E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


More GMO risk research needed, says one Pew panelist

Also on CropChoice today:

By Michiel Wackers
CropChoice reporter

(Feb. 4, 2002 – CropChoice news) – The process of testing and regulating genetically engineered crops could be improved. That was one theme that panelists discussing the environmental impacts -- positive and negative -- of these foods expressed today. The Pew Initiative on Food Biotechnology sponsored the discussion, "Environmental Savior or Saboteur?" Margaret Warner, Senior Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, hosted the event featuring Charles Benbrook, an environmental consultant; Martina McGloughlin, director of the Biotechnology Program at UC-Davis, Carl Pope, President of the Sierra Club; and Peter Raven, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Pope and McGloughlin often staked out position 180 degrees apart. McGloughlin assumed that the problems growers have encountered will not be an issue with the next generation of transgenic seeds, while Pope contended that the entire agricultural biotechnology industry is plagued with an "Enron style" culture that essentially rejects public accountability or scrutiny. The other two panelists took less extreme positions with Benbrook siding more often with Pope and Raven with McGloughlin.

The debate essentially revolved around three themes: regulatory structure, farming practices, and effects on farmers in the developed and developing world.

Reforming a "cobbled framework" of regulation
Raven said that more peer review should be used in experimentation and research on the development and safety of transgenic crops.

Benbrook cited a University of Nebraska study in which Roundup Ready soybeans yielded less than conventional varieties. He noted that this study had posed particular questions that the current "cobbled together" regulatory framework would never ask. For example, are the crops safe and do they fulfill all the promises that the biotechnology companies make to farmers?

Carl Pope added to Benbrook’s reservations with the point that current industry standards essentially assume that altering one gene leads to only one change in the organism. However, in reality, he said, changing one gene can result in a number of new proteins. The current system does not test to see what other by-products result. Pope went on to say that potential results could be deadly.

Peter Raven implied that steps such as those taken in the United Kingdom should be followed here. The Royal Society just released a report on the safety of genetically modified food, which says that genetically modified food products licensed for sale in Britain are safe. But the report also questions the adequacy of commonly used safety tests, and calls for more research to rule out the possible allergenicity of transgenic varieties in humans.

Are current practices questionable?
Just as the panelists saw some room for improving regulation of transgenic foods, two of the panelists pointed out agronomic issues, including the possible creation of a "superpest."

Benbrook explained that the method of modifying a crop genetically is very evasive and essentially speeds up the process of evolution. He pointed out that over reliance on antibiotics to treat illness has contributed to bacteria gaining resistance. Essentially the same process is occurring now in the war against agricultural pests. Pope added that seeds modified to resist herbicides and insects are creating "superpests" in a period of 30 years, where other more conventional practices can maintain pest control for a century or more.

In response, Raven and McGloughlin both argued that agriculture, by its very nature, alters the environment. As a result, there will always be "selection pressure" on local species to evolve. McGloughlin proposed that genetic "pyramiding" could keep pests from evolving out of control.

Pyramiding is essentially a method of mixing and matching certain proteins in genes that produce different defensive mechanisms in crops against pests. McGloughlin claimed that this process would prove almost 100 percent successful in preventing the creation of a "superpest."

Peter Raven took a more practical argument and reiterated the need for science to study the good and bad uses of genetically modified crops. He explained that half a million tons of pesticides are used annually, causing the death of 70 million birds and tens of millions of insects, many of which are unintended victims, but it does put "selective pressure" on these animals to evolve. Agriculture needs to change its practices in combination with genetically modified crops to manage properly the system as a whole, he said.

Public focus on the farmers
While most of the panel discussion focused on the two themes above, the audience geared its questions toward the effects of the technology on farmers in the United States and in the rest of the world. One person asked why farmers in Mexico, Brazil and India were planting genetically modified seeds before their governments have approved use of the technology. Carl Pope replied that farmers there are trying to boost short-term profit at the expense of their long-term local ecologies.

Moreover, when asked whether it benefits third world farmers to buy seeds engineered to be used for one season, McGloughlin replied that this was an answer to the failure of traditional alternative practices in increasing crop yield. The seed is "package technology," that requires no additional training on the part of farmers and still produces results.

Yet, while there are promises of results, the moderator redirected the discussion to contamination and asked the panel flatly, "Is there contamination occurring?" Benbrook and Pope replied that contamination has been occurring, despite biotech companies promising that such events were unlikely to happen. Raven countered that most of these were stories designed to scare other farmers. He went on to explain that the question is not why such things have happened but rather what is the effect. While Raven put forth no knowledge of what the effects were, he assumed they were of far smaller consequence than some of his fellow panelist argued. Benbrook replied that "we have been wrong before about a lot of technology" and its purported benefits. "People said nuclear technology would be too cheap to meter and we were wrong about that."

It is clear that the debate on genetically modified foods is far from over. However, America’s grocery stores are full of products containing genetically modified ingredients--- about 70 percent of the fare contain them. McGloughlin reiterated that the next generation of transgenic foods will not be plagued by the problems we experience today. Pope said, "Let’s wait until we have a better product."


  • Charles Benbrook, an environmental consultant and the former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture, who has critiqued contemporary claims of environmental and economic benefits from today's genetically modified crops.

  • Martina McGloughlin, director of the Biotechnology Program at the University of California-Davis, who has written and lectured about the environmental benefits of biotechnology

  • Carl Pope, president of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has taken the position that there should be a moratorium on all genetically modified products until they have been adequately tested to better understand whether they pose environmental risks.

  • Peter Raven, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and "Hero of the Planet," according to Time Magazine. He has spoken about how biotechnology can be a boon to biodiversity, not a threat.