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Scientists Debate Genetically Modified Crops

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted September 15, 1999

This summer, a controversy over the safety of genetically modified crops made headlines daily in Europe and emerged as a topic of considerable interest nearly everywhere. On campus, scholars from biologists to trade experts, political scientists to anthropologists engaged in wide-ranging discussions of the issue.

And while views vary and many hold strong opinions, what emerges from experts in nearly every discipline is a call for more research and decision-making based on knowledge.

Modern genetic engineering of plants, which developed over the past 20 years to enhance crop yield and nutrition, recently stirred a controversy with the insertion of genes from bacteria and unrelated plants into seeds to make pest- or herbicide-resistant varieties.

The United States grows 75 percent of the world's gene-modified -- or transgenic -- crops. More than 40 percent of the corn, 50 percent of the cotton, and 45 percent of the soybean acres planted in the U.S. in 1999 have been estimated to be transgenic. And ingredients from these crops show up in everything from fast-food milk shakes to bags of tortilla chips.

Now, with foreign buyers increasingly rejecting gene-modified crops, and U.S. manufactures of items from baby food to pet food seeking only non-modified crops for their products, the debate has escalated exponentially.

Which is why the call for more research into the science of transgenic crops, as well as the environmental, social, and economic impacts, is coming from scholars in so many disciplines.

At the Gill Tract Field Station in Albany there are about five rows of corn involved in bioengineered plant field studies, said researcher Sarah Hake. The corn grows in a small fenced-in research field where some of Hake's plants were trampled over the summer by a group opposed to genetically modified crops.

In an effort to protect her research from further damage, Hake has placed small signs along her corn rows that read: "Please do not destroy our corn."

"I feel if only people would talk to us, we'd be happy to have a dialogue about our work," Hake said. "If we all understand each other, that could make a big difference. I don't see how else we'll resolve this."

Hake said her work has nothing to do with the new crops some environmentalists and others dislike, such as those that produce their own pesticide or tolerate weed spray .

Hake's research is not corporate sponsored. She has been charged by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore how maize genes control plant development. Hers is but a small part of a comprehensive study being undertaken by universities across the nation. She hopes to identify particularly important corn genes and get them into the public domain where all researchers can use and study them. And, she hopes to do so before private corporations patent the genes and claim them as their own.

A major issue among biologists at Berkeley is whether enough is known about gene-modified crops and their impact on the environment to allow wide-scale planting.

Opponents say there is a big difference between small, carefully controlled field studies to learn more about the genetics of these plants, and allowing them to cover the 700 million acres that went into cultivation in the U.S. this spring.

"I think the division of opinion is between people like me who say we don't know these ecosystems well enough to make these changes, and the other side that says, 'What's the problem? It reduces the amount of pesticide in the environment and feeds more people,'" said Donald Dahlsten, a Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management.

"Basically, it's the same old argument of ecology versus technology," he said.

"You would find the same split here," said Patrick McGuire, associate director of the UC DANR Genetic Resources Conservation Program located at UC Davis.

Dahlsten said environmentalists who oppose this technology are generally well informed. "Their perspective is that it's not ethical to do this when we know so little about the arena we live in. They say tinkering with this right now on this scale is too soon," he said.

However, a recent conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government suggested such thinking may be a luxury.

"Farmers and consumers in the industrial world are already wealthy and well fed, so they can afford, if they wish, to take a highly skeptical, precautionary view toward this new technology," said Robert Paarlberg of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Berkeley Professor Steven Lindow, a plant biologist, believes gains from traditional plant breeding techniques have topped out at the same time that worldwide food demand is on the rise. This is one reason why genetic crop engineering is so attractive, Lindow said. "Increasing photosynthesis, for example, is kind of the holy grail for plant biology."

Many scientists want the campus to play a bigger role in studies directly related to food safety and engineered crops. A great deal of the discussion on campus about genetically modified foods, in fact, has been centered on how much of the decision should rest with industry and whether the government agencies have adequately and comprehensively studied the risks.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy treats genetically modified plants no differently than traditionally hybridized varieties, which are not systematically tested, said Susanne Huttner, director of two UC biotech programs. The FDA intervenes only after there is evidence of public harm, she said. "It puts the responsibility on food producers," she said.

Haas School of Business Professor David Mowery, an expert on international reactions to technological innovation, said long-time oversight of the food supply by U.S. regulatory agencies explains why American markets have embraced the new products while Europeans have balked.

"There is no well institutionalized FDA organization operating in a Pan-European context," he said, "and there tends to be more grass-root activism."

Agricultural Economist Larry Karp agrees and says Europeans are much more skeptical about food and government claims.

"Here, the FDA and USDA have decided these genetically modified crops that are in the field are safe," he said. "I'm not a scientist, and I'm not in a position to judge the accuracy of these claims. I know scientists disagree just as much as politicians do."

But, he said, the approvals have given genetically altered foods more credibility among U.S. consumers.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management Ignacio Chapela, however, believes regulatory agencies may have given the new crops too much credibility and says there is a need for more study.

"The EPA and the FDA are concerned mostly about chemicals in the body and the environment," he said. "But this is not about chemicals. This is about what's being called genetic pollution. We need to have a bigger debate about moving genes across species and letting them free so they can reproduce.

"I think it's time for places like Berkeley to wake up and realize it's a responsibility right in our lap to establish the safety of these crops," said Chapela.

Berkeley anthropologist Paul Rabinow studies the biotechnology industry, genomics and the ethics of associated professionals. He said the public's main worry, clearly, is food safety. "Myself, I believe some 20 years of genetic engineering have shown it's been pretty safe. But the truth is for these crops, we really don't know. We need to have research going on to evaluate safety."

But Rabinow has another issue he believes needs attention. He said the crop issue that most worries him is over dependency on a few big companies.

"Monsanto has been buying up a lot of seed companies," he said. "I would say monopoly, and whether you have any alternatives is the biggest problem."

To read more about genetically modified crops and the issues being discussed, the Public Affairs office has compiled a summary of recently published press reports. The summary includes stories citing statistics, issues of testing, trade, labeling and public attitudes.


September 15 - 21, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 6)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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