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For the week of Nov. 10, 1999 through Nov. 16, 1999

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 dimensions…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’ technology."

Strohman’s 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 general public.

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 Union’s 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. government’s intentions.

The implications for the democratic process, for democracy itself, for freedom of choice and for the individual consumer’s ability to make informed decisions about what foods to put into one’s self and one’s 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 being grown.

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 won’t 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.


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