The Rest Of The Story
Behind Genetic Engineering
An interview with Brian Tokar
By Mark Oshinskie
The Edmonds Institute is an organization that studies the social and environmental effects of technology, particularly genetic technologies. At its recent annual board meeting in Seattle, I had the chance to talk with one of the Institute's board members, Brian Tokar, who has just finished his third book, Redesigning Life?, which was published in February 2001. Brian is a long-time environmental and social activist, has degrees in biology and biophysics, and has written two prior books, The Green Alternative and Earth for Sale. Tokar lives in rural Vermont, where he teaches at the Institute for Social Ecology and Goddard College, and keeps an organic garden.
MARK OSHINSKIE: What spurred you to write this book and what is it all about?
BRIAN TOKAR: I’ve been working for a number of years on the problems of biotechnology and genetic engineering (GE) and it’s been clear to me that there are many scientific, social, economic, and political issues connected with these technologies, issues that many people were having a hard time sorting out. There was no comprehensive overview of the full range of implications of biotechnology. Rather than attempting a thorough overview myself, I thought it would be more useful to find some of the most articulate people on each specific topic and ask them to write about their areas of greatest expertise. Overall, there are 32 chapters, written by 26 different authors, including me. In the first section, for example, we examine industry claims regarding genetically engineered foods, particularly the false claim that these technologies are the solution to hunger in the world. We examine the wide range of health and environmental consequences of genetically engineered products currently on the market.
Many people know of genetic engineering but don’t know how it’s done. Can you briefly explain this?
Genetic engineering involves the artificial transfer of genetic material, or DNA, usually between unrelated species of plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, and humans. The two most common methods for gene transfer are biological and electromechanical. Early experiments all involved changing DNA using bacterial vectors. Many bacteria have part of their genome located on “plasmids,” which are small loops of DNA outside their main chromosomes. These plasmids were first used as means of transferring DNA. Later, to get foreign genes into plant cells, scientists started using bacteria that infect plant cells. In mammalian cells, they often used genetically engineered viruses; in some of the most publicized experiments, modified cold viruses are used. More recently, the move has been away from biological vectors, which place some constraints on gene transfer, and toward the use of a “gene gun” which shoots high speed projectiles of gold or tungsten that are coated with the DNA fragments of choice. By their very character, these technologies create inherent uncertainties. These uncertainties are at the heart of the wide range of health and environmental problems that have been discovered. When you use these technologies, you have no idea where the foreign DNA is going to land if it’s taken up by the DNA of the recipient cells. You also have no idea how it will interact with regulatory genes, as well as the genes that code for various proteins.
The success rate for all application of genetic engineering is vanishingly small. That’s why they use antibiotic resistance genes as markers to see if the intended transfer occurred. So, along with genes they seek to insert, they’re injecting genes for antibiotic resistance. Those cells that didn’t take up the foreign DNA won’t survive antibiotic treatment. Additionally, they’re injecting promoter sequences, usually from viruses, that facilitate the disabling of genetic regulation in the host organism and, therefore, facilitate the invasion of the host cells DNA by foreign DNA.
What do you tell people who say these technologies are no different than old fashioned field-crossing?
I tell them that the analogy between genetic engineering and field crossing is a false one, and a deliberate misrepresentation of what’s inherently unique about this technology. For example, natural breeding only occurs with a species or across species—in the case of some plants—that have very close evolutionary histories. Genetic engineering completely overrides these natural constraints. But a subtler and more significant difference is that in the natural world, genes aren’t randomly inserted into a new location in the genome, as they are in genetic engineering. Genetic fragments that share the same location on the chromosomes, but may have very different properties, can be exchanged. Such genetic crosses are governed by complex genetic and biochemical controls. The various molecular checks and balances that exist to facilitate a gene’s proper expression aren’t overridden by traditional breeding. In contrast, they are overridden by genetic engineering. That’s why you get some of the bizarre effects that have been reported, such as the silencing of genes that have been genetically modified. For example, researchers tried to make petunias twice as colorful by doubling the pigment gene. They ended up producing some plants with no pigment at all. No one knows how it works but it clearly has to do with overriding the processes that regulate gene expression. There are many such examples. There were early attempts to get pigs to express human growth hormone, in the hope of raising pigs with leaner meat. Instead scientists found themselves with experimental pigs whose whole metabolism and organ development was so distorted that they could barely stand up, were cross-eyed, and couldn’t live normal lives, even though the only change intended was to add the one gene that coded for human growth hormone.
Are the low success rates just a function of lack of experience? Will genetic engineers get better with more practice?
Possibly, but it’s important to understand that these failures are a function of the inherent limitations of genetic engineering and a reflection of the fact that in order for complex organisms to grow and function properly, they’ve developed an incredible array of genetic controls. For example, there are specific mechanisms to prevent invasions by foreign DNA. It is as if, on the genetic level, there is a counterpart of the immune system. Instead of acting as an immune system, these systems act to keep DNA intact. Genetic engineering has to override the regulatory processes at the cellular level in order to produce its intended effects.
Should we expect to see this industry fail over time because it is inherently, biologically untenable?
Well, it might. They’ve had a very hard time getting genetically modified organisms to successfully express more than one or two traits, even though they’ve been working on it for years. Further, the vast majority of genetically influenced traits are not the product of a single gene. You learn in introductory biology that DNA is translated into RNA and then into protein. There’s supposed to be a simple linear relationship. But in most complex organisms it often takes many genes acting together to allow a certain quality to be expressed. At the same time, a single gene may affect numerous cellular processes. So, it’s many to one, and one to many. With those kinds of traits we haven’t seen even the beginning of success. This industry has had billions of dollars of venture capital pumped into it, and the research is very narrowly driven by the imperative of product development. Virtually all the effort is going into identifying qualities that can be turned into commercial products. We’ve had numerous developments that the industry considers successes even though we’ve shown that the negative consequences far outweigh the benefits. While there appear to be inherent limitations, we have to remain vigilant to keep an eye on where the industry is heading, so we can anticipate what the next generation of political and social battles around these products will be. For example, it looks like the next generation of products might be using animals and plants as “bio-reactors” to produce pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. Of course, it remains to be seen if this can be done properly.
In what ways are genetically engineered foods in U.S. markets modified?
Basically, genetic engineers have focused on three plant characteristics. First, they attempt to make crops tolerant to herbicides so fields can be sprayed with weed killers and only genetically engineered plants can grow. Of course, it turns out to be much more complicated than that. Farmers often end up having to use more chemicals than before. Second, crops have been engineered to produce a bacterial pesticide toxic to specific types of field pests. The problems associated with this approach would take too long to discuss here but pests can develop resistance to these pesticides. They can harm beneficial insects like ladybugs, honeybees, and monarch butterflies. The third area is viral resistance. Of course, a plant that develops viral resistance may lead to a natural backlash through the development of newer viruses that can surmount the genetically engineered resistance. Research on genetic engineering in every case confirms what opponents have been saying all along about the likely negative ecological consequences. But the problem is that it is taking a long time for research on the negative consequences to catch up with 15-20 years of research that has been rather narrowly focused on the development of products. Corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola are the main genetically engineered crops. Over 60 percent of processed foods have one or more of these products as ingredients. So, to get these products out of our food supply is an ongoing battle.
What health effects are likely to be caused by the use of agricultural and human applications of genetic technologies?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, not because there aren’t any likely effects, but because the research on these effects has not begun to catch up with 20 years of corporate research aimed squarely at developing new products. We do know that the likelihood of unexpected allergic reactions and increased levels of toxins in food is very high. Millions of dollars of genetically engineered corn were recently pulled off the market—remember the taco shell controversy?—because a particular toxin gene spliced in from bacteria makes a protein that was seen as likely to cause allergies in humans. Even the generally industry-friendly scientists at the EPA agreed that there was a problem.
There’s also a problem with antibiotic resistance. Since the success rates of experiments in genetic engineering are so minuscule, they have to use a so-called “marker gene” to see which cells actually took up the foreign DNA. These markers are usually antibiotic resistance genes—so that cells with no foreign DNA are killed by antibiotic treatment. The British Medical Association declared in 1999 that this practice should cease immediately, because antibiotic resistance could be passed on to pathogens in our digestive tract. But it hasn’t ceased at all.
Another important thing that happened in 1999 was that a series of surprising experiments were released in Britain—experiments that the industry had spent six months trying to suppress. They showed that laboratory rats that were fed genetically engineered potatoes had severe problems with their digestive tracts, immune responses, and the development of nearly all their vital organs. Their brains, hearts, livers, spleens, etc. were all significantly reduced in size, and many of the endocrine glands were enlarged. Some of this data was published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, but the lead scientist was fired and the research was never finished. The suggestion is that much more extreme health effects are possible, but the industry has a huge vested interest in seeing to it that we don’t ever know for sure.
What kind of economic and social impacts might we expect from these technologies?
It’s important to point out that the data on environmental impacts are much clearer than for human health effects. We know that genetically engineered crops can be lethal to beneficial organisms in the environment. We know that other crops and related wild plants can suffer genetic contamination through cross-pollination, that we may have “superbugs” and “superweeds” due to unpredictable patterns of gene escape. We also know that genetically engineered Bt toxin leaches into soil and is stable for eight months or more, where it can have serious effects on the microbes that sustain soil fertility, etc. The next generation of genetically engineered crops, many of which are designed as small “factories” or “bio-reactors” to produce drugs and industrial chemicals, could have even more serious effects. Biotechnology has been a vehicle for unprecedented concentration of corporate power over our food and our health.
This industry would love for farmers to become as beholden to the large processors and distributors as, say, companies that make auto parts for Ford and GM. The larger company completely controls the supply, the price, and the specifications, and the subcontractors simply follow the requirements of their contracts, buy the right chemicals, and apply them according to a fixed schedule. That’s where many industry analysts say things are heading, and the corporate concentration that both supports and is supported by the development of genetic engineering is what could make this possible.
In other parts of the world, people are protesting the loss of their ability to save seeds due to technologies such as the Terminator seed, which is still in the biotech pipeline. Gene “prospectors” from Northern universities and corporations have been searching the globe for interesting plants and even human genes that they can patent and use for their own purposes. The biotech company’s profit, and people whose ancestors first developed a plant variety or processing method may find that some foreign patent suddenly appropriates their traditional practices. This has happened with neem products and basmati rice from India, and they even tried to get a patent on the ayahuasca hallucinogenic cactus from South America. Human genes are being patented too, and it’s clear that all the mainstream media are wildly exaggerating the claimed medical benefits from this kind of research.
Aren’t vitamin A yellow rice and bananas that are supposed to deliver vaccines examples of positive uses of GE?
The whole “golden” rice phenomenon is largely driven by the biotech industry’s public relations needs. Activists in the South have presented evidence of the fraudulence of the claim that genetically engineered foods will solve problems of hunger. People in the Third World have been in the forefront of resistance to genetic engineering from the beginning. Scientists in India and elsewhere insist that we’ve got to get away from the notion that poor people should derive all of their nutrition from one food. There’s vitamin A in many foods: leafy greens, squashes, and mangoes, all of which will grow in many areas of the Third World. The answer to the vitamin A problem and to hunger generally is to help people regain access to land to grow their own food, something that’s been stolen by corporate agriculture. Failing that, in an emergency, vitamin A supplements are available for literally pennies per year.
Regarding the banana vaccine, we have no idea whether this idea will work. If you use food to get a vaccine, how do you control dosage? Further, as a crop, what will happen where there are other varieties of bananas or other species that can cross-pollinate and accidentally produce the vaccine protein? Who knows what effect this might have on the metabolism and growth of that plant, or on people who consume these unintended vaccine-producing crops?
To what extent have protests against rBGH (genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone) or other genetically modified foods been successful?
From everything we can tell, rBGH is not being used widely by U.S. dairy farmers partly because of opposition and partly because there is a tremendous array of health problems in cows injected with the drug. American farmers who grow crops such as corn and soybeans are beginning to question the use of genetically engineered crops as well. In 2000, for the first time, we’ve seen genetically engineered corn being grown on significantly fewer acres of corn than the year before. That’s the first time the acreage of a genetically engineered version of a crop has decreased from one year to the next. Given the lack of markets, the inability of agribusiness to force Genetic engineering down the throats of Europeans, and the recent recall of taco shells made from corn with a pesticide tolerance gene that was not even approved by EPA for human consumption, farmers will become even more reluctant to grow genetically engineered crops. Potatoes are another example of the rejection of genetically engineered foods. Potatoes designed to combat pests were one of the first genetically engineered foods, but the damaging effects to beneficial insects are such that the use of genetically engineered potatoes has dropped off significantly. Major consumers from McDonald’s to a huge Canadian company called McCain’s have told farmers that they just don’t want genetically engineered potatoes.
Why isn’t opposition to genetically engineered foods in the U.S. as vigorous as in other countries?
Thomas Schweiger, who worked for Greenpeace in Europe, has a chapter in the book where he addresses this question. He outlines eight or nine reasons why Europeans are more concerned than people in the U.S.
First, the industry has succeeded in keeping this issue out of the media here. In the summer of 1999, only one-third of the people surveyed in U.S. supermarkets knew that there were genetically engineered products currently in our food supply. People just don’t know what’s going on. It has to do with corporate control of the media. Food and science writers have been intensely lobbied to keep genetic engineering out of the public eye. There are also significant differences in attitudes about food in general here in the U.S. Americans have become used to the idea of food as an industrial product. Food is an area where new products come along that have new and interesting properties that people are interested in and want to check out. So, in a manner of speaking, people’s resistance is down.
Besides, in Europe, mad cow disease, dioxin contaminated chicken feed, and other recent scandals have made it clear to people that those who regulate the food system can’t be trusted to ensure a safe food supply. We have had many such cases here, but people seem to have a short memory. Yet, despite all this, the U.S. perspective on genetically engineered foods is beginning to change.