Controversy Grows over Genetically Altered Plants, Animals

Published July 1, 1999

Over two decades ago, “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” poked fun at horror movies. Even today, that film and others quite accurately reflect the irrational fears of genetically engineered crops.

The critics of technological advance still walk among us–sounding much like the U.S. Air Force officer in “Dr. Strangelove”–warning that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a conspiracy “to rob us of our precious bodily fluids.” The doomsayers’ prophecies come despite any evidence that GMOs will in fact hurt our health or our environment.

This spring, for example, British newspapers warned readers that “Frankenstein foods” were coming soon to local markets. Europe has banned the import of hormone-treated U.S. beef, although trade rules call for safety standards based on science rather than popular fears. The World Trade Organization has ruled against the ban, because it lacks scientific evidence to support claims that the hormones are harmful to humans. But Europe has yet to lift its restrictions.

Genetic modification techniques can be used to modify plant reproduction processes, to ensure that the plants never lose certain characteristics or to make them insect proof. Animals, too, can be “engineered” to enhance desired qualities.

But those who oppose genetic modification argue, for example, that making a plant infertile in order to maintain its qualities means that seeding will stop in subsequent years. And efforts to make plants more insect-resistance will result only in the creation of “super bugs” that will require even stronger pesticides to control them.

“With so many pitfalls and the doubts about its benefits, the U.S. government should take a precautionary approach to genetic engineering,” urged Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, in a March 3 Chicago Tribune op-ed piece. “Any other approach is a gamble with our health and our environment.”

In the May 20 issue of Nature, Cornell University entomologist John Losey reports that genetically engineered corn may endanger monarch butterfly populations in the Midwest. So-called Bt corn produces a caterpillar-killing pollen that, in Losey’s study, proved poisonous to monarchs. Critics questioned whether the results Losey achieved in the lab would be replicated in the real world.

“It is quite clear that the study has little relation to the situation monarch butterflies would encounter in the world,” commented Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “It is clearer that Bt corn is a much friendlier environment than one sprayed with insecticides.”

Opponents of gene-altering technology say polls show that growing numbers of people around the world do not trust the new genetically altered produce. When the produce is packaged for human consumption, they want it clearly labeled to reflect GMO processing.

Said Blackwelder, “This year, a Time magazine poll found that 58 percent of Americans would avoid purchasing genetically altered foods if they were labeled so.”

The GMO controversy received international attention early this year in Cartagena, Columbia, where delegates from 170 countries met to create an international “Biosafety Protocol.” But little headway was made at the meeting, as those favoring free-market alternatives clashed with those determined to protect farmers whose livelihoods they say would be lost to a powerful biotechnology industry.

Blackwelder blames the United States and several other countries for “torpedoing” the conference, but the Economist noted a bright spot in the meeting: the opposing sides did not break down into the traditional rich- and poor-country camps.

“Argentina and Mexico lined up with America in favor of free trade. Though they are poor by western standards, they saw advantages in embracing GMOs,” reported the newspaper.