Are There Environmental Risks Associated With Genetically Engineered Field Crops?
Oct. 17, 2000
A version of this article originally appeared in Bioscan, the newsletter of the Toronto Biotechnology Initiative, in September of 1999. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
“What’s best for industry is not necessarily what’s best for society,” declared the University of Guelph’s Professor Ann Clark at the April 15th TBI (Toronto Biotechnology Initiative) breakfast meeting. Clark assumed a politically charged stance against the proliferation of agricultural genetic engineering technology, and found herself pitted against two other panellists: fellow Guelph professor Mark Sears and London’s Dr. Jim Brandle.
Drs. Brandle and Sears each gave detailed presentations on the technical benefits of molecular farming and other methods of altering crop genes. Since molecular farming technology allows cheaper and more rapid production of such useful products as vaccines, haemoglobin, antibodies, biodegradable plastics and industrial pharmaceuticals, Brandle argued, its benefits far outweigh its potential ecological and economic risks. Among those risks are the possibility that an altered species will escape into the food chain; that unanticipated toxins will be produced; that there might be accidental admixture of transgenes with food crops; or indeed that the actual transgenes themselves would slip out of labs and be taken up from the soil by opportunistic organisms such as bacteria.
While insisting that the possible mixture of altered with natural crops is incredibly unlikely, Dr. Brandle nevertheless commented, “If you want to blow up your $9 billion canola business, this is the way.”
Dr. Sears’ research into the creation of pest-resistant strains of common crops, such as canola, potatoes and soybean, lead him to conclude that it is the responsibility of Canada’s biotech community to ensure that this technology become available to all who might benefit from it, including developing countries who desperately seek to increase their food yield. It was his contention that fears concerning the outcrossing of transgenic genes, and the threat of destroying insect populations via the introduction of resistant plant strains, are not founded upon strong evidence. In direct contradiction to one of Dr. Clark’s points, Dr. Sears further stated that the transfer to organisms of extracellular DNA left in the soil does not pose a significant threat.
The ensuing debate between the three panellists was quite heated, with Dr. Clark making a strong plea for more dollars to be spent on risk assessment, and more power transferred to the true stake-holders, the citizens. The opposing arguments focused on the overwhelming potential benefits of the technology: the reduction of the use of broad-spectrum insecticides, the simplification of pest management, the increased affordability of living bioreactors, and the undeniable increase in crop yield. Dr. Sears made the bold prediction that, “genetic engineering will sustain us for the next 50 years.”
In many ways, however, Dr. Clark’s main thesis was demonstrated by her colleagues’ presentations: that professions tend to view issues from the narrow perspective of their professional training, with limited regard for the larger economic, social and ethical picture. Her impassioned call for a greater role of risk assessors, and for the intervention of government and citizen groups to help dictate regulations for applying genetic technology to food crops, found a chord of sympathy among the multidisciplinary audience. All three panellists did agree that more research dollars need to be spent, and that Canada has been particularly negligent in commissioning risk assessment and impact studies.