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Vol.12, Nos.1-2   February 2002

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 Technology—Challenges and Progress
Humans have directed crop breeding throughout civilization, beginning some 10,000 years ago when grass species were fused to create a useful variety of wheat. Daphne Preuss (University of Chicago) noted that nothing in the produce department of a grocery store today remotely resembles its wild relative.

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.

Antibiotic resistance
A controversial aspect of GM technology is the use of antibiotic-resistance genes as markers to help locate cells in which gene transfer was successful. The concern is that such genes may be transferred to intestinal bacteria in humans, but there is little evidence of this occurrence. Advances are being made to eliminate the use of these genes.

Another often-cited area of concern is the chance that genetic technologies may trigger allergies, either by introducing or creating new allergenic proteins in foods.

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).

Goldburg also described how a GM food might pose a risk to the environment, giving the example of transgenic salmon that probably will be the first GM animal food to come to market. These animals carry a growth-hormone gene from a different salmon species that enables them to grow faster and larger than wild-type salmon. The concern is that they will escape from their pools into the wild, interbreed with other salmon, and outcompete them for resources. Unanticipated effects may harm other organisms as well.

Research on gene function will provide a better understanding of the effects of particular genes and their products. Preuss said such a project is under way for the genome of the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana, the common mustard weed; much knowledge gained from the project will be applicable to other plants. She suggested that by 2010 there would be many improvements in biotech foods, including the elimination of food allergens; rotating use of many biological pesticides to avoid resistance; construction of artificial chromosomes; and control of cross-pollination problems.

GM Microbes
On the microbial level, Ken Nealson (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and Ananda Chakrabarty (University of Illinois) discussed some scientific uncertainties regarding the use and environmental impact of GM bacteria to perform such tasks as cleaning up toxic spills, generating cleaner fuels, and sequestering excess carbon. How can risk for releasing GM organisms be assessed when scientists don’t know what 99.9% of the microbes present in a community are, not to mention the results of their interactions? Although science is beginning to be data rich from microbial genome sequencing projects, it remains knowledge poor in the ways these communities work. However, Nealson pointed out, the technology is there to find out and efforts are being made.

Feeding the World
One of the most critical problems facing the majority of the worlds population is food security. In 2000, the global population exceeded 6 billion and is expected to reach some 9 billion by 2050, when about 90% of the population will live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Most arable land already is in use, and producers need access to technological advances and the ability to apply them. GM plants and animals offer great promise for meeting these needs and achieving sustainable agriculture.

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
Peter Lillford (Unilever Corporation) expressed concern that control of GM technologies may be concentrated in the hands of a few players in the West. Large corporations could monopolize knowledge, access, and research to skew markets and cater to rich nations interested more in obesity than malnutrition. He stressed the importance of international laws to ensure that benefits are shared with the developing world, where food shortages and nutritional deficiencies remain a daunting problem.

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 world’s 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, HGMIS

The electronic form of the newsletter may be cited in the following style:
Human Genome Program, U.S. Department of Energy, Human Genome News (v12n1-2).

Human Genome Project 1990–2003

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.

Human Genome News

Published from 1989 until 2002, this newsletter facilitated HGP communication, helped prevent duplication of research effort, and informed persons interested in genome research.