FIELD OF GENES: Genetically Modified Foods

Thursday, September 2, 1999

Genetically modified crops and foods are already big business. But are they safe? Have the giant agribusiness companies that have rushed them into the fields and into our stores overlooked potential dangers posed by genetically engineered crops? Even if scientists do believe these crops are safe, how do they convince a skeptical public?

Recorded on Thursday, September 2, 1999

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today Genetically Modified Foods. Now just mention genetically modified foods and the image that comes to mind is like this--what does the future hold? This is the banana, just imagine the monkey. The truth about genetically modified foods is that the future is already here. Some fruits and vegetables: some have been genetically modified, some have not. How can you tell them apart? This seedless watermelon--this was developed using conventional techniques. This ear of corn, this has been genetically modified. It contains a gene that makes it poisonous, not to humans of course, but to insects. The point is that all of it looks natural. How can you tell if it's safe? Well, some in Europe believe that genetically modified foods are not safe. The European Union has already banned the import of certain genetically modified foods from here in the United States, while in the United States itself, there are the beginnings of a movement to remove genetically modified foods from the supermarket shelves.

With us today, three guests--Henry Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Walter Anderson is a fellow at the Meridian Institute and Peggy Lemaux is a specialist in plant biotechnology at the University of California at Berkeley. I asked our guests, what's up?

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, I quote, "mixing genetic material from species that cannot breathe naturally takes us into areas that should be left to God. We should not be meddling with the building blocks of life in this way." Henry, does Prince of Wales have a point?

Henry Miller: No, not at all. In fact, the new genetically modified crops provide much greater choices for farmers, consumers and food processors.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Prince, get out of here. Peggy does the prince have a point?

Peggy Lemaux: The fact is we've been modifying our foods for thousands of years and new technology simply gives us more precise tools --

Peter Robinson: That's all there is to it. I mean he does make a point here. Mixing genetic material from species that cannot breathe naturally, the stuff we've been doing for thousands of years has been cross-breeding among species that can breathe naturally. Isn't that right?

Peggy Lemaux: That's correct. And we can now utilize traits that are in one plant, for example, and move them into another.

Peter Robinson: But you still say, "Prince Charles stay out of this controversy, you've got it wrong."

Peggy Lemaux: Right.

Peter Robinson: Walter, the Prince has a point?

Walter Anderson: I don't think the Prince is a very good authority on the subject.

Peter Robinson: Oh you don't.

Walter Anderson: God save him but I think he's deeply uninformed about agriculture and the history of it as Peggy indicates.

Peter Robinson: All right. As briefly as you can, what is genetically modified food?

Walter Anderson: In common usage it's any kind of food produced from plants that have been altered by recombinant DNA or any of the technologies that have been developed in the past couple of decades.

Peter Robinson: Henry, why would anybody want to do that to plants?

Henry Miller: The modifications can provide all manner of advantages: improve nutrition; and safer food; the environment; more tasty. But most important again, these just provide a larger number of choices for all those who are involved in the distribution and user pathway.

Peter Robinson: In that case, I put to you the following question which is: what's everybody so upset about? From the New York Times, I quote, this is this past summer—"consumers and food companies in a growing number of countries are shunning the new crops, genetically modified crops. The European Union has stopped buying American corn. In Japan, the Kirin Brewery Company announced that it would use only corn that has not been genetically engineered. Japan now wants mandatory labeling of gene-altered products. In Mexico, the top producer of corn flour for tortillas is avoiding altered grain"--close quote. So if genetically modified foods is so wonderful, what's everybody shouting about?

Walter Anderson: The European public has good reason for being concerned about food safety issues. They've had the Mad Cow disease problem--

Peter Robinson: Which had nothing to do with genetically modified--

Walter Anderson: That's correct--

Peter Robinson: It was a scary event.

Walter Anderson: They had contaminated Coke--had nothing to do with genetic modification. But they have real reason, even though they may not be sophisticated about what genetic modification is to be concerned about the quality of the foods they buy and to be a little bit suspicious about whether there are proper regulatory procedures guaranteeing that they get safe foods. So their attitude may not be scientifically correct, but it's psychologically understandable.

Peter Robinson: Walter's quite patient and understanding of the public, at least the European public. Are you going to buy that?

Henry Miller: Technophobia is certainly ingrained in psyches--

Peter Robinson: By technophobia you mean an irrational fear of --

Henry Miller: An irrational fear of--

Peter Robinson: …technological advance--

Henry Miller: technological innovation. So in the 19th Century there were predictions that the Jenner small pox vaccine would create monsters. There were predictions that when locomotives moved greater than 60 miles an hour that people's chest cavities would collapse, they couldn't tolerate speeds that rapid. And so I think we're seeing part of that and we're seeing antagonism--

Peter Robinson: A little technophobia might not be so bad. What about all the problems that could result from using genetically modified crops?

Nightmare scenario #1 -- HRC's, herbicide resistant crops-- these are modified to be resistant to particular herbicides. So you can plant your field with a corn HRC, spray the field with a very powerful herbicide and everything in the field dies, except the corn that you want to cultivate. Absolutely marvelous. Except, isn't it obvious that as these HRC's, these genetically modified crops spread around the world, the use of herbicides will increase dramatically with all the intended risks of pollution, contamination and so forth. Aren't you at least--I can see the skepticism on your eye so we'll come back to you in a moment. Aren't you at least a little bit worried about that?

Peggy Lemaux: No. In fact I think that the new technologies will actually lead to lower use of herbicides and this is what's been seen here in the United States so far. In addition to that--

Peter Robinson: Explain that. The whole point of creating these HRCs is to get crops that can resist certain herbicides. How can using those things lead to a lower use of herbicides?

Peggy Lemaux: Herbicides work on plants in the sense that they have to selectively kill the weeds but allow the crop plant to survive.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Peggy Lemaux: And that's very difficult to do because one plant is not principally different than another. So it's the timing of applying the herbicide and judicial use. In the case of an HRC, one can apply that herbicide at any point. So a farmer can be very judicious about using herbicides. And so what has been seen at least so far is that the use of these crops actually leads to lower user of herbicide rather than more because they can make one judicious application instead.

Peter Robinson: You use it once and your problem goes away for the whole season? That's the idea?

Peggy Lemaux: Right.

Henry Miller: And in fact you can use environmentally friendly herbicides.

Peter Robinson: Which would be what?

Henry Miller: Which would be compounds like graphisate, they're rapidly degraded and non-toxic as opposed to those that are less environment friendly and would have to be used otherwise. And as Peggy pointed out, in larger amounts.

Peter Robinson: There's no scientific basis for this fear at all?

Henry Miller: There are theoretical concerns about that kind of thing. But even if we accept the worst case scenario that a gene for herbicide resistance is transferred into relatives from your engineer crop--

Peter Robinson: That's our next nightmare, I'll get to that in a moment.

Henry Miller: …even if that were to occur, that's not a safety issue. That is an issue with ethicacy, so even in a very worse case if that were to happen, you would just switch to another herbicide. Another way of controlling--

Peter Robinson: All right. So we don't need to worry about HRCs. What about crops genetically altered to make them poisonous to insects?

The BT toxin is short for a bacteria that I cannot pronounce called I think something like bacillus thorengeunsus. Can you pronounce it?

Henry Miller: Thorengensus--Bacillus Thorengensus. Very good. Very, very good.

Peter Robinson: Thank you. This is a bacterium that produces a toxin that is deadly to a large number of insects. The gene from the bacterium gets spliced into the crop and voila, you have corn that when insects try to eat it, they sputter away and die. Sounds terrific. The nightmare scenario--and this stuff is not just in the laboratory. As of 1998 according to figures I found, about 20 million acres of such crops are being grown. And here's what could go wrong. BT crops--listen to this one, Henry, because this one is scary, to me this one is scary. You have to work to put my mind at ease on this. BT crops interbreed with wild relatives. Crops to which they are closely related. Now certain kinds of plants in the wild are deadly to insects and you get insects eating fewer of these deadly plants and more of other kinds of plants in the wild and you get the entire ecological balance upset so that certain kinds of insects thrive while others die. Certain kinds of plants thrive while others die, it works its way up the food chain. Certain birds are at disadvantage, certain mammals and so on. And this turns out to be as big an ecological disaster as introducing wild boars to Hawaii or the kudsu] plant in Florida. And it's a big world, Henry. You look so skeptical. Tell us why that doesn't worry you.

Walter Anderson: It does worry me. It doesn't worry me--

Peter Robinson: See? He's a fellow scientist too. Okay.

Walter Anderson: …exactly the way you described. In order for out-costing to happen to wild relatives, it has to be a relative. In other words you have to be growing corn in a place where you've got some kind of wild corn growing. But what I think could very conceivably happen even without that, just by the heavy use of BT of plants, say in the United States and Canada, is that you can eventually breed BT resistant insects. And it's more analogous to what we've seen happen with any biotic resistant bacteria. And in order for that not to happen, it takes some very good and responsible management on the part of the people who are using BT toxin modified crop plants. If that's done responsibly, we shouldn't have a problem. If it's not done responsibly, we very likely will at some point, I think, end up with BT resistant insects.

Peter Robinson: But you're confident that the technology can then hopscotch along to another--we can keep ahead of the insects?

Henry Miller: Well, of course we can. In fact BT toxin is not a single toxin. There are a number of them. So if, again in your worst case scenario, insects become resistant to one, you can move on to others of the same type. It's important to remember here that as in many aspects of these biotech controversies, that new biotech gene splicing is just an extension or refinement of the ways that we've done things in the past. So with BT for example, the actual bacteria have been on the shelves of garden supply stores and hardware stores for a very long time.

Peter Robinson: And in those days how were they used? They were sprinkled, powdered?

Henry Miller: They're sprayed on--

Walter Anderson: They're the favorite of organic agriculture now. And that's one of the reasons the organic farmers are worried about it, because they do use the BT and they're afraid of the impact on their kind of agriculture if it becomes ineffective.

Peter Robinson: And what is the impact that they fear? That suddenly--

Walter Anderson: That it will no longer work.

Peter Robinson: Oh I see. I see.

Peggy Lemaux: They will not have that tool to use.

Peter Robinson: So if you get the BT resistant insect, the organic farmers have a new problem.

Walter Anderson: Exactly.

Henry Miller: But once again the question of resistance exists when you use BT, the bacteria, in a conventional way as well. But ultimately, ultimately, the worst case scenario is not the rather extreme, very extreme one that you described. It's simply that you have to move on to other modalities.

Peter Robinson: Our guests may be confident about all this stuff but they're scientists. How do they deal with the political power of a skeptical public?

Here we have the public agitated on a subject that you as a scientist find not remotely agitating. However, you operate in a democracy. What mechanisms do you set up? Are mechanisms needed? Will the market take care of itself? How do you reassure the public, when the public has just no chance of grasping the scientific intricacies of this. Do you have an answer to that?

Henry Miller: We have representative democracies. These are not democracies in a townhall sort of setting. The public makes these individually case by case. There's an interesting analog in the 1950's, something called a new math came along. And a lot of parents were very disturbed because they couldn't do their kid's Algebra homework any longer and their discomfiture became manifest in State Legislatures. And so a number of State Legislatures actually pass laws that define the number pi, the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle, as 3.0. And of course, it's not, it's an irrational number 3.14159 and so on--

Peter Robinson: --keep going.

Henry Miller: And so what we see is that the democratic processes are not always fully applicable to technological issues and questions.

Peter Robinson: Are you suggesting a priesthood of scientists?

Henry Miller: I'm suggesting the need for rational information and rational decision making in public policy.

Peter Robinson: Walter?

Walter Anderson: We're really looking at two things. We're looking at a huge scientific technological revolution of which the one we're talking about today is only a part.

Peter Robinson: These little scenarios are just the beginning. We're looking at a genetic manipulation of foods and other substances as just--

Walter Anderson: We're looking at a revolution in medicine, a revolution in agriculture, a revolution in many areas of industry, even in environmental protecting. We probably only see the beginning of it and there is no chance that it's going to go away. At the same time, we're looking at what a friend of mine, political scientist James Rosenham calls skill revolution. Which is just simply that more people know how to get themselves involved in public issues. For better, for worse, whether you like them or not, or what they do. They know how to get on the web. They know how to get on the media. They know how to make themselves visible, so you simply get more hands on the wheels when policy decisions are being made. That revolution is not about to go away either. So what we're going to have to look at is a climate of continuing scientific and technological innovation. One revolutionary after another and a very high level of public involvement that simply is not going to shut up and wait for the scientist, which means that guys like you are going to have to be prepared to be intensely involved in public dialogue. Often with people whose ways of doings things you don't like at all. But that's simply going to be part of the picture for as long as we're going to be around.

Henry Miller: But I think that what we're in danger of is if public policy provides too much regulation as I've argued that it does now, that we're going to convert this into a boutique technology. And so the only products that will be developed will be those that are so high value added that they can overcome excess inflated costs of development.

Peter Robinson: What would be a high value added product that wouldn't just make it through a heavy regulatory environment?

Henry Miller: A non-fattening cream puff--

Peggy Lemaux: How about a hypo-allergenic food.

Henry Miller: --Or a hypo-allergenic food. Hypo-allergenic peanut, so that people who are allergic to peanuts or Brazil nuts will be able to eat them.

Peter Robinson: The doctors could even end up writing prescriptions for these different kinds of foods.

Henry Miller: That kind of product is of no use to the third world at all. And so I think none of us wants that to occur. To have this become a boutique technology whose advantages don't filter down to those who really need it.

Peter Robinson: Do genetically modified crops really help the farmer who grows them or just fatten the profits of the huge agri-business corporations that sell them?

I give you seeds. But I, Monsanto own property rights to the genes on those seeds, so I make you sign a license stating the herbicides you'll use in raising those crops. It happens that you'll also buy the herbicides from me. And also stating that you won't use any of those seeds for replanting for the next harvest. And of course one of the arguments here is that the seed savings. Saving a few seeds to replant the next harvest, the age old practice, has been a source of considerable bio-diversity that you get tens of thousands of little experiments taking place every year as farmers try their own cross breeding and so forth. You'll lose that source of innovation, concentrating all the innovation and the huge agri-business concerns and they'll have to be huge because they need huge research budgets to develop these new plans. And the relationship will be one of huge agri-business reducing the farmers to the status of bio-serfs, who provide nothing but land and labor. Worried?

Peggy Lemaux: I do think that the introduction of the corporate entity into farming and the development of these crops through large corporations is going to change the farming landscape. I think there is no question about that. However, farmers still have choices. They do not have to use these and in many cases I think it will turn out that a particular genetically engineered crop won't perform the way it's supposed to and it will die its death--

Peter Robinson: Tell me about flavor-savor tomatoes.

Peggy Lemaux: Flavor-savor tomatoes came on the market several years ago--

Peter Robinson: --genetically modified.

Peggy Lemaux: That's correct. They were enhanced to last longer in the marketplace so they didn't rot so quickly and also to have increased flavor. They were to be more like the homegrown tomato--

Peter Robinson: And the public loved them?

Peggy Lemaux: It depends on who you listened to.

Peter Robinson: Are they still available?

Peggy Lemaux: They are not.

Peter Robinson: But it wasn't a safety problem?

Peggy Lemaux: It was not a bio-safety problem.

Peter Robinson: It just didn't sell well enough.

Peggy Lemaux: They didn't sell well enough from the marketing--just wasn't done right from the beginning.

Peter Robinson: So you're not concerned about a loss to the extent that we still have family farms. You're not concerned about a loss of family farms, a concentration of corporate power.

Peggy Lemaux: I think family farms have been dying for decades. Biotech is only one very small part of that. The family farm is dying for other reasons.

Peter Robinson: So it just doesn't bother you, really. Walter.

Walter Anderson: The future of agriculture is going to change. It has always changed. But I think it's going to continue to be pretty diversified for a long time to come. You're still going to see subsistence farming. You'll see family farms in some areas. You'll see organic farming. You'll see biotech, agri-biz, high tech farming--

Peter Robinson: And don't worry about it by and large, right?

Henry Miller: There's one underlying misapprehension in many of your questions. And that's that new biotech is somehow a paradigm shift. That it's somehow fundamentally different from anything we done before.

Peter Robinson: Walter just called it a revolution.

Henry Miller: These are simply new, more precise and more predictable tools. More powerful too to be sure, but fundamentally with the same goals that we've had for a very long time. And--

Peter Robinson: Let's move to labeling. Don't consumers have the right to know if they're buying genetically modifying foods?

Last summer 500,000 people signed a petition circulated by a group in this country called Mother's for Natural Law calling for mandatory labeling. We already put the calorie count, the fat grams, all of that on the side of a bottle of catsup. Why don't we just also say if it's made from flavor-savor tomato?

Henry Miller: There's no scientific rationale for it, you lose the economies of scale. You have to, in order for your labels to be accurate, you'd have to sequester the tomatoes or the cabbages or whatever, from the time that the seeds are put into the ground through cultivating, through harvesting, through processing--

Peter Robinson: Not my label. All my label says is "this bottle of catsup made with genetically modified tomatoes."

Henry Miller: But they're pooled when they go into--

Peter Robinson: If there's a couple of genetically modified tomatoes in the pool, the label goes on. I can make these rules very simple, Henry, it doesn't sound that complicated. But you still oppose it? Peggy.

Peggy Lemaux: If you say it's genetically modified, I would predict in another year, every single food in the marketplace will have that label. Unless a--

Peter Robinson: You really face it--we have the Kirin Brewery Company in Japan saying no way, we're not using genetically modified--we have company after company announcing they're going to stay away from genetically modified foods.

Peggy Lemaux: Right. Then let there grow up an industry that provides those foods for the people who want them. Because at least in the United States--

Peter Robinson: Sort of like organic farming now, it'll be a specialized market. People who don't trust them, no reason the market shouldn't cater to them, irrational with their mistrust--

Henry Miller: It's a niche market. It's gone without government involvement.

Peter Robinson: Walter?

Walter Anderson: I don't think it tells people anything of value. I think if you say this protein is in this food, that's important. I think if you tell somebody who doesn't understand the process, that this process was used, I don't think you provided a service.

Peter Robinson: The three of you have been unanimous on two points now. One is telling Prince Charles to get his nose out of it and the second is that there really is no need or that at least it would be unworkable this question of mandatory labeling. Let me try you now, we'll round up the show with a prediction.

This past summer, Gerber announced that it would stop using genetically modified corn and soy product in its baby food. A company executive said quote, "I want our mothers to be comfortable." You want our mothers to be well informed but you're not in the business of trying to make money for your shareholders selling baby food. He wants them to be comfortable buying the product. Three years from now, will Gerber be back to using genetically modified foods, or will other companies have joined Gerber in announcing that they will shun these products. Walter, three years from now.

Walter Anderson: Three years from now the issue will still be alive. Twenty years from now it probably will have blown over completely. Henry briefly referred to the issue about vaccination in the 19th century. There was a huge mobilization against vaccination. There were anti-vaccination leagues. I have a wonderful drawing from the period of somebody showing little cows coming out of a person’s skin because they've been vaccinated with cow pox vaccine. Prince Charles would have been right out in front of the anti-vaccination league. Eventually it went away.

Peter Robinson: The public will just get over this. Peggy, three years from now, Gerber will be using the stuff again or other companies will be joining the ban?

Peggy Lemaux: I think that if the demand is there. If the demand continues or the rage continues, whatever, that a market will grow up and there will be specialty baby foods that people can buy--

Peter Robinson: --leave it to the marketplace.

Peggy Lemaux: --which is what I think Gerber should have done anyway. I think they should have created a separate market for those people who are concerned and leave the rest as it is.

Peter Robinson: Henry ? Three years from now and Gerber.

Henry Miller: I think three years from now Gerber will be offering at least a A-line that has genetically engineered corn and let me tell you why. Because the reality is by moving from the genes place BT corn to organic which is what Gerber said it would do, is you would create all sort of problems. Organic products such as corn have an eight times higher rate of food poisoning from e coli, 01157 than non-organic. You have higher levels of insect parts using organic corn--

Peter Robinson: You're pretty good at scare tactics yourself--

Henry Miller: --there's a subtle but you haven't heard anything yet. And so what mothers are going to get is baby food made from corn that has higher levels of the toxin, high levels of insect parts and the greater likelihood of food poisoning.

Peter Robinson: Henry, Peggy and Walter, thank you very much. Flavor-savor tomatoes may not have worked, but our guests all agree there are more and more genetically modified foods coming our way. How do you like them tomatoes?

I'm Peter Robinson thanks for joining us.

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