Mad scientists, large corporations and Frankenfoods
Commentary by DICK DORWORTH
"Genetic engineering" poses as a nice, sober, descriptive
phrase, conjuring up images of solid earthquake proof high-rise buildings, well-built
automobiles, elegant bridges, indestructible freeways and rockets to Mars. Good
engineering consists of taking inanimate materials and putting them together with
intelligence and precision to make something useful.
A well engineered item is stable, orderly, planned and, most important,
predictable. Using the tools of linear thought, engineering designs and manufacturers
functional products for the benefit of mankind, usually for sale in the marketplace.
Engineering is a good thing.
Inanimate objects are the raw materials of engineering.
Genetic material is something else, or, more accurately, genetic
material is something else entirely. A single gene of any plant, human, fish or fly
is infinitely more complex in relationship to its environment than the most intricately
engineered machine man could ever assemble.
"Genetic engineering" is a disingenuous misnomer obscuring a
wildly dangerous practice with unpredictable consequences for life on earth. Genetic
engineering is the secret laboratory experimentation of mad scientists, usually employed
by large corporations or large universities which, in turn, depend on the largess of those
same large corporations for large amounts of research money. It is more accurately termed
"genetic experimentation", for no one can predict the consequences of mixing the
genes of wildly divergent forms of life, like the current practice of inserting flounder
genes into strawberries to help the berries endure cold. People who do not eat fish cannot
now eat any but organic strawberries with confidence.
A gene contains the basic dynamic force of life. It is not the material
of engineering and cannot be "engineered" any more than life can be created in a
laboratory. But it can be perverted.
Richard Strohman, emeritus professor of molecular and cell biology at
the University of California at Berkeley, is writing a book on the growing crises in
theoretical biology. He has written: "
in the science of molecular genetics the
fundamental assumptions about specific genes and their specific "causal" effects
on organisms are deeply flawed
there is now every reason to believe that it will not
be possible to carry out genetic engineering (transfer of specific genes to a host cell)
in the hope of achieving a specific effect.
"The normal complex interactions between genes and molecules in
cells will be distorted by the presence of even a single transferred gene yielding
unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous results of unknown
Therefore, biogenetic engineering of humans and of plants where
unanticipated results could cause damage to individuals or to millions of acres of
cropland will have to cease except under tightly controlled laboratory conditions and
until the time when the complexities are understood and the dangers eliminated. Controls
here would include concerns of ethical, legal and social dimensions. These concerns must
reflect the ethics of the unknown of the incompleteness of the science being
applied, and not just the ethical concerns growing out of a successful
Strohmans ethical, legal and social concerns have been and are
being ignored by such giant corporations as Monsanto, a leader in "genetically
modified" crops which are grown from patented seed only recently introduced to the
marketplace with little publicity.
In 1995, for instance, no genetically altered crops were grown in the
U.S. By 1999, 25.8 million acres of corn and 40 million acres of soybeans were planted
with genetically altered seed, and that information has only recently seeped out to the
Critics call such crops "Frankenfoods."
Consumer distrust of Frankenfoods is growing, especially since the
widely reported discovery a few months ago that pollen from corn genetically engineered to
produce an insecticide could kill monarch butterflies. It is at present unknown (because
undiscovered) what else it could kill or what other unforeseen consequences it might have.
As public awareness of Frankenfoods has grown in the U.S., so has
scientific concern, consumer distrust and protest taking several forms, including consumer
boycotts and a few midnight guerrilla raids to destroy genetically altered crops in the
field before they can get to market. Though more than 40 genetically modified crops have
been approved by U.S. regulators as safe to eat and environmentally friendly, foreign
buyers are joining the European Unions rejection of them. The U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, bowing to pressure from large corporations like Monsanto, has resisted
consumer calls to even label foods that have been genetically "modified." This
is being done not to protect the individual consumer, but, rather, to protect the large
research investment of large corporations. Just last year the U.S. Department of
Agriculture tried to pass new regulations that would have redefined organic foods to
include genetically engineered ones. (FDA-approved genetically engineered organic
foods???) Fortunately, it did not pass, but it is indicative of the corporate food
industry and the U.S. governments intentions.
The implications for the democratic process, for democracy itself, for
freedom of choice and for the individual consumers ability to make informed
decisions about what foods to put into ones self and ones family are obvious.
The companies selling genetically engineered seed to farmers guard the names of the
farmers who buy it, so it is difficult to discover where genetically engineered crops are
In Europe there is a consumer demand for non-genetically engineered
products. This demand is growing in the U.S. Anyone who is concerned about the long-term
effects of Frankenfoods in the environment, and who wishes to eat non-genetically
engineered foods, should ask the manager of his local grocery store whether the food being
sold in that store is genetically altered or not. The manager wont know, but if
enough people ask it will register as a concern. If the manager is doing his or her job,
that concern will get passed along. If enough people insist on knowing what they are
eating, the FDA will be forced to do its job of protecting and informing the citizens of
this nation and at least label genetically engineered foods.
Anything less is not acceptable in a democracy.