(This column was first published in the November 22, 1999 Buffalo News.)
Some years ago a University of Minnesota colleague told me how pranksters -- he used a harsher word -- burned one of the School of Agriculture's cornfields. As a result, he said, his doctoral student whose dissertation research was based on that crop had to repeat a full year's work.
That episode came to mind when I read a news article in the London "Times" telling how researchers in England had to establish many extra trial sites for their testing of genetically engineered crops. They anticipated that activists would destroy many sites to show their opposition to what they call "Frankenstein foods".
This kind of vandalism as well as more rational opposition to the new gene technology has been widespread in Europe for over a year and we in America are beginning to confront the same serious problems raised by genetic engineering. Will things get out of hand here as well?
Throughout history plants and animals have been genetically modified. If it were not for changes in their gene pool, we would not have, for example, the many varieties of roses, apples and corn and the many breeds of dogs, cats, cows and horses. We would not have us, for that matter.
But today's genetic modification differs in kind. First, most of those examples took many generations to produce; today's gene changes take one. And second, the genetic engineering takes place not in the field but in the laboratory where technicians manipulate microscopic DNA structures inside cells. (Critics view those labs as right out of Frankenstein movies.)
Those differences, however, do not make GM necessarily bad. (That widely used acronym for genetic modification must not sit well with General Motors.) The new technology offers a wide range of wonderful possibilities: foods that are better tasting, more durable and less expensive; crops with built-in protections against insect invaders; American chestnut trees not subject to blight; oral vaccines; Third World children no longer debilitated by infant diarrhea and travelers safeguarded against Montezuma's revenge.
The problem with GM is that proper testing has not yet been performed. Proponents say that modified organisms are safe but critics respond that we simply do not know their long-term effects.
Indeed, a University of Aberdeen study suggests problems: a diet of GM modified potatoes fed to rats may have altered their immune systems and caused liver damage. And, closer to home, Cornell researchers demonstrated that corn pollen, genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide, killed monarch butterflies. Both studies have been questioned -- the first because the study was flawed, the second because the effect on the monarch population would be minimal -- but they raise warning flags nonetheless. No one wants another thalidomide tragedy.
Unfortunately, science seems to be taking a back seat. Popular environmentalists like Jeremy Rifkin and David Suzuki and political organizations like Greenpeace are raising these and other concerns about GM -- the possible inadvertent development of superweeds is one example they use. Rebutting them are industries with major GM commitments like Monsanto and Du Pont who are now investing millions in public relations activities after attempts to stonewall European critics failed miserably. On their side are already threatened farmers who see the opposition as extremists seeking to eliminate the savings to agriculture provided by GM. The two sides seem far apart and name calling flies back and forth -- biotechnology called "a Faustian bargain," its critics accused of "shrill statements and outrageous tactics." As a result, even what seem like straightforward actions like labeling GM foods raise firestorms of controversy.
As always, we need less heat, more light. We need the two sides to work together to seek solutions. And we need government support for those independent long-range studies. Fortunately, some progress is being made.
Stay tuned.-- Gerry Rising