Read an Excerpt
From the Foreword by Ralph Nader
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 underequipped to predict the complex interactions between engineered organisms and extant ones. As for any nutritional effects, our knowledge is also deeply inadequate. Even
in a more traditional area of research, it was not until last year that scientists reported much more acid-resistant E.coli in cattle that were fed conventional grains than in those fed hay, a situation that weakens the human barrier to food-borne pathogens.
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, 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. They simply do not have the science yet with which to provide even preliminary answers. These companies are so focused on sales that they view with antagonism an independent, open science positing and testing hypotheses with their corporate data.
Selective corporate engineering, unmindful of the need for a parallel development of our knowledge of consequences, can produce disasters. Costly misfits and externalities of 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 with a food allergy run the risk, however large or small it might be, of a life-threatening reaction 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 subs??? 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 vendors had not predicted.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been handing out tax dollars to commercial corporations, including cofunding 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 their 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 consumers' right to know and to choose. This issue could soon become the industry's Achilles' heel.
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. In 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."