Blowback in Genetic Engineering

The word “science” evokes a world of men and women driven by curiosity to explore the cosmos, the magic of chemical interactions, the decoding of the genetic combinations of a cell. Following trails of suspicion and experimentation, scientists have over centuries aimed to unlock the mysteries of life on earth.

But “science,” for the last century, has also evolved into a multibillion-dollar business. Today, pharmaceutical companies, agricultural biotechnology firms, weapons labs, semiconductor producers and countless other research and technology–based businesses are among the key players in a global industry that plays a critical role in spurring scientific inquiry and in fueling American economic growth.

The centrality of science and technology to the U.S. economy was outlined in 1945, when Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, authored a report proposing the establishment of a national science policy to deliver expanded government support for science in the post–World War II era. That report, titled Science: The Endless Frontier, set the template for an ever more formalized relationship between publicly supported scientific innovators and the private sector. “New manufacturing industries can be started and many older industries greatly strengthened and expanded if we continue to study nature’s laws and apply new knowledge to practical purposes,” stated the Bush report, which recommended large increases in government support for basic scientific research as a means of fueling innovation in the postwar economy.

But Bush was, unwittingly perhaps, setting into motion a science policy that has repeatedly neglected to address key questions linked to the long-term implications of scientific innovation and to the actual real-time beneficiaries of those innovations. What, for example, was the primary social good to be addressed in fueling scientific innovation? Who were the primary winners? And who or what were the possible losers?

On the one hand, Bush’s report made an important contribution to spurring basic research and demonstrating the importance of scientific advance to social and economic life. But half a century later, we are also now living with Bush’s legacy in the form of the environmental, ethical, and health-related impacts of what were once considered unequivocally “positive” scientific innovations.

Under the mounting pressure of Bush’s unanswered questions, the old Enlightenment ideal of science pursuing knowledge for the large-scale benefits of humanity is starting to crack. While the bounty of scientific innovation has delivered great benefits, we are now living in a time in which the implicit assumption that scientific advances equal advances for the common good is shaken by such new developments as spliced frogs and sheep, genetically engineered (GE) plants designed to produce pesticides, and manufactured synthetics that suggest a sort of time-release chemical warfare against ourselves. Popular unease is coming to a head in an era in which “science,” that noun used to describe a multifarious community of inquirers, is coming increasingly to manipulate the firmament of life itself.

The implications of the blurring between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of profit are exemplified in the ongoing controversy over GE food crops. The starting point of that research was a simple and profound curiosity: the desire to identify how genetic codes are translated into actual characteristics in a plant. That was in 1982, when scientists at public institutions and private companies such as Monsanto began their quest to unravel the clues embedded in the double helix. When in 1983 three researchers at Cornell University used a shotgun to blast into an onion a tungsten-coated “bullet” containing new DNA, the curtain was opened onto an entirely new arena for genetic research.

In the 1980s, I spent a good deal of time reporting on the toxic effects of agricultural chemicals (for the book Circle of Poison, as well as for numerous articles on the environmental and health impacts of pesticides). At the time, the idea of genetically engineered crops, a gleam in the eye of some avant-garde researchers, was presented by many—including those in the environmental as well as scientific community—as a potentially “green” alternative to chemical-dependent agriculture. The impetus for the research was framed in a public-spirited way: Monsanto itself began promoting its increasingly formidable research and marketing capabilities as a step toward “sustainable” agricultural development strategies in both developed and developing countries, suggesting that GE crops could be the answer to the food productivity problems in Africa and elsewhere.

Two decades later, serious questions about the long-term impacts of ag-biotech have become a source of growing friction between the United States and the rest of the world. U.S. policies encouraging the proliferation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food supply have given rise to a major trade conflict between the United States and Europe, and created an embarrassing standoff in which U.S. donations of food are actually being refused because of fears of what may or may not be contained in those genetically altered crops. The journey of GE foods—once considered an environmental alternative, now a source of fear—into the heart of the American food system illustrates the importance of the questions that Bush and subsequent generations of scientific policy makers failed to ask.

Today no one uses a shotgun to do the work, but the principle remains the same: customized DNA insertions in order to obtain customized characteristics. First it was onions; then corn, soybeans, canola, wheat, tomatoes, and other food crops began to feature genetically engineered components. Walk through your local supermarket, and you’ll find them in breakfast cereals, canned drinks, and processed foods of every sort. One-third of the corn and three-quarters of the soybeans, America’s most economically significant food crops, contain genetically engineered components. GE research, begun with grand hopes of saving the world’s food supply from demographic, political, and environmental catastrophe, has in fact been oriented not toward the conditions of Africa, Asia, or Latin America, where such problems are acute, but toward the developed nations’ industrial-scale agriculture. Three out of every four patents issued over the past ten years for genetically modified crops have been issued to just five multinational companies—Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, and Aventis. And while that research has been speeding into ever-newer varieties, funds for research at public institutions responsible for green revolution initiatives in developing countries, such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, are drying up as public and private monies are devoted increasingly to biotech solutions to agricultural problems.

In the summer of 2002, I found myself driving a pickup truck through the fields of Frank McLain, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. I had met Frank and his father, Fred, in 1982, while reporting a story about the consolidation of the American seed industry. At the time, the number of independent players in the industry was undergoing rapid decline as regionally based seed companies were being bought out by large multinational chemical and pharmaceutical companies, which subsequently emerged as the key drivers behind genetic engineering research.

Now I was paying the McLains a visit once again, this time in the company of a film crew for the PBS newsmagazine program NOW with Bill Moyers, for a story on the impact of the genetic revolution on America’s farmers. Here in the heart of America’s breadbasket is where that revolution is being wrought.

McLain was growing 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans. His “Bt corn” contains an inserted Bt gene that delivers a toxic insecticide that kills a corn pest, the European corn borer; his Roundup Ready soybeans have been engineered to resist the application of Roundup herbicide, so that the herbicide kills only unwanted weeds and not the soybean plants it is designed to protect. For McLain, the GE crops have delivered some considerable short-term benefits: he applies half the amount of pesticides to his corn as he used to, and with the Roundup Ready soybeans he doesn’t have to go into his fields and manually remove the weeds the way he and his father used to, which in turn protects his soil from destructive overtilling.

McLain’s experience with genetic engineering illustrates both the allure and the potential dangers of the new technology. One-third of the cornfields in Iowa are planted with Bt corn seeds, and almost all of the soybeans are planted with Roundup Ready seeds. For many American farmers, GE crops offer a level of predictability in a risky business that every season can rise or fall with a few degrees of Fahrenheit.

McLain expressed to me his incomprehension about why these crops, which have aided him in his daily work, have become so controversial. “We’re using a technology,” he said, “that’s been given us to make our life easier and to raise better crops.”

A half-hour’s drive from McLain’s farm, in the university town of Ames, I encountered Fred Kirschenman, director of the Leopold Center.

Sponsored by a state tax on pesticide sales, the center is one of the foremost institutes in the United States for research on sustainable agriculture. Kirschenman acknowledged that there have been short-term benefits from the technology of genetic engineering, but he takes the long-term view, and sees the controversies over GE food technology as arising from the policies prompted by that fateful report produced by Vannevar Bush at the close of World War II.

“In agriculture,” Kirschenman commented, “we haven’t been asking the right questions at least since 1945. What that policy statement said was that we need to use science to dramatically improve our technological capabilities. We were very successful in using technology to win the war; therefore we ought now to apply that technology to increase our crop production. Since then, we have geared up our whole scientific agenda to solve problems with technological innovation.

“But there’s a larger issue here. Over the past fifty years, little attention has been paid to ecological issues, the interactions between plants and organisms. We have been rapidly reengineering organisms without asking what their ecological niche is. Why not ask: How will this change the physiology of the plant? How will it affect the organisms around it? And then there’s the question, Can we ever back out of it? These are self-replicating organisms. Once they’re in, you can’t get them out again. All we ask now is ‘Does it work?’”

The answers to Kirschenman’s questions are coming in rapidly from research institutions around the world, and are providinga sobering picture of the impact of the technology years after its massive introduction into the foodsystem. Reports from scientists in Switzerland and elsewhere indicate that, in fact, there are profound impacts on the physiology of GE corn, primarily in toughening the lignin, or stems, of the plants. While thereis little evidence suggesting acute harm to human health from GE crops, there are indications that GE foods may not contain as much nutrition as traditionally bred crops.

More ominously, toxins now bred into Bt corn to kill off the corn borer are leaving residues in the soil, having toxic effects on beneficial insects and, after runoff into waterways, on marine life. In some parts of the United States, weeds have developed resistance to Roundup herbicide, and the corn borer is showing signs of evolving resistance to the Bt toxin. And the self-replicating lab-produced Bt variety of corn is, indeed, replicating itself— in places where it is not wanted. Organic farmers across the country are being denied organic certification—representing millions of dollars in lost sales—due to the discovery of genetically modified material in their corn, delivered to their organic fields by windblown corn pollen from neighboring farms.

What those emerging problems suggest, and evidence of such problems is mounting from around the world, is the legacy of policies set in motion back in 1945. Pursuing the mysteries of the genetic makeup of the plant cell (foreshadowing by several years the Human Genome Project), the age-old scientific dynamic went to work: curiosity—hypothesis experimentation. From there evolved a greater understanding of how different genetic elements of the plant genome play a role in expressing certain characteristics. At any stage along this continuum, the government could have intruded into the process by requiring assessments about the long-term environmental safety and health implications of what amounts to a profound shift in the way new plant varieties are created.

That did not happen. Rather, private companies, utilizing much of the basic research conducted in public research facilities, took the lead in developing the technology, with few brakes put on their work. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriated just 1 percent of its annual agricultural biotechnology research budget to risk assessments. (In 2002, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich succeeded in upping that to 2 percent, a still-minuscule figure that itself was a compromise from the 10 percent originally proposed by Kucinich, and that was approved despite the resistance of lobbyists from the agbiotech industry). Overseas, the USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development have become ever more aggressive in promoting the use of ag-biotech to foreign governments.

Beginning with the government’s support in the earliest days of ag-biotech research, and on into the present day, the parallel evolution of private industry’s and the government’s commitment to GE technology was critical to the introduction of GMOs on a mass scale. The government sent its most powerful signal of compliance with the onrushing train of GE research in mid-1992 when the USDA, under heavy industry pressure, made the determination that GE crops were the “substantial equivalent” of traditionally bred crops. This designation—first articulated in a speech on U.S. technology policy by Vice President Dan Quayle—helped ag-biotech producers avoid any significant federal or regulatory oversight over a technology that essentially introduces entirely new living organisms into the ecosystem and the food chain. No single regulatory agency now has the power to monitor on a sustained basis the growing of GE food crops.

At the same time, while some GE initiatives do suggest the technology’s potential in aiding the development of agriculture in economically and environmentally stressed regions of the globe, the reality is that most of the new GE varieties are tailored not for people living in harsh tropical or arid environments, or for lands undergoing desertification or other stresses, but for the temperate conditions of the American and other industrial-scale agriculture systems, and for lands that have already reached a point of high efficiency in food production. But it is here where the true profits lie for the companies behind the research. By not asking the right questions—not submitting the new technology to what Kirschenman describes as “ecological screening”—we end up with a technology that is now being tested in a massive real-time experiment on the environment of America’s farmlands and on living human subjects: American consumers.

Charles Benbrook, an independent agricultural economist and former director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture, has been studying the long-term environmental impacts of genetically engineered food crops. He traces the rapid rollout of genetic technology into the food system to the powerful momentum generated by the alliance between government and industry:

"The reality is, when you have companies and technologies that are so powerful economically, the country can’t afford to have them fail. And that’s a problem, when it becomes too costly for the government to admit that there might actually be a problem with something. . . . Corn and soybeans are the backbone of the whole U.S. food system. If there were any problem in either of those crops, it’s fair to say the government’s going to do everything in its power to try to convince people that everything imaginable is being done to address the problem, that it’s not a serious threat, and that people should not lose confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply."

What the U.S. government didn’t plan for has come to pass anyway. The questions that Vannevar Bush—and generations of scientific policy makers since—did not address have nevertheless been reverberating through the global channels of agricultural trade. While on the trail of GE corn from Iowa to Mexico, I visited the town of Capulalpan, deep in the Sierra Norte mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Villagers who had farmed hillside plots for generations discovered that elements of the Bt gene had found their way into their corn, stoking fears in the village and around the world that genetic engineering was out of control.

Since the commercial introduction of GE technology, the piñata of American agriculture has sent transgenic candies from one end of the earth to the other. But the world’s food consumers are signaling that they do not want what American farmers are producing:

Mexico, 2001–2002: Fears grow throughout the country after it is discovered that GE corn has mixed with indigenous corn varieties in the state of Oaxaca, despite the fact that Mexico has banned the planting, though not consumption, of GE seeds.

New Zealand, 2002: The incumbent government’s position on GMO technology becomes a major issue in that country’s national election.

Zambia, 2002: Fearful of contaminating its agriculture with GMOs, the government refuses to accept U.S. offers to donate 20 million tons of corn to help the country deal with a food crisis threatening millions with starvation.

Europe, 2002–2003: The European Union (EU) warns the United States that its refusal to label food exports grown with GE varieties threatens future imports to EU member countries. The United States threatens to bring suit in the World Trade Organization, which could lead to a major trade and political battle over GMO technology between the world’s two largest trading partners.

Australia, January 2003: A 48,000-ton shipment of U.S. corn is refused entry at the dock in Brisbane after health department officials determine that the grain must be crushed and steamed to destroy any lingering GE remnants in food pellets intended for chickens.

India, January 2003: The government refuses to permit the importation of American soybeans and corn due to fears that it might contain genetically modified ingredients hazardous to human health.

Japan, 2003: Japanese international merchants begin turning away U.S. corn imports en masse after reports that previous American shipments contained traces of StarLink, a gene-spliced corn that has never been approved for human consumption in the United States or any other country.

At the root of this resistance lie deep-seated fears about the long-term impacts of genetically modified organisms, GMOs, on the environment and on human health; and a wariness over a technology that seems entwined with a corporate-driven agriculture threatening family farmers and treasured biological resources. The resistance also comes at a time when many consumers—in Europe particularly—lack faith in their government’s regulatory authority to watch out for the public interest after the debacle of mad-cow disease and other food-related scandals. All of these concerns suggest a dwindling of the public’s trust in scientific authority.

Twenty-seven countries, including the fifteen nations of the European Union, have imposed either bans or severe restrictions on the import or growing of genetically modified food. For developing countries, concern is also focused around their future ability to sell agricultural products to the many developed nations— most prominently Europe and Japan—that have instituted strict labeling requirements. Thus, one of the unanticipated consequences of globalization has been illuminated through the ongoing controversy over GMOs: the emergence of new channels of global trade have led to the evolution of new levers of power over the products that are traded. Brazil, Mexico, and other countries, for example, face conflicting pressures in their policy decisions on GMOs: to accede to U.S. demands to accept the new products, or retain their restrictions in order to preserve trading relations with Europe and other trading partners skeptical of GMOs.

The United States now finds itself on both ends of the boomerang, as the repercussions of international resistance to GE technology take a severe toll in the American farm belt. To a great extent, the questions prompted by GMOs that have been left unanswered in this country—or at least within this country’s official regulatory structure—are being answered elsewhere. The American Corn Growers Association estimates that U.S. farmers lost nearly a billion dollars’ worth of export sales to Europe and Japan between 1997 and 2002 due to restrictions on genetically modified food imports imposed by Europe, Japan, and other world buyers. Those losses have contributed to driving thousands of American farmers out of business. U.S. food exports, once the backbone of the American farm economy, are increasingly seen as tainted goods in international markets.

It is the rest of the world that is now forcing the United States to pay attention to the long-term consequences of genetic engineering —a sharp twist of agricultural blowback, in which policies decided upon early on in the research process are coming back to haunt us.
Michael Crow, former executive vice provost of Columbia University and currently president of Arizona State University, says an unwillingness to ask the right questions has been the central flaw of U.S. science policy ever since the Bush report. We need to analyze scientific advances through a new prism, Crow says: “There is no policy mechanism at this time which engages the question, What is the purpose of this or that inquiry? If you say, for example, that the aim of science is to more equitably distribute a higher quality of life, that in itself would change the nature of science. That would be a new means of measuring success. It would no longer be enough to say that you have helped unravel another aspect of nature and the universe.”

Having asked the right questions from the outset might have helped the United States avoid a situation in which its farmers are losing business, its consumers are participating unwittingly in an experiment of unknown consequences, and the government is continuing to promote a technology being actively challenged by governments and individuals around the world.

Like our content? Help us do more.

Support Us