Genetic modification issues cause apprehension

by Max Rust

In farm houses, corporate offices and Washington D.C. bureaus, people who deal with food are concerned about the growing apprehension toward genetically modified plants and animals.
While several countries are developing labelling systems for these commodities, direct actions opposing biotechnology are rapidly hitting American research projects, evidenced last week when vandals partially destroyed a genetically modified oat project on the University’s St. Paul campus.
Industry players are having to make tough decisions.
In the fields, farmers are wondering whether to buy genetically modified seeds to plant this spring. In office towers, corporate executives are deciding how to handle genetically modified crops.
Now, federal officials are showing their concern with last month’s announcement of the 38-member Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology. The committee, comprised of members from all areas of the agriculture industry, will advise U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman on biotechnology issues, from the testing labs to the dinner plate.
More committee members are from institutions in Minnesota than from any other state.
Included in the group is Anne Kapuscinski, a University professor of fisheries and conservation biology who also heads the University’s Institute for Social, Economic and Ecological Sustainability.
Some of the more heated debates sure to surface when the committee convenes in March will include whether, and how to, label genetically modified goods, how to level the global playing field regarding modified seeds and how scientists can ensure environmental safety when experimenting with agricultural biotechnology.
Biosafety net
Environmental safety is one facet of the biotechnology discussion Kapuscinski said she will be sure to bring to the table.
Kapuscinski said she wants to highlight the importance of ecological and human health risk assessment when developing genetically modified organisms, an area of research sometimes overlooked by geneticists developing the technology.
“I have been concerned for some time that there’s been a tendency to place more emphasis on the scientific information that points to the benefits of the technology,” Kapuscinski said. “The scientific know-how you need to figure out the benefits is not the same scientific know-how you need to figure out the risks.”
In some cases, the rush to get products to the markets first can cause biotech companies to overlook assessing potential environmental and health risks.
Perhaps the most popular case of inadequate risk assessment that critics point to is a Cornell University study that found pollen from corn designed to poison pests can taint nearby milkweed plants. In turn, monarch butterfly caterpillars that feed on the plants are inadvertently killed. Similar studies have since been conducted and have found contradicting evidence.
But dubious cases of biotech risk assessment are not limited to field crops.
A/F Protein, a Massachusetts-based company, is hoping to offer consumers the first genetically modified animal for human consumption in 2001.
By inserting a growth hormone gene naturally produced in the Chinook salmon into Atlantic salmon, researchers have created a “supersalmon” that can grow 400 to 500 percent faster than a natural salmon, cutting the fishes’ maturity age in half.
In a separate project at Purdue University, researcher Howard Muir discovered that although biotech salmon might have a mating advantage over wild salmon, not all biotech fish would be able to mate with their natural counterparts. Using a computer model to test a hypothesis, Muir found crossbreeding of the fish could exponentially reduce the population of the wild species and weaken the gene pool.
But despite these and other concerns, A/F Protein already has a company ready to raise and distribute the fish if the Federal Drug Agency approves it.
Argentina and soybeans
Many farmers are concerned about the global structure of the seed industry. For instance, Minnesota farmers who use genetically modified soybeans have to pay extra expenses under American regulations that their competitors in Argentina do not.
The modified soybean seeds are produced by biotech giant Monsanto. Before American farmers plant them, they have to sign an agreement to not use seeds from the harvest in the following year’s season.
“When you charge one going rate in one country and another price in another country, and we, as producers, are competing against these other people for world market share, then we’ve got a problem,” said committee member Michael Yost, a Minnesota soybean farmer and president of the American Soybean Association.
Japan, Korea and the European Union have passed laws that require genetically modified foods to be labelled.
Earlier this month, 133 nations met in Montreal and passed the Biosafety Protocol, a document intended to place environmental and health concerns ahead of biotech profits.
What came out of the meeting was a labelling strategy stating that worldwide bulk shipments of biotechnologically enhanced commodities must be labelled: “may contain living modified organisms.”
The issue of labelling has raised concern among farmers who are wondering what kinds of crops to grow, as well as corporations like Frito-Lay, who recently announced they will hold off accepting genetically modified corn for their products.
While some members of the committee surely will call for mandatory labels, others in the industry would like to see a more voluntary approach to the issue.
Austin Sullivan, vice president of General Mills, Inc. who is also on the advisory committee, said he is open to the idea of a labelling system and thinks a market approach would make sense.
“It’s a marketplace test,” he said. “If there are enough people out there who want that information, then a company would be willing to bear the added expense of providing that information because there was enough of a market for it.”

Max Rust covers agriculture and University communities and welcomes comments at [email protected]