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How do we measure the potential risks of genetically modified crops?

While the promise of genetic engineering is very much in evidence, this same genetic engineering has this summer been the cause of outright war between researchers and protesters in England. In June, 1999, British protesters attacked an experimental plot of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets; the following August they destroyed a test field of GM canola (used for cooking oil and animal feed). The contrast could not be more marked between American acceptance of genetically modified crops on the one hand, and European distrust of genetically modified foods, on the other. The intense feelings generated by this dispute point to the need to understand how we measure the risks associated with the genetic engineering of plants.

Two sets of risks need to be considered. The first stems from eating genetically modified foods, the other concerns potential ecological effects.

Is eating genetically modified food dangerous?

Protesters worry that genetically modified food may have been rendered somehow dangerous. To sort this out, it is useful to bear in mind that bioengineers modify crops in two quite different ways. One class of gene modification makes the crop easier to grow; a second class of modification is intended to improve the food itself.

The introduction of Roundup-resistant soybeans to Europe is an example of the first class of modification. This modification has been very popular with farmers in the United States, who planted half their crop with these soybeans this year. They like GM soybeans because the beans can be raised without intense cultivation (weeds are killed with Roundup herbicide instead), which both saves money and lessens soil erosion. But is the soybean that results nutritionally different? No. The gene that confers Roundup resistance in soybeans does so by protecting the plant's ability to manufacture so-called "aromatic" amino acids. In unprotected weeds, by contrast, Roundup blocks this manufacturing process, killing the weed. Because humans don't make any aromatic amino acids anyway (we get them in our diets), Roundup doesn't hurt us. The GM soybean we eat is nutritionally the same as an "organic" one, just cheaper to produce.

In the second class of modification, where a gene is added to improve the nutritional character of some food, the food will be nutritionally different. In each of these instances, it is necessary to examine the possibility that consumers may prove allergic to the product of introduced gene. In one instance, for example, addition of a methionine-enhancing gene from Brazil nut into soybeans (which are deficient in this amino acid) was discontinued when six of eight individuals allergic to Brazil nuts produced antibodies to the GM soybeans, suggesting the possibility of a reverse reaction. Instead, in work reported yesterday at this Congress, methionine levels in GM crops are being increased with genes from sunflowers. Screening for allergy problems is now routine.

On both scores, then, the risk of bioengineering to the food supply seems to be very slight. GM foods to date seem completely safe.

Are GM crops harmful to the environment?

What are we to make of the much-publicized report that Monarch butterflies might be killed by eating pollen blowing out of fields planted with GM corn? First, it should come as no surprise. The GM corn was engineered to contain an insect-killing toxin (harmless to people) in order to combat corn borer pests. Of course it will kill any butterflies or other insects in the immediate vicinity of the field. What we should focus on is the fact that the GM corn fields do not need to be sprayed with pesticide to control the corn borer. An estimated $9 billion in damage is caused annually by the application of pesticides in the U.S., and billions of insects and other animals, including an estimated 67 million birds, are killed each year. This pesticide-induced murder of wildlife is far more damaging ecologically than any possible effects of GM crops on butterflies.

Will pests become resistant to the GM toxin? Not nearly as fast as they now become resistant to the far higher levels of chemical pesticide we sprayed on crops.

How about the possibility than introduced genes will pass from GM-crops to their wild or weedy relatives? This sort of gene flow happens naturally all the time, and so this is a legitimate question. The answer, it seems to me, is "So what?" What if genes for resistance to Roundup herbicide spread from cultivated sugar beets to wild populations of sugar beets in Europe? Why would that be a problem? Besides, there is almost never a potential relative around to receive the modified gene from the GM crop. There are no wild relatives of soybeans in Europe, for example. Thus there can be no gene escape from GM soybeans in Europe, any more than genes can flow from you to other kinds of animals.

On either score, then, the risk of bioengineering to the environment seems to be very slight. Indeed, in some cases it lessens the serious environmental damage produced by cultivation and agricultural pesticides.

While there seems little tangible risk in the genetic modification of crops, public assurance that these risks are being carefully assessed is important. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced last summer "an independent scientific review" of how our government's regulatory agencies measure the safety of GM organisms.

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