The Hand Of God

by Alma A. Hromic

May 6, 2002


"A farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell,"
—Judge Andrew MacKay, Canada

It is not unusual to fear something one does not understand. The science of genetics is so far away from the everyday lives of everyday people that it often assumes the status of a mythical monster. So what, precisely, is genetic engineering and why is it getting so many people upset?

A quick summary: all life on Earth shares one basic building block, DNA. Although this genetic material is chemically and physically identical in any organism on the planet, the characteristics of any individual organism are determined by the sequence of the four small molecules that make up the DNA strand: Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine (better known as A, G, C and T). What genetic engineering does is transfer specific pieces of DNA from one organism into another.

Scientists are using recombinant DNA laboratory techniques -- as opposed to traditional and other breeding methods -- to transfer genes between species in order to modify the characteristics of food crops. This can mean, for example, introducing an antigen from the outer coat of the Hepatitis B virus into a banana, producing a cheap vaccine against that disease for the Third World and opening the possibility of creating a range of such vaccines using any fruit that is eaten raw. It can also mean plants or animals specifically "created" to be resistant to any number of pests and diseases or "enhanced" in nutritive value or ability to endure storage or transportation. A very good example of a common and popular engineered organism is the modern nectarine, which is the result of a single mutation in a peach -- induced artificially by X-radiation. The "mutant peach" has then been propagated, producing a fruit that everyone seems to love. So why not use a similar process to produce apples that don't go brown a few minutes after they are cut? Or onions that don't make one cry when sliced? All these things are, in theory, possible and will probably happen because of the commercial gain they represent. What is at stake is a search for a more abundant, less expensive and more nutritious food supply.

Genetically modified (GM) foods have already proliferated everywhere -- they are found in North America, Europe, China, Japan, Australia. But are "transgenic" cultivars, i.e., organisms containing introduced "foreign" genes, safe? One school of thought maintains that environmental and food safety risks are already present within "wild" nature, not to mention traditional agricultural and plant breeding practices. After all, judicious breeding of cultivars with suitable wild strains to improve yield and resistance has been the basis for a consistent food supply in a changing global environment for centuries. Genetic engineering may provide a number of advantages over the traditional methods -- the ability to transfer only specific genetic material without involving other potentially hazardous and unwanted but closely linked genes; the ability to repeatedly transfer new genes directly into existing cultivars without many generations of additional crosses to obtain the specific cultivar traits desired; the broadening of the germplasm base from which new characteristics can be transferred (although it is this last, with the potential to introduce trans-species genes, that has earned genetically modified foods the name Frankenfoods).

There have been calls for the rigorous testing of food engineered in this way, and this produces its own problems because specific tests can be difficult to achieve and interpret. Also, the biggest market for these foodstuffs, the United States, cannot at present be relied on for any real research data. Not only is the testing of such foods largely voluntary in America, there is also the concept of "substantial equivalence" which maintains that if a modified foodstuff is "substantially the same" as an organic equivalent, then toxicology tests are not required. It's not at all unexpected that companies producing this material are in general happier with a situation that makes it easier for them to market their product -- and the fewer absolute requirements which they have to meet before they are allowed to do so, the happier the marketing department is. These days it is considered entirely acceptable to "patent" a gene and thus reserve all profit accruing from any and all use of such a gene in any form whatsoever. Placing products derived from the use of these patented genes on the market in the shortest possible time and the broadest possible consumer base ensures a quick recoup of research costs -- and research costs, in this field, are not small.

Current scientific evidence has rated the risk of eating genetically engineered food as about the same as eating crops developed by traditional breeding and selection methods. However, even traditionally bred foodcrops have sometimes been withdrawn because of high levels of toxins, and with transgenic cultivars there are additional elements. Direct expression of inserted genes and the resulting biochemical products are just one aspect of GM foods; secondary effects arising from that expression, as well as the genetic changes resulting from random insertion of transgenes into the plant genome, can occur. The products of artificially inserted genes may be toxic or allergenic in themselves, or may, through interacting with host genes, trigger the production of such products by the host plant. Introducing allergenic material (for example, brazil nut genes) into unrelated foodstuffs without careful labelling may trigger allergic reactions in individuals unaware that the food they have consumed may contain such material. Careful and accurate labelling has been one of the basic rallying cries of those warning of the dangers of genetic modification in food.

The actual process of genetically modifying food does not, in itself, pose a health risk - but the specific genes being transferred and, more importantly, their products do need to be considered. Much of what is considered "GM" food also only consists of a secondary product of a genetically manipulated material -- for example, honey from pollen gathered from a GM blossom.

In terms of affecting the environment, GM plants are a definite risk although scientists are looking at ways to minimise this by trying to develop, so far not with conspicuous success, sterile pollen on such plants. Fears of "superweeds" and "superpests," arising through genetic modifications of a crop plant crossing into related wild species and the rise of resistance by pests to genetically modified plant material respectively, are probably overstated. However, the ecological "ripple effects" that can potentially result from the expression of a gene targetting a particular pest or pathogen are difficult to predict and need to be studied. A somewhat ironic side-effect of engineering pesticide-resistant plants is that pest- and disease-free GM plants will allow a considerable reduction in chemical pest control so prevalent in modern agriculture; transgenic cultivars may be the basis of an integrated pest management system of the twenty first century, allowing the return of many useful invertebrates which assisted in the biocontrol of other minor pests and diseases. There is thus the possibility that GM cultivars may ease the return to "organic" farming, and this is an idea that both proponents and opponents of GM are finding it a bit difficult to get to grips with.

One of the basic problems with research in general, and genetic research in particular, is the way that it is funded - with less and less pure science getting the money, which is channelled instead into lines of research thought to have a chance of producing some sort of marketable result. This in turn means that the big companies paying for such research -- companies such as Monsanto, long associated with genetic engineering research -- own the results of this research, with researchers who pioneered some laboratory technique or knowledge advance being put in a position to have to pay the "owners" of such "property," the big funding companies, for the privilege of continuing to use their own methodologies.

There are also vexing questions of who actually owns the seed from which a plant is grown, and if the public is willing to accept the fact that it is becoming increasingly impossible to grow any crops without GM adulteration. Only a few years ago, in a major "oops," tons of genetically engineered rape seed were sown in Britain by mistake. And closer to home, a 70-year-old Canadian farmer who did not want and did not ask for Monsanto's genetically "improved" rape has been taken to court by Monsanto for "stealing" their technology when pollen from a nearby GM-rape field floated over in the wind and pollinated his own plants. Monsanto's spokesperson, Trish Jordan, states that the farmer was "using the company's intellectual property without compensation, and this is a case about patent protection."

Anyone would think that a farmer could not be blamed if a big conglomerate chooses to plant patent-protected crops next to his field and the vagaries of wind contaminate his own crops from this experimental plot -- but the judge saw things otherwise. In his ruling, Judge W. Andrew MacKay ordered the defendant to pay Monsanto a US$10,000 user fee and up to US$75,000 in profits from his 1998 crop of canola. The ruling also prohibits the defendant from using any saved canola seed to plant future crops. According to the judge, the farmer "knew or should have known he was using Monsanto's property." A farmer whose field contains "seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell," Judge MacKay said in a statement of almost Biblical dimensions.

You may own the land, you may have owned the seed you put into that land, but the Hand of God has touched your ripening fields and you suddenly own nothing at all.

Monsanto appears to have turned a deliberately blind eye to the problem of their own responsibility in promulgating such seeds into places where they are not wanted. Attorney Terry Zakreski, who fought against Monsanto in this court case, goes further than that. "This decision has the potential of making every seed saver in western Canada a patent infringer," he says. And things are worse south of the (Canadian) border, where similar litigation against farmers is rampant.

In March 2002, Reg Sherren of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast a program about the troubling effects on transgenic crops in Canada. Monsanto's Jordan makes another appearance in this program. "If you were to ask people right now, there's all kinds of diverse opinions," she states. "And if you talk about does anybody want to see genetically modified wheat introduced today, probably 100% of people would say no."

So there is a fairly significant resistance out there, then, the interviewer says.

Jordan backtracks in a hurry: "No. No. I wouldn't say there was significant resistance to the product at all. And you're...that's... you're kind of turning my words around. If you ask... how you ask people the question."

So, if you ask the right questions, that 100% "No" answer will magically turn into a "Yes." Interesting.

The spin is spreading, too. One of Africa's leading plant geneticists, Kenyan Dr. Florence Wambugu, has come out firmly in favour of GM to counter Africa's food problems. The "Green Revolution," she says, failed because it was alien, it came from the West. People "had to be educated" in the use of fertilisers and such technologies. However, Wambugu says, with transgenic crops the technology is not in the farming process but in the seed. This makes it easy on the farmers. Plant the GM seed, get pest resistance and increased yield, and no further thought is necessary. "Transgenic crops alone will not solve all the problems," Wambugu is on record as saying, "but [the technology] will lead to tonnes more grain." How this cheerful scenario is affected by the fact that genetic engineering, more than any fertiliser, is a Western technology "alien" to African farmers is not completely addressed.

British science writer Colin Tudge says that genetic engineering, while good as a technology, is not necessary to feed the world. And it stands to reason that dealing with the world's population as a whole and making sure it remains within the ability of the world to feed it is a better goal, on the whole, than scrambling to simply keep up with the demands of more and more hungry mouths. As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Feeding the world cannot and must not become dependent on GM foods to sustain the world's population.

Recent German studies have shown that genes in GM crops can jump species barriers, with genes from GM rape seed found to have transferred to bacteria living inside honey bees; how this affects things further down the line is still unknown but the event itself is enough to cause pause for thought -- if bacteria in bees, why not bacteria in the human gut, for example, and whither then?

The genie of the genetic engineering technology is out of its bottle -- the jury is still out on whether it paused to fulfill the customary three wishes to the people who released it. As always, the key to understanding and adapting to this new technology is research and communication; the same people whose fear of technology and the underlying science might cause them to reject a peach bred using X-rays would eat a nectarine without a second thought. Like fire, genetic engineering is neither friend nor foe -- its effects depend on how it is used. Like fire, however, this technology carries its own warnings.

Proponents of genetic engineering in food point to a lack of scientific evidence that GM foods are actively bad for people. Opponents counter this with the dictum that the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. They are both, of course, correct.

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Canadian Farmer Loses Biotech Seed Case to Monsanto, by Jane Akre

Canadian and U.S. farm groups unite on transgenic wheat ban, CropChoice news

Could transgenic canola troubles be repeated with wheat? CropChoice news


Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Last January, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

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Published May 6, 2002
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