Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program
Human Genome News Archive Edition
Vol.12, Nos.1-2 February 2002
In the News
Special Meeting Report
Web, Publications, Resources
Meeting Calendars & Acronyms
Debate Over GM Products and Technologies
Safety, Food Security, and a Looming Genomic Divide
At the Courts First International Conversation on EnviroGenetics Disputes and Issues, held in Hawaii in July 2001, scientists and judges discussed technical and societal issues surrounding the genetic modification (GM) of plants and other organisms (for an overview of the meeting, see Genes, Justice, and Human Rights).
GM technologies offer dramatic promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge in the 21st century (see What are Genetically Modified (GM) Organisms and Foods?). As with all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Although scientific consensus is not always clear, the worlds courts increasingly will be called upon to evaluate disputes involving these technologies.
The most controversial issues fueling worldwide debate on GM products focus on human and environmental safety, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights (patenting), ethics, food security, poverty reduction, and environmental conservation.
GM TechnologyChallenges and Progress
Many current products were created using fry-and-try methods that induce multiple mutations via mass irradiation to produce plants and microbes with special characteristics. Todd Klaenhammer (North Carolina State Unversity) explained that the new genomic technologies are, by contrast, more direct: they often minimize secondary effects and introduce only one or a few gene alterations at a time. Issues that need addressing, he continued, include more precise targeting of genes, cross-pollination by GM organisms in the wild, effects on biodiversity and ecology, and labeling.
Scientists participating in the meeting presented different viewpoints on current methodologies to evaluate the human and environmental risks of GM products and talked about the need for strengthening protective regulations.
In the widely publicized StarLink corn case, the GM corn produced a protein that was not approved for human use because of its possible allergenicity as determined by standard tests. Controversy arose when GM corn was inadvertently mixed with non-GM corn and ended up in several human food products such as taco shells. Some people claimed adverse reactions to the products, but a subsequent investigation in which standard tests were used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (at the request of the Food and Drug Administration) found no evidence of hypersensitivity to the protein.
The science community continues to debate whether GM foods are being tested adequately for these substances. Rebecca Goldburg (Environmental Defense Council) referred to a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences that priority be given to improving tests to identify potential allergens. Goldburg was a member of a consortium between the United States and the European Union that delivered a consensus on the benefits and risks of biotechnology (www.useu.be/issues/biotreport2000.htm; link no longer works).
Feeding the World
In a sense, China is both a rich and poor country, said Huanming Yang (Beijing Genome Institute), member of the Chinese group that participated in the draft sequencing of the human genome. While acknowledging the needs of his countrys huge population, he also talked about a thriving scientific community and ongoing rice genome project. New genome centers are developing GM foods, and an international research collaboration on the pig genome is being conducted with Denmark. The goal in the pig project is to create less aggressive and more disease-resistant animals better adapted to the close confines of industrialized farming.
India is looking to GM technologies to meet the challenge of doubling crop productivity within two decades. Asis Datta (Jawaharlal Nehru University) presented some examples that illustrate the possibilities of responsibly engineering GM foods, which include a potato with enhanced nutrients and increased yield. Datta emphasized the necessity for rigid adherence to stringent safety protocols.
Sharing Benefits with Developing Countries
A United Nations report released in July 2001 essentially agrees, noting that the current debate in Europe and the United States largely ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world (Human Development Report 2001; www.undp.org/). The report compares the current debate with Western efforts to ban the use of the pesticide DDT, which resulted in the explosion of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in some tropical countries.
Inequalities in the means to develop or own technologies can perpetuate societal imbalances. Decio Ripandelli (International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) described the work of the intergovernmental organization, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The center provides developing countries with access to advanced technologies through training and obtaining patents for subsequent work. He noted that for economic and political reasons, most of the world population is represented as member countries in this organization, but most of the rich population is not.
The rights of developing countries to share in new scientific advances were emphasized further by A. S. Daar (University of Toronto), who described related declarations by the World Health Organization; the international Human Genome Organisation; and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Noting that 20% of the worlds population controls 82% of the income, he spoke of the imperative to ensure that technological advances do not increase inequities and create a genomic divide. The existing technology divide, he acknowledged, needs to be remedied first. Technological risks, he said, probably will be borne by developing countries.
A common refrain running through meeting presentations was the importance of educating communities worldwide on key ethical and scientific issues surrounding genomic advances. Only then can there be an informed discourse about the level of acceptable risk for this emerging set of technologies that hold unprecedented promise for the future.
Reported by Denise Casey, HGMISReturn to Top
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The Human Genome Project (HGP) was an international 13-year effort, 1990 to 2003. Primary goals were to discover the complete set of human genes and make them accessible for further biological study, and determine the complete sequence of DNA bases in the human genome. See Timeline for more HGP history.
Published from 1989 until 2002, this newsletter facilitated HGP communication, helped prevent duplication of research effort, and informed persons interested in genome research.