Genetically Engineered Organisms, Are They Safe? (Part II)

Leading experts representing both sides of the issue shed light on the controversy

By Léo Azambuja

The presence of Genetically Engineered (GE) crops on Molokai has been a controversial topic for some time. Earlier this year Monsanto, the leading GE company worldwide, expanded its operations on Molokai to include 1,650 acres, raising concerns amongst those who believe GE farming might irreversibly affect the environment. But there are also those who believe GE crops are beneficial and do not pose environmental or health threats.

The Molokai Dispatch has engaged leading scientists and professionals in health and agricultural fields to weigh in on the GE farming issues which could affect Molokai. To be fair, a set of five questions was sent to opposite sides of the opinion field. Last week we present the first set of two questions and their respective answers. In this issue, the Dispatch published the remaining three sets of questions.

Challenging the benefits of GE crops are: Bill Freese, a Science Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Service in Washington D.C.; and Dr. Lorrin Pang, who works for the Hawaii State Department of Health as a Maui District officer.

Representing the defense of GE crops is: Dr. Ania M Wieczorek, from the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Please be aware that the professionals participating in this forum do not, in any way, represent the views of their respective employers or subordinates.

GE and Hawaii’s endangered species – A U.S. District Judge recently ruled that GE farming could pose a threat to Hawaii’s hundreds of endangered species. Is there any scientific evidence supporting or discrediting this threat?

Dr. Ania M Wieczorek: First, I would like to clarify that the law suit was filed against USDA on Plant-made Pharmaceuticals permitting which are very different to GE crops for agricultural use.

Regarding the question about the GE farming posing a threat to Hawaii’s endangered species, a key point that needs to be made is that gene flow occurs widely in nature. This gene flow is independent of whether transgenic crops are involved. Pollen from agricultural crops often reaches wild plants growing nearby, and when the wild species are closely related to the crops, hybridization can ensue.

Hybridization in plants in this way depends on a variety of factors like relatedness and environmental factors; it is likely to be very rare between Hawaiian endangered species and agricultural crops. For cross pollination to happen, the crops and Hawaiian species would have to be very closely related.

A study published in 2006 in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, looked at potential cross pollination between different agricultural crops and Hawaiian species. It is unlikely that hybridization will occur naturally between the cultivated crop plants discussed in this report and native Hawaiian plant species (with the exception of G. tomentosum), native cotton. To decrease the possibility of gene flow for cotton, USDA-APHIS requires an isolation distance, currently suggested to be~12 m, between cultivated transgenic cotton and wild or non-transgenic species.

The important point is that indigenous Hawaiian species and agricultural crops are quite unlikely to hybridize, with adequate isolation distances, and most crops are not grown in close proximity to indigenous endangered species.

Dr. Lorrin Pang: In my opinion there are four theoretical ways that GMO’s could threaten endangered species. First, as with any large scale crop, there is competition for habitat and resources. For example, stream diversions to water GMO crops on large plantations may affect many stream species – and in Hawaii there are ongoing suits to restore stream flow. A very aggressive GE crop which escapes and outgrows native species could compete for limited habitat. There are many examples of this even with non-GE crops in Hawaii

Next there may be the transfer of the mutation construct (promoter+mutant-gene+marker) from GE crops to related species. It is easy to imagine that the transfer could occur by a conventional route (wind/insect pollination) and would “take” in the host species according to standard rules of cross pollination between related species. For example GE cotton may be closely enough related to native hibiscus to share genes via conventional routes. If contamination does occur the issue then becomes whether or not there is a selective (survival) advantage of the mutation. If there is an advantage (say, mutation for producing endogenous pesticide against insects) the species will eventually become entirely “contaminated” under insect pressure. It will survive but no longer be “pure”. If there is a disadvantage the genetic mutation will eventually “die out” within the native strains. Unfortunately, if there is not a large initial reserve of native plants (as is often the case with endangered species), the mutation may contaminate the entire pool then die out when conditions are unfavorable – leading to more rapid extinction.

The next scenario has somewhat similar consequences to the above paragraph but the mechanism of mutation spread may be through non-traditional routes among different species (horizontal gene transfer). The mechanism may be by direct transfer (say, insect inoculation) or more likely by viral and bacterial infections. Laboratory experiments have shown transfer of mutational sequences through soil microbes. As we study the genomes of organisms we see a lot of shared gene sequences, probably transferred over the millennia by a host of viruses. These mutations have had millennia to select advantageous changes (the dangerous ones died out) and their behavior is now somewhat predictable. Many mutations may be “silent” (no protein activity that we know of). On the other hand viruses spreading new GE mutations among different species will have unpredictable consequences. The mutation will express since it is tied to a very active promoter (“on switch”) It is like throwing a violin player into a football game: he does not know the plays, he takes the place of one of the original players, and you force him to carry the ball. In nature viral assisted mutational transfer has occurred but over the millennia the disruptive ones, the losers, have died out. If this occurs with GE contamination, as in the previous paragraph the losers will die out – but in the case of horizontal gene transfer the “die out” may cross species. As above, if the scenario is contamination followed by die out when unfavorable conditions occur, the small number of plants of endangered species will not have the reserve to survive the die out (resulting in more rapid extinction).

The fourth mechanism I will call the “unknown”. The importance of unexpected, unintended events is not to be taken lightly. We are now only beginning to describe genome structures and really have no idea of their complex functions or interactions. Trying to extend our predictions of genomic interactions to something as complicated as the human body or to the environment adds another unimaginable level of uncertainty. Nonetheless we are beginning to observe “unexplainable events”. A very pertinent example occurred in the last couple of years with extensive contamination of commercial long grain rice by Bayer’s experimental GE strain. The mechanism of contamination remains unknown and has been referred to as an “Act of God”. Unfortunately this term usually refers to specific, known events (such as earthquakes, cancers, hurricanes) which are beyond man’s control. Defenders of GE crops hope to use the “Act of God” argument to imply events were beyond human control (and therefore avoid liability) – but this defense cannot be made until the mechanism of contamination is known. How can one plan for or try to prevent events which are unknown? In the category of “unknown” I will include secondary/indirect effects. Consider wide scale use of pesticides (plant produced (BT) or applied Round-up) to be used in conjunction with GE crops. Might the constant use breed super weeds or super insects which put much greater pressure on endangered species?

Finally, under the precautionary principle the onus is on industry to show that these mechanism are not occurring (for each mutation) before GE plants are released to the environment. The only time their argument that “we have not seen any of the above” is valid is if they have done extensive studies to monitor for these consequences. And like the health issues such studies are already are too little/too late.

Bill Freese: In August 2006, the Federal District Court of Hawaii ruled that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by allowing drug-producing, genetically engineered (GE) “pharma crops” to be grown in Hawaii without even considering whether they might harm Hawaii’s many threatened and endangered species. The judge ruled that USDA acted “in utter disregard” of the ESA, and also violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not conducting any environmental or human health review whatsoever.

According to an article on pharma crops in Nature Biotechnology:

“Biopharmaceuticals usually elicit responses at low concentrations, and may be toxic at higher ones. Many have physiochemical properties that might cause them to persist in the environment or bio-accumulate in living organisms, possibly damaging non-target organisms…”

The field trial permits primarily at issue in this case authorized cultivation of 800 acres of pharma crops at various sites on Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Maui from 2001 to 2003. These included corn engineered to contain experimental vaccines for AIDS and hepatitis B, and corn containing a blood-clotting drug (aprotinin) that is also an insecticidal compound known to increase mortality in honeybees at very low levels. A fourth field trial involved sugarcane engineered with a potent immune-stimulatory hormone, GM-CSF. At least three dozen pharma crop field trials have been conducted in Hawaii. Numerous scientists offered testimony on the potential harm to humans and wildlife from inadvertent exposure to these pharma crop compounds.

Biopharming is widely regarded by scientists, public interest groups and the food industry as posing unacceptable risks to the food supply and the environment. And since hundreds of pharma crop field trials nationally since 1991 have not yielded even one FDA-approved drug, the risks are not balanced by any benefits. Since there is no way to control all the possible avenues of contamination – pollen drift, human error, seed dispersal – or prevent animals from consuming these plants in the field, the only acceptable solution is a ban on the outdoor cultivation of pharma crops.

GE and legal issues – Is accidental cross-pollination between GE crops and non-GE crops common? What has happened, legally, in cases where cross-pollination has occurred?

Dr. Ania M Wieczorek: By law there is no substantial difference between GE and non GE crops in terms of the constitution of the crops, GE crops are as safe as conventional crops, and no risk to human health and environment has been shown for GE crops. So in legal terms, this is probably not an issue.

One exception is organic agriculture. The USDA Organic standards for organic production allows for small amount of cross pollination, as long as the farmer can show that all reasonable precautions have been taken to avoid it. Of course we understand that some farmers would like to have 0 % cross pollination, but 100% purity is very hard to achieve, not only in terms of pollen flow, but also things like purity of seed that is certified for any condition. It is also true that this is not solely a GE issue, because cross pollination is a purity issue that is impacted by all kinds of crop breeding aspects.

For there to be coexistence between different types of agriculture, the various parties involved must want to coexist – there is some degree of compromise required by all parties.

Dr. Lorrin Pang: We don’t know how common cross pollination is because it is not often monitored. However, the GE industry goes to such extensive measures (say, bagging corn tassels, buffer zones, etc) to prevent internal contamination among different mutant strains, that cross pollination must be quite easy. Obviously cross-pollination will depend on the species of plant itself and whether one intends to use the seed or other parts of the plant. Let us use the more general term of “contamination” – of which cross pollination is but one route. Contamination of food supplies could mean that it occurred from the laboratory, in the field or in silos. Often we don’t know how contamination occurs. When the US long grain rice supply got contaminated Industry resorted to the defense that it was an “Act of God”. The number of times that contamination occurs may not be known but when it does occur it can be extensive (the native corn strains of Mexico, volunteer papaya plants on the Big Island, Cannola in Canada, Starlink Corn, and long grain rice), contentious and expensive.

When contamination has occurred we see the two legal extremes. In the case of Percy Schmeiser and GE canola in Canada he was sued by Industry for patent infringement. On the other hand the US long grain rice farmers are suing Industry and regulatory agencies for economic losses associated with their contamination. Besides the important legal ramifications the “clean-up” itself may be expensive and in some cases not technically feasible. After clean-up contamination may recur, especially when we don’t know how the initial event occurred. Even replanting with non-contaminated seeds may be problematic if the seed stock has been contaminated (GE papaya and long grain rice). Because contamination may have serious economic, health, environmental and legal consequences, all of these issues must be addressed on a case by case basis – PRIOR to field release. In general, I feel that he who holds the patent bears the liability. Industry on the other hand will argue that if the contamination is beyond their best control efforts (Act of God) then they are not liable. They will also argue that until harm has been shown they are liable for no damages (no harm, no fault). However Federal Judge Seabright ruled on this argument as “absurd” relying on “after-the-fact justification (and good fortune). Regardless of our positions these issues must be settled beforehand under the framework of a formal EIS.

Hawaii has been in the news lately when Superferry was blocked in the courts for lack of an EIS. Regulatory agencies failed to regulate. The extensive arguments now in court whether or not an EIS is needed are almost as extensive as an EIS itself. Courts have become the de facto EIS regulators with the AG’s office appearing to argue on behalf of Industry. The Hawaii public may not know that in the past few years some GE crops (biopharm crops and algae) have had a similar fate as the Superferry. They were challenged/blocked in court for ignoring EIS requirements. Unlike the Superferry which can be “recalled” if unkown environmental effects are seen. The damage from contamination with life forms may be beyond recall (Coqui frog, Miconia, Wiliwili gall wasp, etc).

Bill Freese: It is very common for genetically engineered (GE) crops to contaminate conventional and organic crops. Although such episodes can present environmental and human health risks, and have caused huge financial losses to farmers and food companies, the U.S. government has refused to establish rules making biotech firms liable. In some cases, those victimized by GE contamination have even been sued for the alleged presence of patented GE seeds in their conventional or organic fields.

The uncontrolled planting of GE herbicide-tolerant canola in Canada has led to weedy “volunteer” canola resistant to two and even three herbicides, presenting a serious “superweed” threat. It has also destroyed Canada’s nascent organic canola industry, since organic food companies often reject GE-contaminated supplies. Hawaiian papaya farmers have experienced similar losses (discussed in the next installment).

GE StarLink corn illegally contaminated conventional corn in the U.S., triggering massive recalls of over 300 food products, reports of life-threatening allergic reactions, and losses estimated at $1 billion. Pharmaceutical corn contamination of soy necessitated the seizure and destruction of ½ million bushels of soybeans one step away from use to make soy infant formula and veggie burgers. Last year, widespread contamination of rice supplies with two unapproved GE rice varieties led to rejected exports, lower rice prices, and an estimated $150 million in losses to US rice farmers. Bayer CropScience, which developed the GE rice, blamed “an act of God.” USDA has yet to explain whether God or perhaps Bayer was culpable.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has found that certified seed stocks of (supposedly) conventional soy, corn and canola are routinely contaminated with low levels of GE content.

Meanwhile, USDA has been harshly criticized by the National Academy of Sciences and its own Inspector General for fundamental flaws in its oversight, such as ignorance of GE crop field trial locations and failure to conduct inspections.

The Center for Food Safety supports a moratorium on GE crops until the U.S. government requires stringent, independent safety testing and isolation measures; liability rules making biotech firms responsible for contamination; and labeling of foods with GE content. See www.centerforfoodsafety.org for more.

GE and the future of farming in Hawaii – In your opinion, what is the future of GE farming in Hawaii?

Dr. Ania M Wieczorek: At CTAHR our mission is to support tropical agricultural systems that foster viable communities, a diversified economy, and a healthy environment. We use different tools to help our farmers… classical breeding, organic farming and genetic engineering. We believe that we should always keep our options open and it would be unwise to turn our backs on the advantages of this new technology. At the same time we should proceed carefully, minimizing and managing risks. As we develop this new technology we must also continue our efforts to improve conventional farming, organic farming, and integrated pest management. We are here to help all our clients, and we encourage the coexistence of all forms of agriculture. In my opinion the future of GE crops in Hawaii will depend on two facts; 1) if farmers decide that they want to use this technology and 2) if the consumer wants to buy these products.

Dr. Lorrin Pang: In Hawaii the GE crops will probably take a turn towards GE fuel crops in addition to food crops. Industry will pursue what is profitable – based on what is patentable. Buzz words for Hawaii planning agencies now are to make our State “self sufficient” and “sustainable”. Basically regarding food and fuel we grow enough to feed ourselves and for our own energy needs. Any excess that we grow (for export) is a lower priority. This principle is correct not only for the sake of sustaining ourselves in times of crisis – but from the principle of “fairness”. If a fuel crop is very damaging to the environment it will be too tempting for us to have the crop grown elsewhere. This is the case of palm oil in many third world countries. The poorer nations will take the risk and ruin their own ecologies for foreign exchange – no matter how small the returns. If there are countries poorer than us, then for money they will take the risks. However the converse is true – if we decide to grow our own (food and fuel) then we and only we have the ultimate say in the EIS process which allows the crop in Hawaii. It is absolutely wrong for a federal agency to attempt to pre-empt local input. It is questionable for wealthy global corporations to entice poor local communities with jobs, albeit high paying ones, without a full understanding of the risks and alternatives involved. We are the ones risking our health and environment and it is only right that we make our own decisions – and be very be clear to delineate risks, benefits and enticements.

Bill Freese: Plantation agriculture is rapidly becoming a thing of the past on the Islands, as sugarcane and pineapple growers seek cheaper land and labor overseas.  What can Hawaii do to rejuvenate its ailing ag sector?  Some state officials put their faith and taxpayer dollars in biotechnology research.  Do these “faith-based” investments in biotech make sense?
Hawaii’s experience with commercial GE crops is limited to the virus-resistant papaya.  Introduced by the University of Hawaii (UH) in 1998, the GE papaya has propelled Hawaii’s papaya industry to the verge of collapse.  From 1998 to 2005, papaya acreage declined 32%, production of fresh papaya fell by 15%, the value of fresh papaya dropped 24%, while papaya exports to Japan fell by more than one-half, as Japan shunned GE papayas.  UH has consistently refused to consider organic methods and intercropping to control the papaya ringspot virus.

Every GE crop intended primarily for human food use has been resoundingly rejected. Pesticide-producing potatoes were killed by McDonald’s and Burger-King; Del-Monte rejected pesticide-producing sweet corn; Frito-Lay shuns GE corn for its chips; wheat growers killed GE wheat; and no one in the world wants GE rice. The very first GE crop, the “Flavr-Savr” tomato, was rejected by consumers as tasteless. Today’s GE soybeans and corn primarily feed animals or cars (biofuels) in wealthy countries, or produce fiber (GE cotton).

True, Hawaii is ground-zero for experimental GE corn, with more field trials than any state in the nation.  Yet the seed corn industry provides limited, low-wage jobs and does not feed anyone.
Instead of pursuing failed biotechnology, Hawaii should promote organic production, both for domestic consumption to increase food security, and for high-value exports.  Mau’i Land & Pineapple is pursuing both strategies.  Hawaii coffee growers proudly produce the world’s finest coffee, and have supported a moratorium on GE coffee to guard against market-destroying contamination.
The organic food market is worth $14 billion annually, is growing by 17-22% a year, and offers growers substantial premiums over conventional produce.  It’s time for state ag officials to get over their prejudice against organic – it’s not just hippies anymore, it’s the future.
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