Transcript for "Twists in the Genetic Revolution"
September 8th, 2000
Digital West Show #131 - Aired on KQED "public" TV
Note that this discussion was funded by an outfit providing a full range of legal services to the high technology community for over 25 years.>
REBECCA ROBERTS, HOST, DIGITAL WEST: Scientists and policy makers, farmers and consumers are hotly debating genetically modified food. Hear what U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and others involved in the controversy have to say about the future of our food supply right now on Digital West.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Hello and welcome to Digital West. I'm Rebecca Roberts. Depending on your point of view genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are either an agricultural boon or an unpredictable environmental threat. Tonight we'll ask the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture how the government develops policies governing GMOs, and later in the program we'll talk to experts on both sides of the issue. First we turn to science reporter Lilah McCrae for an explanation about the science behind GM food.
DW REPORTER: The first breakthrough in genetically modified food came out of UC-Davis in 1994. The Flavr-Savr tomato was developed to travel better, be bruise resistant, and to last longer on supermarket shelves. While the Flavr-Savr was developed to be more attractive to consumers, scientistsare also using biotechnology to create crops that are resistant to pests or add nutritional value to common agricultural products. Some experiments create seeds that become sterile after only one growing season, requiring farmers to buy new seeds each year. But how is all this genetic manipulation done? Scientists identify and extract one particular gene, which is a strand of DNA that determines hereditary makeup. They take that from one organism and insert it in another. The two organisms don't even need to be similar species. For example, a bacterial gene that makes bacteria resistant to certain pests can be inserted into a corn plant making it pest resistant too. The result, farmers can plant fields of corn that can fight off destructive pests without the use of chemical pesticides. Since the introduction of this technology, farmers' use of genetically altered seeds have skyrocketed. Current estimates show that about one-third of US corn and one-half of US soybeans are genetically modified. But recent protests claim theres not enough scientific data to say conclusively that genetically altered food is safe. There are concerns that pollen from genetically modified crops may spread to other plants, and some worry that transplanted genetic material could trigger unexpected allergic reactions. Protesters are also concerned that consumers have no way of knowing that the food they buy in the grocery stores could be genetically modified. That's because the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to label genetically altered foods. These and other consumer concerns are now causing farmers to think twice before planning their next cycle of genetically altered crops.
REBECCA ROBERTS: As scientists continue to discuss the pros and cons of GM food, many calling for political solutions. I recently had an opportunity to ask US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman about how the government is approaching GM food from a policy perspective. Let's take a look: Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, welcome to Digital West. Thanks for being here.
DAN GLICKMAN: Thank you. Thank you.
REBECCA ROBERTS: We are discussing today genetically modified food or genetically modified organisms, GMO. One of the reasons the debate has gone on, there is a lack of US standards on GMO. Why aren't there US clear standards?
DAN GLICKMAN: This is a fairly new technology as it is affecting foods. Now, we have been modifying foods -- when I say "we" -- industry and research has been modifying foods since, you know, probably for several thousand years. But -- but only in the last decade or so have we looked at the issue of doing genetic engineering on foods to give them certain qualities; for example, resistance to certain pesticides or growing food with less water or increasing vitamin or nutritional content or doing other things. Its a fairly new phenomenon and we are, at the same time, now improving our regulatory system to meet those new phenomenon.
REBECCA ROBERTS: One of the things that's been suggested is labeling. Where does the US government stand on labeling these foods?
DAN GLICKMAN: I think it is important to understand the differences on the government agencies on this thing. USDA is really not directly involved in the labeling of food. That's an FDA issue because it relates to food safety, but recently they have indicated some regulatory changes in the whole issue of the labeling regime. We at USDA are largely involved in regulating genetic engineering as it relates to other plants and other animals so that theyre not harmfully affected by genetic engineering. FDA does the food safety, and EPA deals with the issues relating to pesticides. Genetic engineering would create an impact on pesticides. We are in the process of looking at these labeling issues. We're seeing more and more companies getting involved in the labeling of food products. I've actually encouraged companies to do that. But at the current stage, it's still on a voluntary basis and, by and large, not regulated by the government.
REBECCA ROBERTS: One of the criticisms of labeling is that the information in a vacuum would just scare consumers; that without enough information then that wouldn't help them make a decision. Whose responsibility is it to educate consumers?
DAN GLICKMAN: I think it's -- the government's responsibility is to have a good solid, regulatory system arm's length from industry and is science-based. For that reason, we have asked the National Academy of Sciences to come in and look at our regulatory system at USDA to make sure it is modern and the public has confidence in it. As long as the public have confidence in our food safety system, they will not be scared and they will make the decisions based on sound scientific judgment. But ultimately, these are market decisions to make and these are decisions that are going to have to be made by consumers and by the food companies. That's why, by and large, if you have to err, I think you err on the side of giving the public information, the kind of labeling that would be useful to them. And we've done that with nutritional labeling, we do that with an awful lot of other things, and I think ultimately you'll see more and more of this in genetic engineering. But it is not the government's responsibility to do anything other than to make sure that the foods are safe and to have a regulatory system out there that gives people the confidence foods are safe. After that, really it is up to the consumers and the industry itself to work out whether they buy or sell these things or not.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Of course, consumer confidence is sort of a moving target. And, as more and more protests in Europe make the news here, are you seeing a change in public opinion here about GM foods, and how do you gauge public opinion?
DAN GLICKMAN: Let me say this, I think there is certainly more interest in the whole issue of genetically engineered foods. We have found that at USDA, as weve dealt with the issue of organic foods we are about ready this year to issue national rules on organic certification because that is a very rapidly growing market. We have made the decision, early on, that genetically engineered foods would not -- could not be classified as organic. And that was largely due to the public concern about what organic foods are. It doesn't mean genetically engineered foods aren't safe; but from the standpoint of organic, weve made the decision consumers do not want GMO foods as part of the organic scenario. But, you know, ultimately, I think consumers will be governed by issues of safety. And they will then make choices based on safety and quality and price and as long as we have the best science governing the regulatory system, then I think that ultimately they will make their judgments based upon sound scientific principles and a rational basis. There is some hysteria, frankly, in Europe and other parts of the world and some of the concerns about genetically engineered foods are not really based on science, at least not on sound science but maybe political science or based on fears or other kinds of things. But we can't just poo-poo that, we cant just say that thats stupid. We have to understand there is some legitimate concern out there by consumers that they are eating safe food. And we have a responsibility, as a government, to have the best regulatory system we can possibly have.
REBECCA ROBERTS: It's also not just a pro-science versus anti-science debate, there are scientists on both sides of the issue.
DAN GLICKMAN: There are. But we have scientists on the sides of all sorts of issues, and ultimately you have to come down with a public policy decision based on this, you know, overwhelming preponderance of the evidence. But you also have to understand -- I'm sure people out there watching the show do -- that consumers have a lot of reasons why they buy food, and that is one of the reasons why I think ultimately you're gonna see more and more genetically engineered foods labeled. We've got to come up with a good way of labeling and a way that gives people the kind of information that they need so that labeling makes some sense. But I think that people like to know what's in their food. I'm not sure the government ought to be telling them at every stage what's in their food, but they really do need to have a system to know what's in their foods.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Do you, I know it's an FDA issue, but do you see moving from voluntary to mandatory labeling?
DAN GLICKMAN: I would say right now, I don't have any evidence to know exactly how we would move to a mandatory system. Until such time as more work is done on thresholds, for example, to know how you measure the level of GM foods, and other kinds of issues like that, I think it's gonna be tough to do that. But I do think probably that you're gonna see more and more companies, probably, go down this road. And we in the government have to make sure that we have the kind of systems in place so we can measure GM foods so then people will then know what kind of standards to actually meet if, in fact, foods are going be labeled. Let me say this: my own judgment, my own belief that the foods that are out there that have been approved in the marketplace are safe. I don't have any concern about safety. I think that some of the issues here go beyond those issues of safety to issues of choice. And people like to know what's in their foods, and so I think we in the government are gonna continue to explore all the ways that we could try to help this labeling issue out by providing the kind of testing and criteria so we can label intelligently.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Secretary Glickman, thank you for being on Digital West. Dan Glickman is the US Secretary of Agriculture.
There are two battles being fought over genetically modified food; one about science, the other about policy. Head for our message board at dw.kqed.org, and tell us who you think should ultimately make decisions about introducing GM food to the environment and why. Then vote in our online poll. Tonight's question - should manufacturers be required to label foods containing GMOs? You'll also find complete transcripts of this and all our other programs, links to additional online information and more, all that at dw.kqed.org.
REBECCA ROBERTS: The battle over GM food involves more than scientists, policy makers, and members of the public. Many American farmers find themselves caught in the middle of conflicting demands. To see how this debate looks from the fields, we visited a family farm in Yolo County northeast of San Francisco.
BLAKE HARTMAN: My name is Blake Hartman, a fifth generation farmer here in Woodlawn, California. I grow tomatoes, wheat, corn, alfalfa, rice, and some other crops. If the economics were there for us to do well as is, you wouldn't see the interest on the growers' side to adapt to GMO foods. But when we budget for, let's just say, for example, a corn crop, we know how many times we're going to have to go through a field, we know how much nitrogen we need to put on, we know how much water we need to put on. When we have an option to cut any of these operations, it's attractive to us. We need to do it cheaper to -- to make money because we're struggling. The agriculture industry is struggling very much right now with -- with the margins we're working on. And when we see the option to use GMO products and the advantages that they offer, we want to get them implemented because in the system that we work in right now, we need help. I think, as we come under more scrutiny and more regulations and more restrictions on chemicals that we're allowed to use, the more that we're going to want to plant GMO products. We've got some barriers to overcome in some foreign trade issues and some domestic food quality concerns, as well. But I'm optimistic that we can overcome some of these and allow GMO foods to be produced. We've got the technology to adapt GMO into a lot of crops we have, but we haven't convinced the public that they are safe yet. We can't prove them safe, and we can't prove them unsafe. I'm hoping the government's role is going to be one of assuring people that we're going to do this right. Where we've lagged and where many of us think, the step we need to take to have more consumer appeal and consumer demand for our products is to develop traits in the plants we grow that consumer wants, whether it be high vitamin C, high beta carotene, increased nutritional aspects of any type. And only when we develop those traits into the plants we grow that the consumer wants will we then be able to benefit from those grower-friendly traits that we want right now. This is an ever-changing business. The way we run our farms today is nothing like the way our predecessors and my father and grandfather ran this place years ago. And, you know, we're getting better and we've adapted to so many changes already and this is, for me, it's just one more.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Here now to discuss the problems associated with regulating genetically modified foods are Steven M. Druker, founder and executive director of the Alliance for Bio-integrity, Henry Miller, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Dr. Roger Wyse, former Dean of Agricultural and my scientist at University of Wisconsin, now biotech investor at Burrill & Company. Welcome to Digital West. Thank you for being here. We had a previous episode on Digital West concentrating on the science of genetic modification. For the purposes of this conversation, we'd like to sort of talk about the regulatory environment. Steven Druker, let's start with you. Do you think we know enough about the science now to either make a decision about regulation or to make a decision that enough regulation is already in place?
STEVEN DRUKER: Yes, we do. We know, from hundreds of well-credentialed scientists who do not depend financially upon the biotech industry, that genetic engineering is very different than traditional breeding and the food it creates poses different risks, unique health risks, to the human beings who eat them, to the environment. And we know, actually, that the predominant opinion of the FDA's own scientists as expressed in the FDAs own administrative record which my organization received through suing the FDA, the predominant opinion of the FDAs own scientists is, or was expressed, that these foods are different, they pose unique health risks, that each one has to be carefully tested. So, the law requires in such a circumstance that none of these foods be on the market unless each one has been demonstrated safe. So, we know right now there's adequate regulation if it were enforced. The law is that these foods shouldn't be on the market because they pose unreasonable risks, and that is the sound science.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Henry Miller, you are a former FDA scientist yourself. Do you agree with Mr. Druker said?
HENRY MILLER: No, not at all. Neither the consensus of our scientists or the data, the very extensive data that we have are consistent with Mr. Druker's assertions. In fact, the scientific consensus says that the new bio-tying/gene splicing is really an extension or a refinement or improvement over the older, less precise kinds of genetic techniques that we have.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Rather than a new technology, its simply an evolution of older technology?
HENRY MILLER: It's an evolution. In automobile technology, we added disc brakes, we added seat belts; we didn't create new regulatory paradigms to regulate those cars that had improved safety. Nor did we put a lower speed limit on these improved cars which, in effect, is what's being done now in the regulation of biotech products.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Dr. Wyse, where do you fall on this?
DR. ROGER WYSE: I think this is clearly an evolution of technology but its a very powerful technology therefore we need to proceed with due caution. And that caution needs to be tempered with good science. Right now there is no science that would suggest that these foods produced from genetically modified plants by gene splicing are, indeed, any less safe than the traditional foods we have been eating for many years.
STEVEN DRUKER: I would like to correct what Dr. Miller has said. People, listeners are invited to look at our Web site, Bio-integrity.org, where with photocopies of key FDA documents. You will see in document #1, Dr. Linda Call, a compliance officer for the FDA whose job was to review the input from the scientists. And to keep the FDA in compliance with the law she wrote a scathing memo saying that the FDA was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by trying to force an ultimate conclusion that genetic engineering is the same as traditional breeding. And then she stated "the processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different and, according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks." That was Dr. Call not stating her personal opinion. That was Dr. Call summarizing what anybody can see, if they read through the file, these foods lead to different risks. The microbiologists, the toxicologists, the Center For Veterinary Medicine are all on record as saying that unique health hazards are posed by these foods. The FDA political appointees overruled the scientists, they covered up the warnings and they lied in public. They liked in public and continue to say that they have no information showing these foods different in any meaningful way. That is a scandal! The law says these foods need to be proven safe when there is scientific disagreement, and there clearly is!
REBECCA ROBERTS: Henry Miller?
HENRY MILLER: None of that is true. The consensus that I alluded to comes not only in the US from the National Academy of Sciences in a 1987 report and the national research council in a 1989 report but from international organizations, as well. The organization for economic cooperation and development, which has studied the potential risks of these products, all find that the risks are likely, if anything, to be lower because of the much greater precision, much greater predictability of genetic engineering using the new techniques. We've been doing engineering of a very sophisticated and very dramatic kind for a long time, and that ranges from genetic hybrids of a grapefruit and tangerine that we call a tangelo to putting genes from wild grasses into wheat to make them more pest and disease resistant; to creating the very important other cereals that gave rise to "the green revolution." So genetic engineering of various kinds has been around for a long time, but gene splicing is much more precise moves only a few genes or at most a couple as opposed to these others which move dozens or hundreds and introduce whole chromosomes --
STEVEN DRUKER: Dr. Miller, I have to say, you said that what I said wasn't true. Are you saying that Linda Call did not state what I said she stated? The memo was on our website for the world to see. When Dr. Miller says these techniques are more precise, he is ignoring the fact that the FDAs own scientists says they are less precise
DR. ROGER WYSE: That cannot be true, sir
STEVEN DRUKER: -- they are less precise when it comes to be able to predict the effects on food safety--
REBECCA ROBERTS: Lets let Roger Wyse get in here.
DR. ROGER WYSE: But can you give us one specific example of a risk?
STEVEN DRUKER: Yes. There are risks of unexpected and novel toxins or carcinogens produced in the food. This is clear. The FDA scientists said, the scientists in our lawsuit have submitted sworn declarations to the court that the process of gene splicing is so potentially disruptive to the life processes of the organism that it could lead to new poisons or carcinogens that have never before been in any of the species.
REBECCA ROBERTS: If we have, obviously, this much disagreement among the three gentlemen at this table, there is obviously still disagreement in the community along these lines. At what point is there a responsibility to say enough; we need to make decisions here? Have we reached that point yet?
DR. ROGER WYSE: No, absolutely not. I think good science has shown to date that there are no risks. One could argue that theres a possibility of putting a gene in that may be allergenic. Milk is allergenic to some people who have a lactose intolerance, so this is very testable, one can determine whether or not that is true. But in terms of doing genetic crosses in potatoes, for example, some of the past varieties did have high [solonaisee], high [solomin], its a toxin. So that what we see now is something we have not, we have seen before and we know how to handle it. We go through thorough testing before they come out.
REBECCA ROBERTS: And what about labeling? What about just allowing consumers to make the decision by seeing what's in it?
HENRY MILLER: Well, I think voluntary labeling is an option at any time, and that's the way that society and through the marketplace has provided labeling for information that consumers want. So, for example, where enough consumers desire to know whether a product is kosher or whether its [holowed] or whether its organic, the market forces provide that.
REBECCA ROBERTS: But voluntarily, not mandatory?
HENRY MILLER: Mandatory labeling would be a mistake for a number of reasons. It would impose a punitive tax on these products that, in fact, would make them more costly and therefore unattainable by many consumers. As you mentioned earlier, it would be likely perceived as a warning to consumers about these products, where there shouldn't be --- where no warning is warranted.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Do you agree with that?
DR. ROGER WYSE: I agree. I think mandatory labeling would put an undue burden on those products. Insinuate that they were, in fact, unsafe and the scientific evidence does not support that.
STEVEN DRUKER: Yes and labeling is, at minimum, required. But the first requirement is only foods that are legally on the market and are reasonably safe can be labeled. If a food poses unreasonable risks, it shouldn't be on the market in the first place. And as I said and as anybody can see by checking our website, the predominant opinion of the FDA's own experts was these foods do pose unique risks; they are not as predictable as these gentlemen would like you to believe. And I would quote from one of the scientists in a lawsuit, Professor Phillip Regal from the University of Minnesota, internationally renowned expert; he said in a sworn declaration to the court, there are scientifically justified concerns about the safety of genetically engineered foods. Some of them could be quite dangerous. He continued that because there has not been adequate testing, we do not know which are dangerous and which are not. The implication is we have to presume all of them are dangerous, and that is the presumption required by law anyway.
HENRY MILLER: It simply is a myth that there is significant sentiment at the FDA that believes there are enhanced risks to these products. It is a myth. The
STEVEN DRUKER: Read the Web site!
HENRY MILLER: The FDA's official position was described in a Federal Register notice, the official publication of the government in 1992; and the FDA said very clearly that the risks of these products were perceived to be no greater and that gene spliced foods would be regulated no differently in essence.
REBECCA ROBERTS: Dr. Wyse, you've got the last word. We're almost out of time.
DR. ROGER WYSE: I think we have a great technology that can, in fact, as the farmer indicated, reduce costs and the impact to the environment and allow us to feed the world in the future on half of the land that we do today.
REBECCA ROBERTS: All right, were going to have to leave it there, were out of time. Thank you gentlemen for being on Digital West. Next week we look at yet another technologys unforeseen consequences when we explore the phenomenon of computer hacking. We'll talk to [Kevin Poulsom], one of the world's most notorious hackers, and a panel of his peers. Is the hacking community threatening our well-being or revealing flaws that real enemies could exploit? That's next week on Digital West. I'm Rebecca Roberts. Good night!
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