed", published in 1965, targeted the auto industry for designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not for safety. He is responsible for the auto industry making drastic design changes for safer motor vehicles. Nader has earned the reputation of being a "worker's hero" with his focus on consumer protection and consumer justice. His organizations have been responsible for the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and have launched federal regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environment Protection Agency (EPA), and Consumer Product Safety Administration.