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Genetic Engineering
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Genetic Engineering--
What We All Need to Know

An Interview with Dr. John Fagan

NLP News: What exactly is genetic engineering? How does it work?

Dr. Fagan: Genetic engineering is a revolutionary new technology that enables scientists to remove genes from one organism and transfer those genes into any other organism. Genes are the blueprints of life--the biological structures that compose DNA and give rise to the specific characteristics of any living organism. The transfer of genes changes the genetic blueprint of the recipient organism and reprograms its cells to produce different material, which in turn creates new characteristics within the organism. Through this process, researchers can change the traits and characteristics of an organism as they see fit--for instance, they can engineer tomatoes with a longer shelf life or soybeans that are resistant to herbicides.

NLPN: What are the pros and cons of this technology? It seems to have generated intense public debate.

Fagan: Researchers have become very excited about using genetic engineering to produce more abundant crops, to create more nutritious foods, to eradicate certain diseases, and thereby to improve the quality of human life on earth. But in reality, although genes can be cut and spliced accurately in the test tube, the process of splicing them into a living organism is extremely imprecise. These manipulations can cause mutations that damage the functioning of the natural genes of the organism. Inserted genes can also cause unanticipated side effects: genetically engineered foods, for example, may contain toxins and allergens or be reduced in nutritional value--and consumers have, in fact, become sick and even died from such toxins already. Moreover, genetically engineered organisms may multiply and crossbreed with the natural, non-genetically engineered population, creating irreversible biological changes throughout earth's ecosystem.

NLPN: Yet many proponents of genetic engineering seem to envision it as a long-term panacea for the ills of humanity. What's your response?

Fagan: A scientist cannot speak from the platform of scientific objectivity and claim that something is a cure-all or is “absolutely safe”--especially something like genetic engineering, which manipulates isolated levels of natural law rather than working on the holistic level of natural law. As we've seen with nuclear energy, the power unleashed by such manipulations can be very great, and the potential dangers are equally great. When nuclear technology was developed, nobody knew that, within a few years, the human race would be threatened by mutually assured destruction. Nobody knew, when nuclear energy was harnessed to produce electricity, that we would be left with millions of tons of radioactive waste that will remain highly toxic for tens of thousands of years. Nobody knew, but we leapt ahead blindly and created serious long-term problems for ourselves and for future generations.

This is why we need to be more careful with genetic engineering, which operates on the level of the blueprint of life itself. It took millions of years for life on earth to evolve into the highly balanced, dynamic ecosystem with its countless lifeforms that we know today. Now, in a generation or less, most of our important food crops are being radically changed through genetic engineering, and this change will seriously impact the ecosystem as a whole, jeopardizing human health as well. My feeling is that until a genetically engineered product is proven safe, there's some question about it--and that's where I and the Natural Law Party take our stand. We want the implementation of genetic engineering to be guided by rigorous scientific safety standards.

NLPN: Are there indirect effects of genetically engineered products?

Fagan: Well, genetic engineering will almost certainly lead to increased chemical pollution of our environment. Crops engineered to be resistant to herbicides, for example, will lead to a tripling of agrichemical use by farmers to kill weeds--which will worsen the pollution of America's soil and groundwater. For example, the chemical company Monsanto has already engineered corn, soybeans, and sugar beets to be resistant to Roundup, one of Monsanto's herbicides. Industry officials have repeatedly claimed that Roundup is harmless to living things and is environmentally short-lived. However, preliminary studies in Denmark indicate that Roundup subsists in the soil for up to three years (and can hence be absorbed by subsequent crops), and other scientific evidence indicates that it causes toxic reactions in farm workers, damages reproductive functions in mammals, and harms fish, earthworms, and beneficial insects.

NLPN: Can't genetically engineered organisms be contained, either in laboratories or in test environments, so that they can't spread?

Fagan: Yes, but the release of such organisms, even unintentionally, is hard to avoid. The pollen of plants, for example, is carried by wind and by insects to neighboring fields and into the wild ecosystem, where that pollen can fertilize related plants--either crops or wild plants. In this way, genetically engineered genes will inevitably be introduced into those plants. And nobody can predict for certain the long-term effects of introducing a new set of bacteria or fish or plant genes into the delicate dynamics of our ecosystem. Moreover, once genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment--whether accidentally or deliberately--there is no way to recall them. They will perpetuate themselves ad infinitum, and over the years they will interact with many other genes and environmental factors. This complexity of interactions will lead to effects on the ecosystem that simply cannot be predicted.

NLPN: Why would this process be any different than natural selection—or than the crossbreeding techniques farmers already use?]

Fagan: Proponents of genetic engineering often claim that this technology is just a natural extension of the traditional breeding practices that have been used for thousands of years to improve the quality of plants and animals we use for food. In fact, however, genetic engineering penetrates the natural reproductive barriers between species that maintain the balance and integration of life on earth.

Traditional breeders can cross one kind of pig with another, or a horse with a donkey, or one kind of tomato with another, but they can't cross a tomato with a fish--nature doesn't allow that kind of genetic intermixing. With genetic engineering, however, scientists have already introduced fish genes into tomatoes--and those tomatoes now sit unlabeled on your grocery shelf. Moreover, virtually every grain, legume, vegetable, and fruit has already been genetically engineered in the laboratory, and the industry intends to have all these foods on the grocery shelves within the next 5 to 8 years.

NLPN: You mentioned earlier that in some cases, genetic engineering has actually harmed people. Could you elaborate?

Fagan: Pioneer Hybrid International, the largest seed company in the world, genetically engineered soybeans by introducing a gene from Brazil nuts so that the soybeans would produce complete protein. But the Brazil nut component in the engineered soybeans caused allergic reactions in a significant portion of the population, so Pioneer abandoned the project. And when the Japanese company Showa Denko genetically engineered natural bacteria to produce the food supplement tryptophan more efficiently, the genetic manipulations caused the bacteria to produce a highly toxic substance in the tryptophan--a substance that was not detected until after the product was put on the market in 1989. As a result, 5000 people became ill, 1500 were permanently disabled, and 37 died.

NLPN: Shouldn't the Food and Drug Administration be responsible for monitoring these new foodstuffs and testing their safety?

Fagan: Yes, but present regulations are far too weak to assure safety. Since the actual process of genetic engineering cannot be well controlled, it would make sense to require careful testing of genetically engineered foods before they are placed on the market. But current testing is simply not adequate to detect the unexpected allergens and toxins that could be generated through genetic manipulations.

Moreover, as a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out, the testing of genetically engineered substances at present is largely voluntary--more than 90% of genetically engineered foods are not required to be tested before they enter the market. Consequently, the details of the testing programs are left primarily in the hands of the developers--namely, the biotech industry. We've left the fox guarding the chicken coop here. But I don't think that investors want a return on investment that sacrifices the health and safety of their children and loved ones, and genetic engineering challenges our security and our safety on that level. The biotech companies and our government are roping us all into a huge nutritional experiment, an experiment of global proportions being driven by commercial and political forces, and this is happening without our knowledge or consent.

NLPN: How would you address this issue with government leaders?

Fagan: Legislators and government representatives are always safe to base their decisions on rigorous scientific evidence, but they need to be aware of the environment within which a given scientist works. If a scientist is funded by a biotech industry--and most molecular biologists are, directly or indirectly--it's very hard for him or her to be scientifically unbiased and to give a balanced evaluation of this technology. And the public relations strategy of the biotech industry has been one of quieting concerns and nipping things in the bud before full-fledged dialogue begins; their experts typically say that the technology is too complicated for either legislators or the public to evaluate properly. However, without broad public dialogue on this or any other new technology, the implementation of the technology will be imbalanced. So decision makers should access a broad spectrum of scientific expertise in order to ensure that they get balanced information from all sides.

But the problems associated with what I call hazardous technologies are really symptoms of a deeper societal problem--namely, the vision of humanity, the clarity of people's thinking, the collective consciousness of our society. Surface problems and crises will come up again and again until we take the public dialogue to this deeper level and deal with the underlying problem. And this is the vision of the Natural Law Party--solutions based not simply on a superficial level of analysis, but on a deeper level that gets to the heart of the matter.

NLPN: What measures would you suggest to protect consumers?

Fagan: I, along with the Natural Law Party and Mothers for Natural Law, want the implementation of genetic engineering to be guided by science, rather than by economics or politics. Therefore, we stand for the following:

  • First, we call for more safety testing--more rigorous, objective, scientific testing of bioengineered organisms, especially foodstuffs.
  • Second, at the very least, we call for mandatory labeling of all genetically engineered foods, because consumers have the right to know what they're eating--especially when there's some risk. Even if genetically engineered foods are tested more rigorously, some residual risk will always be present, and consumers should have the right to choose whether or not to take that risk.
  • Third, as a remedial measure, we call for a ban on any product currently on the market that has not been adequately tested. We want those products removed from the marketplace until they're proven safe.
  • Fourth, in terms of the environment, we call for a ban on any use of genetic engineering in agriculture or in any other area that could result in the introduction of genetically engineered organisms into the ecosystem.

NLPN: How can today's consumers avoid eating genetically engineered foods if these foods aren't labeled?

Fagan: This is a critical question. One way would be to avoid every foodstuff known to have been genetically engineered. But soy is present in 60% of processed foods, corn is equally ubiquitous, and canola oil is quite common--and all have been engineered. So have potatoes, tomatoes. and yellow crooked-neck squash, as well as enzymes and hormones used in treating cows, which therefore end up in milk. The list goes on and on. So avoiding genetic engineering in this way is not really practical.

Thanks to the efforts of the Natural Law Party and other organizations, organic products are still safe at this point--they are free of genetically engineered ingredients, because organic certifiers have required it. But organic foods are expensive. So as a stop-gap measure, a number of food producers are developing lines of products that they will certify as being not genetically engineered. Within the next year, you can expect to see foods on your grocery shelves that have a little sticker saying “not genetically engineered” or “GE free.” But otherwise, it's risky. We really need mandatory labeling of these foods.

NLPN: A recent Novartis poll mentioned in the New York Times found that most Americans want genetically engineered foods to be labeled. But an almost equally large number felt these foods were safe.

Fagan: Novartis said that 93% of Americans wanted genetically engineered foods to be labeled. A recent poll in the U.K. confirmed these findings: 87% of U.K. citizens wanted labeling. And while it's true that most Americans have an open mind about genetically engineered foods, the fact that Americans wanted these foods labeled and that more than half of them had questions about genetic engineering indicates concern in the population about the safety of these foods. And it's a rightful concern. When you alter nature on this deep level of genetic blueprints, you simply cannot predict and control the outcome of those alterations. We need more control to make these outcomes safer.

NLPN: For those who'd like to help change public policy about genetically engineered foods, what courses of action would you recommend?

Fagan: Communication. Talk with your grocery store managers and ask them whether those tomatoes are genetically engineered. And if they say, “Well, I don't know,” then ask them to find out. Tell them you don't want genetically engineered foods, and tell them that other customers are concerned about this, too. Write letters to the grocery chains in your area, asking them to avoid genetically engineered foods. Ask them what their policy is in this area and whether they would take a stand on it. Write to your legislators--your senators, your representatives--and tell them that you're concerned about this issue. Write to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and tell him that his agency is not doing its job properly--that consumers should know about genetic engineering and that safety testing needs to be more rigorous.

With activities like these, of course, coordination is always important. The Natural Law Party has been working on this issue, as have Mothers for Natural Law and a number of other advocacy groups. Get involved with them. Donate some time. Get out there and help them make phone calls, or set up a press conference and see what comes out of that. Call your local radio stations and arrange to have a time slot opened up so that someone knowledgeable about this issue can speak to the radio audience. We can always have representatives of the Natural Law Party or Mothers for Natural Law speak--and sometimes I'm available as well--so do that.

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