The Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy has taken a strong precautionary stand on genetic engineering. In collaboration with leading scientists and other public service organizations, it has launched a nation-wide public awareness campaign to alert the public about the dangers of genetically engineered foods, and is calling for rigorous safety testing and mandatory labeling of such foods.
Genetic engineering, or "recombinant DNA technology", is a radical new technology for transplanting genetic characteristics of one species into another. It has been used thus far primarily for agriculture--for the creation, patenting and commercializing of genetically modified living organisms. (For example, the splicing of a specific flounder gene for producing a unique blood "antifreeze" protein into tomatoes, to render them frost resistant; splicing insect proteins into zucchinis to create a taste and fragrance that is repugnant to other insect pests; or growing potatoes endowed with built-in pesticides.)
The biotech industry's rationale for the genetic engineering of humans is the predisposition of human beings (or of a specific sub-population) to certain diseases. If such human frailties could be fortified by genetically transplanting traits of other animals, insects, bacteria or viruses, then it might be possible for biotechnologists to improve upon our species.
Unfortunately, the dangers posed by such genetic surgery are profound. Most genes in the human genome perform multiple functions, and little is known about these complex interactions among genes. Also, gene sequence is important, and there is essentially no control over where, in the human DNA strand, the foreign genes will end up.
Most important, genetic surgery performed on fetuses would, with high probability, infect the germ line (egg or sperm) cells. As a consequence, any such genetic defects would be passed on to future generations, causing irreversible gene pollution and the potential for new genetic diseases. In addition to the immediate and long-term gross health risks posed by irreversible gene pollution, we have no idea what the subtle--even spiritual--effects of incomplete or mutated human DNA will be on the human race.
Note that if such proposed in utero gene transplant experiments are approved, the resulting newborns would be the first humans that are not fully human--who have alien characteristics of viruses and other species.
In September 1998, and January 1999, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted public hearings on whether to proceed with government funding for in utero genetic engineering of humans. The Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy presented testimony urging a moratorium on such genetic experiments, which won the support of the press and enough members of the NIH that funding for such experiments was postponed.
Unfortunately, this issue is certain to come up again, since the pressure from the biotech industry is intense. Moreover, the current ban pertains only to public funding. Well financed biotech firms are free to proceed with human gene research using their own resources.
It is vitally important that we, as a society, protect ourselves and future generations against the dangers of irreversible gene pollution. The policing of such research will not be done by the biotech industry, who are strongly incentivized to experiment with and commercialize their gene mutations. Nor is the government, which has close economic ties with the biotech industry, monitoring such research. Therefore, we must do it.
Please monitor our Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy website of the for updates on this critical subject. Your attention is critical.
A new technology is changing the face of American agriculture. It's called genetic engineering. Touted as the most exciting scientific advancement of our time, the solution to world hunger, and the greatest invention of the decade, genetically engineered foods have made their way onto our grocery shelves this year. But a growing number of scientists, physicians, clergy, consumers, business leaders and governments all over the world are voicing concerns over the proliferation of these foods into the market place.
According to its developers, the technology of genetic engineering was created to improve food production, reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, and increase yields to feed our growing world. Though it has grabbed the support of our government, many scientists believe this technology reduces the nutritional value of our foods, perpetuates our international dependence on the chemical treadmill, and disrupts the flow of intelligence in the genetic sequence of our ecosystem.
Supporters assert that genetic engineering is a natural extension of traditional crossbreeding, where traits from the same or closely related species are interbred. In fact, it is radically different.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, "Scientists can now readily shift genetic material from one species to virtually any other species. Genetic material can also be synthesized in the laboratory and then transferred into organisms. As a result, a virtually limitless number of genetically encoded substances can now be added to organisms used as food." Many of these substances have never been a part of the human food supply.
Dr. John Fagan, internationally recognized molecular biologist and former genetic engineer states, "We are living today in a very delicate time, one that is reminiscent of the birth of the nuclear era, when mankind stood at the threshold of a new technology. No one knew that nuclear power would bring us to the brink of annihilation or fill our planet with highly toxic radioactive waste. We were so excited by the power of a new discovery that we leapt ahead blindly, and without caution. Today the situation with genetic engineering is perhaps even more grave because this technology acts on the very blueprint of life itself."
DNA, as defined by the Canadian Institute of Biotechnology, is nature's blueprint for creating the individuality of a living organism. Genetic engineering manipulates an organism at the very source of its uniqueness, and fundamentally changes it, for better or for worse.
Unfortunately, when this technology is applied to the foods we eat, unexpected side effects occur because, as Dr. Fagan states, "genetic manipulations cannot be controlled completely and precisely."
Dr. Fagan goes on to say, "Genetic engineers can cut and splice genes very precisely in the test tube, but the process of putting those genes into a living organism is extremely imprecise, inaccurate, and uncontrolled. Such manipulations can cause mutations that damage the functioning of the natural genes of the organism. Once a gene is inserted into an organism, it can cause unanticipated side effects. Mutations and side effects can cause genetically engineered foods to contain toxins and allergens and to be reduced in nutritional value."
According to the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), "The FDA has shrugged its responsibility for regulating genetically engineered foods...a precautionary 'safety proven first' policy has been scrapped in favor of corporate economic interests." Current FDA policy allows individual companies to determine the extent of their pre-market safety testing.
CRG goes on to say, "If they (the companies) perceive no danger to consumers, companies are not required to state that their products have been genetically manipulated or to reveal the source of implanted genes; nor are they required to make the results of their safety tests available to the public. The FDA will not have a complete set of information regarding genetically engineered foods on the market, so there will be no way to trace who or what is responsible should a problem occur."
In 1989, the New England Journal of Medicine reported a tragic health crisis caused by a genetically engineered food supplement, tryptophan. Thirty-seven people died from this product, while 1500 others were permanently disabled and 5000 became very ill.
And when Pioneer HyBrid used a brazil nut gene to create a genetically engineered soybean, it caused allergic reactions. Fortunately, this problem was detected before the soybeans went to market, and consumers were not harmed.
Despite these documented incidents and increased warnings from the international scientific community, the FDA continues to claim they find no scientific evidence to support the assertion that bioengineered foods are unsafe. And they continue to maintain their current "honor system" approval process allowing the biotech industry to monitor itself, and release many new genetically engineered products for commercial distribution without thorough pre-market safety testing, advance notice or labels.
How can the FDA justify the release of these products without long-term safety testing or labels? The official government position states that transgenic foods are "substantially equivalent", or essentially the same, as their natural predecessors. Therefore, they don't need to be labeled as different.
But the logic doesn't work. Altering the DNA of an organism changes it on its most fundamental level. No one knows what consequences this kind of manipulation will bring.
Dairy products from cows injected with a genetically altered hormone (rBGH), and corn, potatoes, soybeans, squash, cotton, papaya, tomatoes and canola, spliced with the DNA of bacteria and viruses. From infant formula to soda, pizza to chips, genetically engineered foods and their derivatives pervade the American diet.
Who can guarantee our children won't get cancer or our grandchildren won't have birth defects from genetically engineered foods? Are they safe for pregnant women? What about the millions of newborns who are fed infant formulas made with genetically engineered soybeans, or the millions of Americans who suffer from food allergies?
These concerns alone are enough to demand rigorous, long-term, pre-market safety testing. But genetic engineering doesn't just endanger the health of our families.
Many scientists believe that genetic engineering threatens our wildlife, alters natural habitats, creates dramatic imbalances in our environment and exposes the entire ecosystem to unanticipated and potentially uncontrollable side effects. Unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, gene pollution cannot be contained or cleaned up. The natural process of cross-pollination will carry genetically engineered organisms to neighboring fields and beyond, creating new, unknown and potentially harmful species.
Yet biotech supporters state objections to these concerns as well. For example, Monsanto's spokeswoman Karen Marshall says she is mystified that environmentalists would object to Roundup Ready soybeans because they were specifically engineered to reduce herbicide use.
But it's not that simple. Some scientists estimate that not only will herbicide use triple as a result of herbicide-resistant crops, but will ultimately give rise to herbicide-resistant weeds as well. Why? Because farmers, knowing that their crops can tolerate the herbicides, will spray more liberal doses of herbicides on the fields to destroy the weeds. And eventually those weeds will also become resistant to the herbicide, because the genes for resistance will cross-pollinate with the weeds, leaving us with not just Roundup Ready soybeans, but Roundup Ready weeds.
The National Corn Growers Association expressed surprise as well, stating that their product actually reduces the use of pesticides. But in telling this story, the Association neglects to inform the public that the reason for this is that the genetically engineered corn actually contains a gene that produces its own insect-killing toxins. The EPA now registers the corn as a pesticide, and not a vegetable at all.
In science, safety cannot be assumed. It must be proved by the scientist. The history of science is a history of ideas. Some good, some bad, some dangerous, some benign. It is the experiments, the research, the testing, and ultimately time, that pronounces the verdict. The reality is genetic engineering is too new and potentially too hazardous for any of us -- consumers, scientists, farmers, government officials and corporate executives -- to be in a hurry to take it out of the labs and put it onto our dinner tables.
The bottom line is that no one knows if these foods are safe, for us or our environment. We have all become subjects in a highly controversial experiment, without our knowledge or consent. At the very least genetically engineered foods must be labeled so that we can choose for ourselves whether we will eat them or not.
Despite a survey by Novartis showing that 93% of Americans want genetically engineered foods labeled, our government not only refuses to require labels, it continues to support the biotech industry's desire to suppress labels even when individual food manufacturers want to provide their customers with complete information on this issue.
The government must reverse its position and establish stringent pre-market safety testing on these foods, and keep them out of our fields and our kitchens until they are scientifically proven safe for our environment and our families. Until those protocols are in place, federal regulations must mandate the clear and accurate labeling of all genetically engineered foods.
As citizens, we must take responsibility for the future. We are at a time in our world's history where we can no longer afford to violate the laws of nature in our haste for progress. We must not only acknowledge, but honor the intimate relationship we share with everything in the universe. We need to shed our national addiction to profit-driven, quick-fix solutions, and make a decision as a society to embrace technologies that support all of life, technologies that not only uphold and promote our collective growth, but do not damage anyone or anything in the process.
There is an order in the universe, a seamless web that nourishes and connects us all--from the tiniest seed, to the beating of our hearts, to the stars in the galaxies. Every time we act without reference to this underlying intelligence of natural law, we harm ourselves, we harm each other, and we harm our planet.
If we align ourselves and our society with the nourishing power of nature, we will create a civilization that upholds the integrity and dignity of life for all of us.