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Dateline 12/04/2000

Hagelin Stuns the EPA with Stirring "StarLink" Testimony

On Tuesday, November 28, Dr. John Hagelin presented a powerful statement about the hazards of genetically engineered foods to an open meeting of an Environmental Protection Agency panel in Washington, D.C.

The Scientific Advisory Panel for the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) held the meeting to consider the possible allergenic effects of StarLink corn on human health. Starlink, a variety of genetically engineered corn that has not been approved by the EPA for human consumption, was recently discovered to have contaminated corn products being sold at supermarkets around the country.

Dr. Hagelin's testimony created an explosion of concern among the largely pro-genetic engineering audience at the open meeting and created a fresh wave of scientific scrutiny about the hazards of GE foods. His testimony is reprinted below, along with an editorial from the Providence Journal about his leadership in the effort to protect our food supply.



Arlington, Virginia
November 28, 2000

Director, Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy

I speak to you as a scientist who is striving to ensure that our best scientific knowledge be applied for the solution—and prevention—of society’s problems. I am a nuclear physicist who has published extensively in superstring theory and, during the last three elections, I have been the Presidential candidate of the Natural Law Party.

I want to address an issue much deeper than whether the CRY9C protein in StarLink corn is likely to be allergenic. I want to address the assumptions that underlie the entire agricultural bioengineering enterprise. I am deeply concerned that life scientists are implementing bioengineering technologies without adequately understanding the lessons we have learned from the physical sciences. One of the key revelations of modern physics is that phenomena unfold in a far less linear and predictable fashion than eighteenth and nineteenth century thinkers assumed. Today we know that there are inherent limitations on our ability to make precise predictions about the behavior of a system, especially for microscopic systems and nonlinear systems of great complexity.

Numerous eminent molecular biologists recognize that DNA is a complex nonlinear system and that splicing foreign genes into the DNA of a food-yielding organism can cause unpredictable side effects that could harm the health of the human consumer. Yet, the genetic engineering of our food—and the widespread presence of genetically altered foods in American supermarkets—is based on the premise that the effects of gene-splicing are so predictable that all bioengineered foods can be presumed safe unless proven otherwise. This refusal to recognize the risks of unintended and essentially unpredictable negative side effects is just plain bad science. It is astounding that so many biologists are attempting to impose a paradigm of precise, linear, billiard-ball predictably onto the behavior of DNA, when physics has long since dislodged such a paradigm from the microscopic realm and molecular biological research increasingly confirms its inapplicability to the dynamics of genomes.

Moreover, the premise of predictability is not just scientifically unsound; it is morally irresponsible. The safety of our food is being put at risk in a cavalier, if not callous, fashion, not only in disregard of scientific knowledge, but in disregard of recent technological history. Here, too, lessons should have been learned from the physical sciences. Time and again, the overhasty application of nuclear technologies led to numerous health and environmental disasters. For example, in the early days of nuclear technology, the rush to commercialize led to the sale of radium tipped wands designed to remove facial hair. Nine months later the cancers came. Similarly, the failure to comprehend the full range of risks and to proceed with prudence has led to many disasters in the nuclear power industry.

In the case of genetic engineering, even greater caution is called for: a nuclear disaster only lasts 10,000 years, whereas gene pollution is forever—self-perpetuating and irreversible.

The irresponsible behavior that permitted the marketing of bioengineered foods has not been limited to the scientific community, but includes the executive branch of the federal government. The FDA’s internal records reveal that its own experts clearly recognized the potential for gene-splicing to induce production of unpredicted toxins and carcinogens in the resultant food. These same records reveal that these warnings were covered up by FDA political appointees operating under a White House directive to promote the biotech industry. It is unconscionable that the FDA claimed itself unaware of any information showing that bioengineered foods differ from others, when its own files are filled with such information from its scientific staff. And it is unconscionable that it permits such novel foods to be marketed based on the claim they are recognized as safe by an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community, when it knows such a consensus does not exist.

The StarLink fiasco further demonstrates the shoddiness of the government’s regulation, since the system failed to keep even an unapproved bioengineered crop out of our food. Indeed, the contamination was discovered not by the government, but by public interest groups. The FDA had no clue and had taken no measures to monitor. This incident also demonstrates how difficult it will be to remove a bioengineered product from our food supply if it is eventually found to be harmful and, therefore, how important it is to prevent the introduction of new ones and to phase out those currently in use.

It is high time that science and the truth be respected, and that the false pretenses enabling the commercialization of bioengineered foods be acknowledged and abolished. I call upon the members of this panel to uphold sound science so that you can hold your own heads up as the facts about the hazards of bioengineered food become increasingly well known. I call upon you not only to resist the pressures to approve the pesticidal protein in StarLink Corn; I call upon you to honestly acknowledge the inherent risks of genetic engineering and to affirm that, due to these risks, neither StarLink nor any other bioengineered food can be presumed safe at the present stage of our knowledge.

Providence Journal Editorial


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