[NAFEX] GMO and Breeding

Ginda Fisher list at ginda.us
Sat Dec 31 10:38:16 EST 2005

First, I should mention that I think genetic engineering is  
incredibly exciting, and offers the possibility of great rewards -  
especially in medicine, where there have already been successes in  
breeding plants, animals, and micro-organisms to produce, for  
instance, human insulin or human factor 8 making these delicate  
proteins available to sick people (in these cases, diabetics or  
hemophiliacs) much more safely than in any other way.  Prior to  
genetic engineering, diabetics got insulin from pork or beef and  
frequently became allergic to it.  Hemophiliacs got factor 8 from  
pooled human blood donations - and most of them were infected with  
AIDS shortly after it emerged.

I think it holds promise in crops too.  For instance, I hear there is  
work in inserting genes from apple trees that are resistant to  
fireblight into cultivars that are susceptible.  If this can be done  
without too much accidental damage to the rest of the genome, it  
could be very promising.

However, I am troubled by the lack of governmental oversight and  
consumer labeling.  The FDA (or whoever regulated this stuff - the  
department of agriculture?) decreed that genetically modified  
foodstuffs were essentially the same as conventionally bred  
foodstuffs, and did not require any special testing or tracking.  the  
only reason we have as much tracking as we do is because the  
Europeans (and some other food-buying nations) have refused to import  
the stuff, so the market needs to try to keep it separate.

On Dec 30, 2005, at 8:48 PM, Anton Callaway wrote:
. . .
> This brings me to the next point.  The fact is that the  
> agribusiness industry is >very< strictly regulated.  Government  
> regulators do not just "accept" reports from these companies.  It  
> is largely because of the government oversight (which I support)  
> that these products are so expensive to bring to market.  Even if  
> you buy into the notion that agribusiness is all about money, these  
> business folks are not stupid.  If they ever released an unsafe  
> food product, they would lose money and lots of it.  Even before  
> these potential products reach the government regulators, they have  
> passed layer upon layer of safety testing, allergenicity tests,  
> animal trials, metabolism studies, environmental impact studies,  
> digestion studies, and many other tests.  It is a process that is  
> decidedly more rigourous than food safety tests for other food  
> products, including the myriad of Ho-Ho's and ring-pops that pose a  
> real threat to our nation's dietary health.
. . .

I'm glad to hear the agribusiness industry is concerned about safety,  
but your claims about government oversight directly contradict what I  
have read.  Perhaps my sources have been biased.  I probably get most  
of my GMO news from "New Scientist", which is a British publication  
aimed at a population that is intensely wary of GMO food.  I also  
heard something to the effect that there is no government oversight  
of GMO food on an NPR program recently.  I would appreciate any  
source of info on how much government oversight we actually have  
around GMO food.  (GMO drugs are very carefully tested, of course, as  
are all new drugs.)

The second issue around GMO food, other than the safety question, is  
the problem with private ownership of the genome of common food  
plants.  If a farmer lives downwind from someone who grows GMO crops,  
and his seed is contaminated with patented genes, he can be sued and  
put out of business for saving and growing his own seed.  That wasn't  
the intent of the law, but it is the consequence of the promiscuity  
of plants and existing patent protection laws as they apply to  
crops.  Frankly, I think the problem here is the law more than the  
crops (his special crop could be contaminated with genes from any  
other crop, too) but I don't see any likelihood that the law will be  
changed.  In fact, patent protection just keeps getting tougher, as  
far as I can tell.  The GMO companies have offered "suicidal" genes  
that don't grow the second year, but that just means instead of  
having a contaminated crop the unfortunate downwind farmer has a crop  

It is not a coincidence that the US is less concerned about GMO than,  
say Ireland or England.  Most of the countries that control the genes  
are US companies.  (I think there's a big Swiss one, too.)  They are  
not going to act in a way that leads the children of their officers  
to starve.  There is zero chance that some international incident  
will cause an American company to refuse to sell seed to American  
farmers.  (Unless we start outsourcing our production of GMOs, I  
suppose)  People in most other countries don't have that certainty,  
and are much warier of allowing a foreign company to control their  
food supply.   I mentioned England and Ireland.  Both of those  
countries (and especially Ireland, which is especially hostile to  
GMO) are all too familiar with the problems that can arise when  
outsiders control your means of production of food.  No one wants to  
be on the receiving end of the next potato famine.


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