ngin comment: good article on the views of Prof Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology
No known benefits, no proven risks
By Sarah Sabaratnam - New Straits Times (Malaysia) March 6, 2001
Terje Traavik, scientific director for the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, was in Malaysia recently to speak about biosafety. He voices his concerns about genetic engineering to Sarah Sabaratnam
"GENETIC engineering is not at all a technology," says Prof Terje Traavik, scientist of molecular biology, referring to the first set of methods that we collectively call genetic engineering (GE). "It's not worth that designation. I've been doing this for 20 years, so I know what I'm talking about."
And he does. Traavik has been actively involved in advising his government about biosafety issues for years now and was one of those involved in the drafting of the Norwegian biosafety laws. He has also, on several occasions, been commissioned by the government to research and report on issues relating to genetic engineering and biosafety.
Traavik's main issue about GE is that the whole first generation of genetically modified plants has been made by a set of methods which have upredictable health and environmental risks. By unpredictable, he means that it is impossible to target our favourite gene to a specific place in the recipient chromosome. "You put the DNA in there and you hope it is going to be integrated in the recipient cell's DNA. But as it is now, you cannot at all determine by present-day techniques where your gene is being inserted in the recipient DNA."
Even if you transfer DNA within monkeys, you will not be able to determine exactly where the gene is introduced. It will be integrated at random and that will create problems, whether you like it or not. Furthermore, the environment, the growth conditions, temperature and humidity may affect the characteristics of the GM plants to different degrees.
This unpredictability, which was dominant in the first generation of GM plants, is existent in the present third generation, which has been produced with the same technology. All the hype about improved crops is just hype. He says there is a lot of controversy about GE because neither the benefits nor the risks can be proven. "The benefits and the risks are both mostly hypothethical but for the first generation of GM plants, there are no benefits to the consumers. There is no health benefit, no ecological benefit. On the other hand, there are a lot of theoreticals and no proven risks," he says.
Given this, the only logical conclusion "is that you don't use these until you can prove risk or no risks". It doesn't mean that research into this science should not go on. "My message is let the science go on until some of the risk factors have been clarified. To say that science should go on, I mean that the science that is aimed at making good products should go on."
At the same time, what is essential is research related to the potential hypothetical risks. "Until now those lines of research have been very weak or non-existent to some extent."
He also insists that such research should be publicly-funded. "If society wants reliable research, it's got to be publicly-funded and done by truly independent researchers and research institutes. "That's a kind of choice society needs to make. If it doesn't want to know the risks and only wants to see the benefits. it may end up with having unpredicted catastrophies on its hands."
He cites the mad cow disease as a good example. "Politicians chose to listen to scientists who told them only what they wanted to hear. If they had taken into account precautionary experimental data that was present, that whole mad cow disease could have been avoided. "You should learn from mistakes and unless you do, you may repeat the whole sad story with genetic engineering."
Traavik says consumers need to be more proactive since they are the ones with the most to lose. "In Europe the first generation of GE crop plants is on its way out again simply because of the gut feeling that it is not safe."
"As consumers we have tremendous power. If we refuse to buy and consume them, we can get anything off the market."
Traavik went so far as to suggest that commercialisation of these GE plants should be stopped while risk associated research is enforced. "That is what we are trying to promote in my university: To execute research projects which are related to known risk factors and to collect relevant information and scientific data from where they are and put them into that context, because if you start looking at scientific literature from a precautionary point of view, there are already many of warning signals. The problem is, he says, is that we must have a certain level of competence to recognise and find the kind of knowledge relevant to this field. This is where there needs to be more integration between the fields of molecular biology and ecology. Otherwise, we will never ask the right questions, he adds.
"Most molecular biologists don't think ecology at all. They are used to not having anything to do with the complexities of the real ecosystem. On the other hand, ecologists are doing a lot of theoretical work. But they don't have the right models to test whether their theoretical hypothesis will take place in real life. In order to make good precautionary risk associated research, we have to mix these people and subjects together. In this way they understand the interactions."
With regard to the patenting of life forms, he says it is easy for him to draw the line although it is not his area of expertise. "To me, it's as simple as this - that in order to talk about patenting, you should have come up with an invention or innovation. Just to discover something which is already existent should never be enough. My countryman discovered the South Pole but he couldn't patent the South Pole, could he? "That is the same with gene sequences. They have been made with four billion years of evolution. Just to discover them and sequence them should never be the basis for any kind of patent. But I am not a lawyer, thank God."
Traavik feels the line between invention and discovery should be kept very strict. "If you discover and sequence a new gene and you modify that sequence and use it for a particular purpose, that may be another case, but that should not in itself be enough to secure patents, not at all. This should be judged on a case by case basis. But at least you should have some sort of innovation on the sequences."
Traavik worries that if the existing methods of research into genetic engineering continue, the next 20-30 years will be looked upon as an unwanted diversion "but which would have already created unwanted health and environmental problems."