Biotechnology – Discovering the Parallels

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Hotline, Winter 2000

How should an environmental activist brought up on air pollution issues – like most of us in GASP – tackle a topic like genetically engineered foods? A sound approach is to look for parallel situations and apply familiar principles. On this topic, the parallels are readily apparent. A brief survey of articles about genetically engineered foods – or biotechnology in general – reveals these areas of concern:

  • the right to know
  • the Precautionary Principle
  • credibility – based on a corporation’s track record

Those concerns are familiar to many air pollution activists. In this article, we’ll outline how they apply to biotechnology. First, however, a bit of background may be helpful.

Genetic Engineering – Here and Now

Genetic engineering involves taking a gene from one species and splicing it into another, to transfer a desired trait. This cannot occur in nature, where the transfer of genetic traits is limited by the natural barriers that exist between different species. In nature, a gene from a flounder cannot be added to a tomato – an operation accomplished more than a decade ago through genetic engineering. In this sense, genetic engineering is not comparable to traditional animal and plant breeding techniques.

There’s nothing hypothetical about genetically engineered (GE) crops. In 1998, they accounted for almost 40% of the world’s soybean harvest, a third of the canola, and 25% of the corn. These crops are finding their way into everything from animal feed to processed foods.

According to Worldwatch Institute, soybeans, canola, and cotton account for most of the GE crops currently in production, although more than 60 different crops have been “engineered.” Three-quarters of their cropland is in the United States, and almost all the rest is in Argentina and Canada. About 30% of the cropland is planted in varieties designed to produce an insect-killing toxin, and almost all the rest is in crops engineered to resist herbicides.

Spectrum of Concern

In many countries, public concern about genetic engineering has forced government officials to treat the subject with caution. This deliberate approach is supported by many scientists who do not object in principle to genetic engineering. Dr. Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense (ED – Environmental Defense Fund recently shortened its name to Environmental Defense) puts it this way: “As a biologist, I find it hard to oppose genetically engineered crops or foods per se. [But] I also think that there are some genuine food-safety and ecological issues that have to be dealt with.” Among the critics of genetic engineering, Dr. Goldburg’s position represents one end of a spectrum of concern that extends as far as the activists who are opposed in principle to genetic engineering and other aspects of biotechnology.

Missionary Zeal

Critics of genetic engineering face an uphill battle, because the firms that are currently dominant in biotechnology – DuPont, Monsanto, and Novartis (product of a 1996 merger between Sandoz and Ciba) – are powerful multinational corporations. Their influence – exercised through political contributions, revolving-door relationships with regulatory agencies, and advertising and public relations campaigns – can be overwhelming.

Above and beyond the corporate power, however, it must be recognized that there is a real sense of mission among many of the proponents of biotechnology. Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute described it:

Given the widespread erosion of topsoil, the continued loss of genetic variety in the major crop species, the uncertain effects of long-term agrochemical use, and the chronic hunger that now haunts nearly a billion people, it would seem that a major paradigm shift in agriculture is long overdue. To its proponents, biotech is the key to that new agricultural paradigm. They envision crops genetically engineered to tolerate dry, low-nutrient or salty soils – allowing some to the world’s most degraded farmland to flourish once again. Crops that produce their own pesticides would reduce the need for toxic chemicals, and engineering for better nutrition would help the overfed as well as the hungry. In industry gatherings, biotech appears as some rare hybrid between corporate mega-opportunity and international social program.

Proponents of biotechnology wonder how any rational person could be opposed to such a vision. Air pollution activists who have been accused of driving jobs away from our community (“How could any rational person be opposed to that new, much cleaner coke plant and all those jobs?”) should be able to identify with biotechnology critics who are attacked for expressing skepticism about this vision.

Time, for example, branded much of the criticism of GE crops as “activist theatrics and shrill agitprop.” In a November 29 article that took note of growing public concern about this subject, the magazine warned: “By overreacting to fears fanned by well-fed consumers in the industrialized world, food producers might uproot an industry that could someday provide billions of people in the rest of the world with crops they desperately need.” Monsanto’s public relations department could not have written it more effectively.

FDA and the Right to Know

Some activists approach GE foods from the perspective of consumer advocacy, having worked in the past to ensure accurate labeling of other consumer products. Others reach the issue as a logical extension of their work on environmental toxics. In both cases, these advocates push for public policy changes by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Environmental Defense provides this summary of the current FDA policy on foods from GE crops:

FDA’s policy, announced by former Vice President Dan Quayle in May 1992, as “regulatory relief,” appears to do more to protect the biotechnology industry than to protect consumers. FDA’s policy includes a series of “decision trees” for industry decision-making – a series of yes-no questions, such as “Is there any reported toxicity?” or “Does the biological function raise any safety concerns?” Food producers are then supposed to decide for themselves whether they need to consult FDA before they market foods obtained from genetically engineered crops. FDA, at least in principle, is applying the same regulations to substances added to foods via genetic engineering as apply to conventional chemicals added to food. But FDA’s decision trees appear to significantly weaken a long-standing requirement under food safety law: Food manufacturers must establish scientifically the safety of new substances added to food before selling them to the public, regardless of whether the manufacturers think they are safe. FDA’s policy states that the agency will only require approval “in cases where safety questions exist sufficient to warrant formal pre-market review.” Deciding if such questions exist is left to food manufacturers.

You certainly don’t have to be an anti-biotech zealot to react with skepticism to the “self-policing” aspects of the FDA policy. Activists on hazardous waste regulations are familiar with the practice of building a false distinction into regulatory definitions, in order to “linguistically detoxify” a particular hazardous substance. In an obvious parallel, the FDA’s policy on foods from GE crops is founded upon a false distinction. ED shines a spotlight on this false distinction:

Under the 1992 policy, FDA will only require labeling of genetically engineered foods under certain exceptional circumstances. Since most genetically engineered foods will be indistinguishable in appearance from non-engineered foods, consumers will generally not know what they are buying. FDA ignores consumers’ right to know by ignoring long-standing regulations that require in most circumstances that manufacturers label foods to disclose their ingredients. For example, researchers have genetically engineered vegetables to produce a new protein sweetener. Existing FDA regulations mandate that companies disclose sweeteners added to canned vegetables via conventional means. Yet FDA will not require that protein sweeteners added to vegetables via genetic engineering be labeled as ingredients.

Movement toward Labeling

Advocates of labeling are making progress. Their initial success came in Europe. In a scenario familiar to all environmental activists, food manufacturers – who first protested that it would be impossible for them to comply with labeling requirements – have backed away from that position. On December 30, Whole Foods Market (103 stores in 22 states) and Wild Oats Markets (110 stores in 22 states), the two largest natural-food store chains in the United States, announced plans to ban genetically modified ingredients from their private-label products. Each sells more than 600 products under its own brand name. Making “GE-free” brands of food available to consumers certainly addresses one aspect of the right-to-know issue.

Public concern about biotechnology prompted the FDA to hold three public hearings on the topic in the late fall of 1999. Sandy Smith of Lancaster County, representing the Pennsylvania Environmental Network and three other organizations, testified at the hearing in Washington on November 30. She presented petitions with 1327 signatures, supporting “the right to choose good healthy food grown in non-toxic soil.” Smith brought to the GE food issue the perspective of an experienced activist who opposes the practice of spreading municipal sewage sludge, with its “toxic soup” of industrial waste, on agricultural land.

At the hearing, GE proponents frequently emphasized their “feed the hungry” vision. But Monsanto also adopted other tactics, which may sound familiar to many readers of this newsletter. Monsanto’s public relations agency (Burson Marsteller) rounded up a group of people and paid them to stage a pro-biotech protest. The demonstrators waved signs that said, “Biotech equals jobs.”

Labeling for Food Safety

As explained by Dr. Rebecca Goldburg in material at the ED web site, food safety is an important element of the labeling issue:

To consumers, most genetically engineered foods are essentially foods with added substances – usually proteins. This is because genes are “translated” into proteins by cells. Therefore, when a genetic engineer adds, say, a bacterial gene to a tomato, he or she is essentially adding a bacterial protein to that tomato. In most cases, these added proteins will likely prove safe for human consumption. Nevertheless, just as with conventional food additives, substances added to foods via genetic engineering may, in some instances, prove hazardous. A major concern about adding proteins to foods via genetic engineering is that they may cause susceptible individuals to become allergic to foods they previously could safely consume. Food allergies are a serious public health concern, which food allergists estimate affect roughly 2.5 to 5 million Americans. Allergic reactions cause discomforts and, in some cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Since virtually all known food allergens are proteins, foods with new proteins added via genetic engineering could sometimes become newly allergenic.

Political momentum in favor of labeling appears to be growing. On November 5, 49 members of Congress signed a pro-labeling letter to FDA Commissioner Jane Henney. Two of our local representatives, Mike Doyle and Frank Mascara, were among the signers. A bill (HR 3377) to require manufacturers to label all foods containing GE ingredients was introduced in November.

Could a Labeling Law Survive the WTO?

Environmentalists have often found that the push to enact a specific bill can have an impact that reaches well beyond the scope of the bill itself. The bill serves, in effect, as a vehicle for general consciousness-raising on the issue. That process is certainly at work in the push for labeling of GE foods. However, some activists who favor labeling wonder about the long-term survival of a labeling law. Lurking just offstage during the U.S. debate is the World Trade Organization (WTO). When the European Union enacted labeling regulations, the Clinton/Gore administration, at the behest of the corporations that dominate the biotechnology industry, initiated a challenge before the WTO. In their challenge, the administration stated that the labeling regulations constituted an illegal restraint of trade, and based its argument on the assertion that there is no difference between normal food and genetically modified food.

The WTO has not yet ruled on the challenge. Based on its record, it is fair to say that a pro-labeling verdict would be a major upset.

Labeling Law – Misplaced Emphasis?

Looking beyond the WTO question, some activists point to other factors when they question the emphasis on labeling. Last summer, Brian Tokar of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology, a long-time opponent of biotechnology, summed up his position in these words:

Genetic engineering is more than just a matter of consumer “choice.” It has profoundly damaging implications for our health, the environment, and the future of agriculture as we know it. Polite requests to label genetically engineered foods won’t save a single monarch butterfly. They won’t protect a single farmer or a single journalist from Monsanto’s incessant threats and lawsuits. They won’t protect the vast majority of people, whose food choices are far more limited than we often realize, from unknown health hazards. They won’t begin to address the wider ethical problems of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies that threaten to transform our health care system and usher in a new era of human cloning and eugenics.

Differences in priorities and tactics among critics of biotechnology parallel the debates within other segments of the environmental community. Anti-pollution activists, for example, differ among themselves over the allocation of resources to work for enactment of end-of-pipe controls, as opposed to source reduction.

Monarch Butterflies – Another Chapter in Silent Spring?

Brian Tokar’s reference to monarch butterflies deserves some explanation. In May 1999, the British scientific journal Nature published an article by three scientists from Cornell University. They reported on a study that showed that pollen from corn genetically modified to produce the natural insecticide Bt could kill monarch larvae. The GE corn in question represents 30% of the corn grown in the United States today.

Biotech critics viewed the monarch study as confirmation of warnings they had been sounding for a decade. Some expressed surprise that the study had been conducted at all, since Cornell, like many universities, receives major underwriting for its research from the biotechnology industry. The industry response to the Cornell study was equally predictable. New field studies were conducted, which produced different results. To showcase those results, a scientific conference was held in November. As intended, the conference resulted in press reports that were favorable to the industry. The industry-sponsored conference produced more spin than substance. Dr. Goldburg of ED summed it up: “Most of the reports were preliminary, sample sizes were sometimes small, and some research methodologies were questionable. More research is necessary, and independent funding would help insulate scientists from the pressures of commercial interests.”

In earlier comments, Goldburg put the Cornell study into perspective:

For too long genetic engineering has been presented to the public as a ‘safe’ alternative to traditional pesticide spraying, but genetically engineered crops are really just being used as a new means to disseminate chemical pesticides. Monarchs that feed on pollen-covered milkweed near Bt corn fields might as well be eating pesticide-sprayed milkweed. Either way, the result is dead butterflies. It would be tragic if genetically engineered crops decimated populations of monarch butterflies, similar to the way that DDT decimated populations of bald eagles and other birds.

Bt Corn – Fundamental Problems

In December 1999, Nature published another disturbing report about Bt corn. A microbiologist from NYU and two colleagues from a Venezuelan institute announced that the long-term impact of Bt corn appears to be substantially greater than previously reported.

Bt corn produces the active part of an insecticide made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The toxin appears in the leaves, stock, pollen, and roots. When it is ingested, caterpillars stop eating the corn and die. Soil bacteria destroy the toxin – if they can get at it. The scientists found that the toxin binds to clay particles and humic acids found naturally in most soils. Instead of disappearing in about 25 days, the toxin apparently could remain active indefinitely. At this point, the consequences of this persistence cannot be determined.

As Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute points out, Bt corn, like sprayed pesticides, is subject to the fundamental problem of pesticide resistance:

There is abundant evidence that pests of all sorts – insects, weeds, or pathogens – will develop resistance to just about any chemical that humans throw at them. Every major company in the field is working on potential successors to Bt crops. And each of these solutions would be highly vulnerable to pest resistance. This scenario does not differ essentially from the current one: in place of a pesticide treadmill, we would substitute a sort of gene treadmill. The arms race between farmers and pests would continue, but would include an additional biochemical dimension. Transgenic plants, designed to secrete increasingly potent combinations of pesticides, would vie with a host of increasingly resistant pests. It is unlikely that this particular vision of the future will appear in the industry’s advertising campaigns.

Applying the Precautionary Principle

Some critics of biotechnology call attention to uncertainties in the process of transferring genes, and question the accuracy of the term “genetic engineering” – a label that the industry certainly chose to connote precision. That interesting discussion is beyond the scope of this article. See the Resources box for more information.

Regardless of how haphazard the genetic transfer process may be, there are certainly legitimate questions about its ultimate outcome – the ecological impact of GE crops. On that basis, according to many environmentalists, the Precautionary Principle should be applied. As articulated in the Wingspread Statement (January 1998), the Precautionary Principle states:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

There’s nothing fancy about the Precautionary Principle. It simply sets forth in plain English a genuinely conservative, common-sense approach. It is instructive to contrast the Precautionary Principle to FDA’s current policy on foods from GE crops, as described earlier in this article. The Wingspread Statement also describes how the Precautionary Principle should be implemented:

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action. Writing in a different context, Dr. Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation offered a public policy perspective on the Precautionary Principle. There can be little doubt that his comments on toxic chemicals would also apply to GE crops.

The Precautionary Principle shifts the burden of proof for harmlessness onto the producers of toxic chemicals. Most people readily accept such a shift in the case of the pharmaceutical industry, which must show safety and efficacy before marketing a new drug. The rationale for placing such requirements on the drug corporations was that humans would be directly exposed to drugs, so safety had to be shown, and the need for the new drug established. Today we know that all landfills leak, incinerators don’t fully destroy toxic chemicals, and humans are therefore exposed to low levels of essentially every industrial chemical released into commercial channels (whether as waste or product). Therefore, the rationale for U.S. pharmaceuticals policy would logically lead to the conclusion that all industrial chemicals should be treated the same as drugs: the burden of proof of harmlessness (and proof of need) should fall on the producer.

The Precautionary Principle and the WTO

You can present a solid case in favor of applying the Precautionary Principle to biotechnology. That may be why, as some activists suspect, the industry is pleased to see the current debate concentrating on labeling laws. Let’s suppose, however, that a lightning bolt struck FDA headquarters, and the Precautionary Principle instantly became the foundation of biotechnology policy for the United States. Would DuPont, Monsanto, and Novartis capitulate, and begin work to meet their new burden of proof? That seems unlikely. The corporations would take their case to the World Trade Organization, where they would probably win. Based on the organization’s record, it seems clear that many past policies, such as the U.S. ban on DDT, would not have survived a WTO ruling.

The Biosafety Protocol and the WTO

On January 29, delegates from 130 countries, meeting in Montreal, adopted a Protocol on Biosafety. The Protocol marks the first time that the Precautionary Principle has been implemented in an international agreement. It contains language allowing a country to ban imports of a genetically modified product, if the country feels there is not enough scientific evidence demonstrating that the product is safe. It also requires exporters to label shipments that contain GE commodities.

Back in February 1999, the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay blocked approval of an agreement acceptable to the other delegates. During the current negotiations, the United States again led the opposition to the Precautionary Principle and the labeling requirements. But this time around, bolstered by growing public concern about GE crops, negotiators from the European Union were able to extract concessions from the U.S. and its allies.

Friends of the Earth (FOE), which has been active on this issue on both sides of the Atlantic, said that it welcomed the agreement. FOE pointed out that the Protocol clearly identifies GE crops as fundamentally different from conventionally bred crops.


Worldwatch Institute
“The Emperor’s New Crops” by Brian Halweil appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of World Watch. The article includes lots of information on Bt crops. Worldwatch Institute brings a global perspective to its in-depth coverage of environmental issues.

Environmental Research Foundation
Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly is the best single source for coverage of the full range of topics addressed by this article. See #638 for a discussion of the imprecise nature of a genetic transfer. #586 explains the Precautionary Principle in detail. See also #637, #639, and #673 through #676. All back issues of Rachel’s can be found at the web site.

Environmental Defense
ED materials quoted in this article came from the web site. Note: Dr. Rebecca Goldburg of ED is the daughter of GASP board member Walter Goldburg.

Friends of the Earth
The FOE web site includes background information on the Biosafety Protocol.

Organic Consumers Association
The OCA web site includes an extensive archive of articles from many sources.

Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering
NERAGE is a regional network of anti-GE activists headed by Brian Tokar, who was quoted in the article.

Union of Concerned Scientists
The UCS web site provides a well-organized introduction to biotechnology and other issues.

The agreement leaves unsettled the question of what will happen when the WTO rules on a challenge against a nation that has acted in accordance with the Protocol. The agreement states that the Protocol and the WTO rules should be “mutually supportive.” However, the WTO rules, which require product bans to be based on “sound science,” would seem to be incompatible with the Precautionary Principle. The WTO imposes the burden of proof upon the country that enacted the ban of a product.

For the Biosafety Protocol, the long-term outlook appears to be bleak. The United States is in a position to undermine the agreement. The Protocol is an amendment to the 1992 U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, which the United States has never ratified. Thus the U.S. is not bound to honor the Protocol. Is there any possibility that this situation will change – that the U.S. will ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, which would include the Biosafety Protocol? For that to happen, the Foreign Relations Committee would have to send the U.N. Convention to the Senate floor for a vote on ratification. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, is determined to prevent consideration of the Biological Diversity Convention.

Corporate Credibility

There was nothing abstract about FDA’s policy decision on biotechnology in 1992, as described earlier. By implementing what amounted to an honor system, FDA handed over the reins to a handful of specific corporations that dominated the industry – DuPont, Monsanto, and a few others. To invoke a parallel close to home, if you were angry about the prospect of handing a scofflaw like Shenango a permit to build a new coke plant, then you should certainly be concerned about FDA putting companies like DuPont and Monsanto on the honor system.

On the credibility question, there is no reason to belabor the obvious. One brief expression of outrage will suffice. Paul Hawken, the well-known businessman and author, in a recent letter to Dr. Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation, posed a series of rhetorical questions, including this one:

Finally, in the debate over genetically modified food, we should also bear in mind that, even if GMOs [genetically modified organisms] were benign and safe, which I do not believe, whose idea was it to have three companies – Monsanto, DuPont, and Novartis, whose origins go back to cancer-causing saccharine, gunpowder, and toxic aniline dyes respectively – strive to control 90 percent of the germ plasm that provides the world with 90 percent of its caloric intake?

Applying What We Already Know

With biotechnology, as with most environmental issues, the temptation is to become preoccupied with studying the details. However, for most of us it makes much more sense to concentrate on determining how familiar principles apply to the issue. We can then contribute to the public debate, drawing upon parallels from our own experience.

Dr. Rebecca Goldburg puts it in similar terms:

In the past, we never anticipated environmental problems, and the results were things like the Superfund sites. If we don’t apply these lessons of the past to the enormous changes biotechnology will bring, there’s no reason to think the results will be much different.

by John Warren, GASP Board Member