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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Risks and Benefits of GMOs

Attack of the killer tomatoes?

Miriam Schulman
  • Allowed to ripen on the vine naturally, this ruby tomato comes to your table with more homegrown taste. By drawing on the best traditions of crossbreeding, biotechnology has created a better-tasting tomato, available year-round.
  • Although it may be as pretty as a plastic fruit, this tomato has been produced by introducing modified organisms into the plant's natural genetic material. It is the product of laboratory manipulations whose consequences for consumer health and for the environment are unknown.

These two paragraphs describe the same tomato. They also lay out the conflict over–well, even in naming the subject, we risk prejudicing the discussion. Are we talking about genetically modified or even Frankenfoods (as in Frankenstein); or are we talking about a new Green Revolution? This is a controversy where language not only defines but also is part of the problem.

Both sides would agree that we are talking about food whose genetic properties have been altered through technology, often by splicing a desired gene from one species–the cold tolerance of a mackerel, for example–into the genetic code of another species, such as a tomato.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, last year, 39.9 million hectares worldwide (about 98.6 million acres) were planted in these transgenic crops. The vast majority of this acreage is given over to herbicide-tolerant soybeans and insect-resistant corn.

These facts are about the end of the agreement on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Then the war of images takes over.

The Scientists Meet the Butterfly People

"On one hand, you have the proponents who are talking about the benefits of genetic engineering in terms of science," says Martin Calkins, S.J., assistant professor of business ethics at Santa Clara University. "On the other, you have people in butterfly costumes."

Calkins points out that many opponents are not really making an argument so much as calling on a whole complex of culturally suggestive images. The butterfly costumes refer specifically to the monarch, which a study published in Nature magazine reports may be harmed by pollen from modified corn. But the costumes also "call up our previous abuses of other voiceless creatures–the snail darters, the passenger pigeons, the Carolina parakeets," Calkins says.

In general, he argues, opponents have been good at drawing on language and image to create doubt about genetic engineering. "When you use language that is negative and confrontational, when you call the product a genetically modified organism instead of a genetically enhanced food, you’re conveying a kind of creepiness to the whole process."

The truth is, many people have a touch of the heebie-jeebies at the notion of playing with the basic building blocks of life–the genes. England’s Prince of Wales, for example, has argued that GMOs take "mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone."

Even for the non-religious, transgenic crops can violate the maxim so memorably stated in the old margarine commercials: "It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature." Many opponents believe that the genetic code of every organism has evolved over millions of years and that tampering with it is an act of hubris.

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

Andrew Starbird, chair of the Food and Agribusiness Institute at SCU, counters, "We’ve been fooling Mother Nature for thousands of years by selective breeding of plants and animals…. Bioengineering is just a more refined process, which will probably result in more productive animals and plants at a lower cost than traditional breeding methods."

Is genetic manipulation just an extension of age-old methods of husbandry, or is the transgenic aspect of this crossbreeding a difference more in kind than degree? When adherents of opposing views on this question butt heads, the result is a stalemate on the order of controversies over abortion and capital punishment, Calkins believes.

"On the one hand, you have people who believe that the laws of nature cannot and should not be violated, that the basic structure of the created order shouldn’t be tampered with. On the other hand, you have those who hold that there are a whole number of competing goods, and that we must weigh those goods in a pragmatic or utilitarian way."

The Catholic Church has come down somewhere in the middle: four square against tampering with the human genome but ready to give a "prudent yes" to the engineering of plants and animals. As Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Catholic News Service, "We are increasingly encouraged that the advantages of genetic engineering of plants and animals are greater than the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness, analysis, and controls, but without a sense of alarm."

Microwaves or DDT

What are the risks? Here, the war of the metaphors begins in earnest. In evaluating the risks, "you can draw analogies to several other new technologies developed over the past 50 years," Starbird says. "Bioengineered foods might be like microwaves, a product that people originally thought might give you cancer but that is now widely accepted." Or, he continues, GMOs might be like DDT, a pesticide that was touted as the key to higher production but that eventually resulted in harm to birds and fish.

So far, no medical harm to humans has been traced to ingesting GMOs. Of course, the fact that no harm has been established is not the same as proving that GMOs pose no dangers.

One concern is the potential for allergic reactions. Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist for agricultural biotechnology at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains that introducing proteins from one plant into another–a peanut into a bean, for example–may also introduce that plant’s allergenicity. "Also," she says, "the technology may be introducing new allergens that have never been in the food supply before because some of the genes that are being added come from soil microorganisms that have never been ingested before."

On a broader scale, there are potential risks to the environment. Crops are not self-contained organisms; they spread their pollen on the wind or on the legs of insects to other plants. As a consequence, a gene that has been spliced into one plant may inadvertently enter another.

Norman Ellstrand, professor of genetics at University of California, Riverside, did some of the seminal studies on how crops mate with their wild relatives. Despite early skepticism, Ellstrand established substantial levels of hybridization between domestic and wild varieties. Of the top 25 most important crops in the world, 23, he says, will cross to some significant degree with their wild neighbors.

"What are the implications for transgenes?" he asks. "Well, if you put a gene into a sunflower that you don‘t want in a wild relative–herbicide resistance, for example–you will be sure to get that trait in the wild population. And the worst weed for a sunflower is a wild sunflower."

Aside from the danger of super-weeds, GMOs may pose dangers for other creatures in the ecosystem. "Crops that are engineered to be pesticidal may harm insects other than those they were intended to repel," says Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Finally, there is some concern about the rapaciousness of the companies that produce GMOs. Opponents worry that big corporations may use biotechnology to push others out of the market and thus make all farmers dependent on the large agricultural biotechnology companies. Monsanto is a favorite villain, (and, in the battle of images, is variously dubbed "Monsatan" or "Mutanto.")

The picture is complicated by what one side calls "seed sterility" and the other calls the "Terminator gene." This technology allows breeding of plants with seeds that will not reproduce. Companies can use it to prevent farmers from holding over seeds to grow another crop the following year. Such sterility may pose particular problems for poor farmers in the developing world, who rely on carrying seed over from one year to another.

But, it may also help them, according to SCU Professor of Biology, William Eisinger. Eisinger worries that unique strains of crops developed over many generations in remote areas may be corrupted or displaced by genetically engineered varieties. While seed sterility may make some farmers dependent on large corporations, it may also protect others by preventing their varieties from being adulterated through hybridization. "Terminator technology is very much a double-edged sword," he allows.

Weighing Risks and Benefits

What Eisinger says of Terminator technology seems true of many genetic modifications. Given the complexities, how can we evaluate whether the risks of GMOs are worth assuming? That’s a hard question to answer in a vacuum. In each case of genetic engineering, the risk has to be weighed against the potential benefits, according to Margaret McLean, director of biotechnology and health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

One of the most compelling cases, says McLean, is the genetic manipulation that has allowed scientists to make rice produce useable beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. In Asia, for example, where rice is a staple, an estimated quarter million people go blind every year from Vitamin A deficiency.

"Here’s a population that doesn’t have access to most of the world’s goods, and for want of Vitamin A, they go blind. If we’re talking about allocating resources fairly or privileging those who have borne society’s burdens, then we should consider this use of genetic engineering," McLean argues.

But the risks from other bioengineering applications may not be balanced out by the benefits. "Are you doing the manipulation to increase the profits for some large agribusiness? Is the intended result purely cosmetic?" she asks. "Then you might evaluate the risks differently."

One of the problems in evaluating risks and benefits, McLean says, is that "right now, risk is being defined by those who are frightened, and that’s because of the previous deceptive practices of the market."

McLean is referring to the fact that GMOs have been on the market for almost a decade without U.S. consumers being alerted to their presence. About 50 percent of soybeans grown in the United States last year were genetically modified, and those soybeans became part of countless processed foods from oils to cereals. And yet nothing in the label on these products has ever indicated the presence of genetic modifications. McLean believes that this secretiveness has made consumers skeptical of reassurances that genetic modifications are safe.

Slap a Label on It

To date, the Federal Food and Drug Administration has not required labeling that indicates a product has been genetically altered unless it contains one of the eight most common food allergens. More stringent labeling would be one way to increase trust in the process, McLean says. That way, at least consumers could choose whether they wanted to expose themselves to the potential risks of eating GMOs.

The European Union already requires labeling of any food with 1 percent or more genetically modified ingredients. Indeed, a lot of the current wariness about GMOs began in Europe, where, according to agribusiness consultant Michael Harwood (MBA ’92), consumers have no independent scientific bodies like the FDA or Environmental Protection Agency to regulate food safety.

Harwood, who teaches Agricultural Biotechnology in Santa Clara’s MBA program, says Europeans have had disastrous experiences with government regulation. In Britain, for example, mad cow disease was pooh-poohed by government scientists for years before they had to admit the probability that this devastating neurological disease was caused by British cattle-feeding practices. Although mad cow disease is totally unrelated to GMOs, it did create a "shapeless sort of fear that really sensitized the whole country to the possibility of something going wrong with the food supply," Harwood says. Similar food debacles in Belgium and other countries have undermined European confidence in scientific reassurances.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Calkins thinks that those who want to see further development of GMOs are going to have to establish trust with the other side, but he doesn’t see that happening by simply conducting more laboratory experiments to prove the safety of genetic engineering. With biotech opponents appealing to imagery and folklore, Calkins says, "businesses need to develop counter-images or offsetting cases about their good character."

An example might the Green Revolution, the series of technological innovations in the 1960s and ’70s that dramatically increased the yields of rice, corn, wheat and other grains, particularly in the developing world. The agronomist Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in this area.

Ironically, Harwood says, the Green Revolution was achieved through a far more dangerous process than genetic engineering. Seeds were subjected to chemical and radioactive processes in order to induce random cell changes. "That’s far worse than the directed transfer of a single gene whose function is fairly well-known from one organism to another," he argues.

Still, the risks of GMOs are not yet adequately understood, according to many experts. Ellstrand says, "I often characterize biotechnology as an elephant, and we are all the blind men touching different parts. Those with an ecological background may be hanging onto the tusks and saying, ‘This is scary,’ while someone else may be feeling the trunk and saying, ‘Look at all the wonderful things it can do.’"

While Ellstrand describes himself as a centrist on the issue, he argues that "it’s important for scientists creating new technologies to be mindful of the consequences."

That, McLean concurs, is where the ethical edge lies. Those who reject absolutist rhetoric–either genetic modification equals playing God or genetic modification equals better living through science–can find themselves in the realm of what philosophers call "consequentialism." By this theory, a morally correct decision is made by a cost-benefit analysis of an action's consequences.

But in genetic engineering, as is so often the case in new technologies, the consequences cannot be fully known in advance. As a result, McLean argues, the onus is on proponents to monitor new knowledge as the technology evolves and to adjust or halt development if serious problems emerge.

"Genetically modified foods are neither sacrosanct nor demonic," she says. "It’s the context that matters: For what reason are they being developed? In what way? At what risks?"

Miriam Schulman is the director of publications at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article is reprinted from Santa Clara Magazine, the alumni publication of Santa Clara University.

This article appeared originally in the Summer 2000 issue of Santa Clara Magazine.

Jun 1, 2000