Restore Default

who's afraid of gmo's?
A look at the promise and perils of genetically engineered crops

In fall 2002, the Sacramento-based biotechnology company Ventria Biosciences approached the California Rice Commission (CRC) with a novel idea. Ventria sought to ramp up production of rice genetically engineered to produce human proteins as an antidiarrheal medication, a crop that had previously been grown only in test plots. The request marked one of the first attempts by a company in the United States to use an engineered food crop to produce drugs on a commercial scale—and ushered in the era of “pharma” crops.

Rice is big business in California. It’s a $500 million industry, and the state accounts for 20 percent of rice produced in the U.S.—with 40 percent of that total sent to one market: Japan. Alarmed that genes from pharma rice could cross-pollinate with conventional Japanese strains of rice, Japan balked. The Japanese Rice Retailers Association sent a letter to the CRC stating that, “if the [pharma] rice is actually commercialized in the U.S., we shall strongly request the Japanese government to take necessary measures not to import any California rice to Japan.” Joining the Japanese in seeking to block the commercialization of Ventria’s pharma rice was a disparate collection of environmental and consumer groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Food Safety.

At the same time, biotech supporters came to Ventria’s defense. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, an influential trade association, argued that the potential public health benefits of pharma crops trump any attendant risks, and that the federal government’s regulatory scheme protects the public.

Genetically engineered crops are now grown in 17 countries, on nearly 20 percent of the world's 3.7 billion acres devoted to food crop cultivation.

In March 2004, the CRC advisory board, made up of rice growers and sellers, voted to allow Ventria to grow its pharma rice, but only under certain conditions. For example, the rice had to be sown outside the Sacramento Valley, California’s rice-growing region, and fields needed buffer zones. Even with CRC approval, Ventria needed the go-ahead from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); in April, the CDFA rejected the CRC’s agreement and the USDA rejected Ventria’s application to plant 120 acres of experimental rice. Frustrated with its inability to gain regulatory approval for the pharma rice and concerned about unpopular public sentiment in California, Ventria announced plans in November to move its operations to Missouri.

Ventria’s quest to gain approval for its pharma rice captures much of the intractability of the debate over genetically engineered organisms (or GMOs, for genetically modified organisms—a technical misnomer but commonly used). GMOs engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, kill insects, or resist herbicides hold enormous promise for the future of society. But they also pose a raft of questions: Will consumers in the United States embrace the technology, and will foreign markets accept them? Can growers keep genetically modified (GM) crops from contaminating natural strains? Can consumers be sure the GM crops are safe to eat? Have the purported benefits of GM crops—increased yields, reduced pesticide use, pollution abatement through notill farming—been realized, and do they justify the potential environmental and public health risks?

In the early 1970s, a team of researchers—Paul Berg, Herbert Boyer, and Stanley Cohen—discovered techniques that made possible the direct manipulation of genes. Traditional breeding of species has long involved the laborious crossing of related varieties to finesse favorable outcomes: a more vividly pink rose, a hardier stalk of corn. Now, for the first time, scientists could isolate genes responsible for desirable traits in one organism— say, a toxin in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills cotton bollworms (see “The Promise of GM Crops in Developing Nations,” page 11), and transfer that gene to other organisms—for example, cotton or corn plants. The trio’s work brought forth the era of biotechnology and led to one of the industry’s greatest commercial successes: the advent of genetically modified crops. And their brainchild is booming.

In January 2005, just 11 years after the Flavr Savr tomato was introduced as the first GM crop, the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reported that worldwide plantings of genetically engineered crops rose 20 percent in the previous year, part of an eight-year trend. These crops covered 200 million acres, an area the size of California and Texas combined. Genetically engineered crops are now grown in 17 countries, on nearly 20 percent of the world’s 3.7 billion acres devoted to food crop cultivation. In China, which trails only the U.S. in biotech research funding, half of the country’s farm fields could be growing genetically modified crops in a decade. And, though only a handful of GM crops (corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola) account for the vast majority of acreage planted, several dozen new biotech crops, including raspberries, lettuce, and peanuts, are in development.

Despite this remarkable growth, persistent concerns over the technology’s economic, social, environmental, and public-health impacts cast a continued shadow of controversy over GMOs. And perhaps no place is more emblematic of that clash, or more appropriate as a setting to reflect on the competing claims, than the University of California, Berkeley.

Peggy Lemaux’s office in Koshland Hall is a corn shrine; husks—on posters, embroidery, magnets—adorn all her walls. Having trained with Stan Cohen in the 1980s, Lemaux is now a cereal specialist and one of the three Cooperative Extension specialists in the UC system who work on biotechnology (of the other two, one works in animal biotech, not agriculture). Charged with educating the public and farmers on the gamut of farming practices—traditional and organic as well as GM— Lemaux makes frequent public appearances and runs, a one-stop clearinghouse for biotech information and educational resources.

Though Lemaux eschews debates over genetic engineering and affirms her responsibility, through Cooperative Extension, to “find what the middle ground is,” she says that anti-GM crop groups attempt to paint her and UC Berkeley as firmly “in the pocket of industry.” The source of much of that lingering suspicion over the university’s supposed coziness with the biotech industry stems from the 1998 collaborative agreement struck with the biotech giant Novartis (now named Syngenta). Pursuant to the deal, Novartis provided the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) $25 million over five years. In exchange, Novartis gained access to Berkeley research done by those receiving money and patent rights to discoveries made during the deal, although in the end, none were taken.

Although a July 2004 report on the Novartis deal by the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards at Michigan State University concluded that “the greatest hopes of its supporters and the greatest fears of its detractors have not come to pass,” it also found that the agreement’s funding of an entire academic department was “outside the mainstream for research contracts with industry,” and shouldn’t be repeated.

As Lemaux sees it, the Novartis deal offered a way to supplement declining state and federal funds, with very few strings attached. “The Syngenta relationship was the most benign corporate-academic relationship in which I have been involved. They didn’t interfere with our research agendas at all. We just proposed what we wanted to do and then did it.” To Lemaux, being labeled an “industry lackey” is expected, because it’s an easy way for opponents to dismiss her arguments. “If they don’t say that, then people might believe what I have to say. If I said, ‘Well, actually, I know that the data say that these particular crops are not allergenic, don’t cause disease, and people don’t die from them, then what could they say? They need me to look suspect.”

After a company tests a new GM food product for acute toxicity, Lemaux says, those results should be reviewed by government agencies, as occurs in the pharmaceutical industry. She also feels that new GM food products should be treated just like any other product introduced to the U.S. market. “People say, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re not tested! It’s voluntary.’ But who stands to lose more than the company if they screw up? We don’t know this [long-term health effects] about any food that we eat. How would you test over 10 or 20 years?Who would you test? Should we do this on all the food [GM or not] brought into the U.S.?”

And on GM crops’ environmental benefits, Lemaux is a believer. “In my opinion, looking at the data—and there are people who disagree with this and who claim they have data to refute this—the vast majority of the data is on the side of the GM crops now on the market having spared the environment and improved farmers’ lives, either through less use of pesticides or through increased low- or no-till farming.”

In a spare, sunny office in Hilgard Hall, David Quist is remarkably relaxed for a Ph.D. candidate about to deliver his dissertation. Thrust into the international media spotlight in 2001 when a paper on GM corn contamination of native strains in Mexico, coauthored with UC Berkeley ecologist Ignacio Chapela, was published and then renounced by Nature, Quist has recently been an object of media attention again because of an ongoing dispute over Chapela’s application for tenure.

GMOs engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, kill insects, or resist herbicides hold enormous promise for the future of society. But they also pose a raft of questions.

Though Quist rejects labels like anti-biotechnology or luddite, he is championed by anti-GMO activists, and has become an advocate for a ban on GM crops, at least until a precautionary approach can assess the risks of what is, to him, an unproven technology. An early and outspoken opponent of the Berkeley-Novartis deal (he cofounded Students for Responsible Research in response to the agreement), Quist espouses what he says is a more nuanced position on GM crops than his critics, one that “transcends rigid agricultural boundaries and takes into account ecological and social risk.”

Quist and Lemaux agree that, because genes and pollen can transfer relatively easily between crop strains, contamination of the food supply and the environment is an issue that must be addressed. They also agree that you have to ask, “So, what is the impact?” But to Quist, it’s this follow-up that has not been addressed. “A lot of the concern about GM technology is that we’ve allowed this global release of GMOs without having our hands really around these questions about what the potential risks are. A lot of people think it may be premature—irresponsible even—to release the technology without having some baseline level of scientific assurance about what level of risk we are undertaking.” He continues, “The bottom line is that there are too many unknowns out there—is it going to harm Monarch butterflies? Is it going to decrease the genetic diversity that we care about? Are predator–prey insects in the field, which are beneficial to agriculture, going to be affected as well?

“A lot of proponents of the technology will say—with human health or the environment—‘There’s no evidence to suggest that this is harmful.’ Well, there’s no tracking, so you don’t know if someone is getting sick because they’ve been eating GM cornflakes. Absence of evidence is not evidence that there’s no harm or risk.”

Part of the problem, Quist maintains, is that the tools used to assess the impact of GM crops are limited. “Genetic engineering has been wonderful in terms of telling us how genes express in certain systems, looking at mechanisms. But for filling those gaps—when you put it out into the environment—how does it behave? For all these kinds of questions, an ecological and multidisciplinary approach can identify answers where the reductionist, mechanistic [strict agricultural science] approaches really can’t.”

Quist cautions, too, that beyond questions of scientific uncertainty and ecological risk, there are cultural concerns with GM crops. “I think about Mexican farmers. The GMO issue is not just a scientific issue. Unfortunately, a lot of people want to say, ‘If you use the best science available, we’ll know how to go ahead with this.’ Well, no. These are societal choices, not just scientific choices.” He contends that the farmers he met while performing studies on GM contamination of native corn populations in Mexico should be afforded the opportunity to choose whether or not their ecological heritage—maize—should be threatened by genetically engineered crops.

Amid the breakneck growth in GM crop plantings over the past decade, a sizable block of the planet is still suspicious of, if not hostile to, GM crops. Ninety-nine percent of GM crop acreage is found in just six countries: the United States, Argentina, China, Canada, South Africa, and Brazil. GM crops have yet to make significant gains in developing countries. And in Asia and Europe, consumers have not embraced GM crops; despite lifting a sixyear moratorium on new GM crop imports in May of last year, for example, opposition to GM foods still runs as high as 70 percent in the European Union.

For Peggy Lemaux, GM crops can be an important part of our agricultural future, in spite of the uncertainty over long-term public health and environmental concerns, because of the technology’s promise to relieve hunger and lighten the significant environmental impacts of current agricultural practices. “If there are more and more people, we have to use more land to grow the food we need for those people. And if we can do it in a more environmentally friendly way, then that’s what I want to do. That’s what I consider moving towards sustainability. I believe that, as many feel about organic farming, the responsible use of GM crops can lead to sustainable practices. But I don’t feel either approach has all the answers. I don’t think we should be forced to choose one or the other. I would hope we could use any technology we can to spare the environment and to improve people’s nutrition,” she says.

David Quist remains hopeful that research into and oversight of GM crops’ ecological and food-safety risks will match the enthusiasm of the technology’s most vocal supporters and detractors. “There’s a basis for questioning this technology that doesn’t just stop at, ‘Does the science say it is safe or not?’” he says. “I wouldn’t resign myself to saying, ‘This is unstoppable, so don’t get in the way.’ If it’s not the right way we should be going with agriculture, we should rethink it. When you look at the technology, it’s just moving so much faster than our ability to develop biosafety strategies that we may need to take a more precautionary approach.”

“It’s important that people debate the enormous potential contributions and perceived dangers to global society posed by this technology,” says Dean Paul Ludden. “It’s one of the great questions of our era. It’s only fitting that Berkeley, as one the world’s leading research institutions, and CNR, as the college that unites science and society, should be at the center of the debate. We would have failed in our mission if it were otherwise."

Download PDF Verson

-Justin Gerdes is a Berkeley-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Terrain, The Commonwealth,, and The Environmental News Network.


post a comment