The three letters copied below are from SCIENCE, Volume 285, Number 5433
Issue of 3 Sep 1999, p 1489. The first two are responding to an editorial
in the July 16 issue of SCIENCE. The last is a response by the author of the
article--Roger N. Beachy. Those of you who have the journal available
should check it out; the formatting here is poor. The letters are also on
the website below, but I think that one needs to be a subscriber to access
Ag and Resource Econ Dept
Colo State University
Roger N. Beachy (Editorial, 16 July, p. 335) bewails the "hysteria" and
"mistrust" that have
led many Europeans to disbelieve U.S. official findings that genetically
altered foods are safe
for both eaters and ecosystems. A simpler explanation would be the
justifiable perception that key committees, agencies, and policy positions
have been captured
or compromised by commercial interests.
Ex-regulators reviewing their own past decisions, and consultants to or
former employees of the industries being scrutinized, do not look
independent. Neither do studies performed or sponsored by those industries,
especially if unpublished. Old, narrow, superseded science and lack of
relevant disciplinary backgrounds may make findings unconvincing.
Revolving-door appointments tarnish the appearance of integrity in policy
advice. Such conditions, widespread in U.S. and for that matter U.N. food
regulation, rationally explain weak public confidence. Beachy regrettably
contributes to this problem by failing to note that a leading transgenics
company is a cofounder and major funder of his institution, whose genuine
independence, despite its university and nonprofit partners, remains to be
The "comprehensive scientific reviews" that Beachy says ensure food safety
look very different to readers of a recent report (1) that the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all lack jurisdiction
to test and certify the safety of genetically modified foods. The FDA,
for example, does not test the safety of genetically altered potatoes
because the EPA regulates the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticide they
produce. (Companies can opt out of FDA regulation of other transgenic foods
simply by saying they are safe.) The EPA does not follow the FDA's food
standard, "reasonable certainty of no harm," but sets human tolerances
subject to risk-benefit analyses. But the EPA does not test the potatoes
either; it merely feeds separately produced Bt
insecticide to mice and assumes that the potatoes are otherwise identical
[an assumption now coming into question for soybeans (2)]. Purchased, the
insecticide comes with a long EPA warning label, but eaten in potatoes, it
is unlabeled, because the FDA, which controls plant-food labels, is barred
by law from including on them any pesticide information. Nonetheless, the
potato vendor's spokesman is quoted as saying that his firm "should not have
to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much
of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job." (1). Why should
this runaround inspire public confidence either? And who, if anyone, ensures
ecological safety, which may be an even greater concern (3)?
Genetically altered crops are being rejected by many leading international
buyers and trade at a discount (4), doubtless because of fear and
risk-aversion. But fear is not always irrational, especially when so many of
the surprises have been bad ones. Beachy is right that the basis of concern
needs scientific clarification. However, both transgenics and science will
lose legitimacy if cheerleading replaces thoughtful and rigorous discussion
of food and ecosystem safety, especially from the commonly missing
perspectives of ecology and evolutionary biology.
For example, is importing genes from remote taxa really like traditional
breeding? Might transgenics let pathogens jump the species barrier? Do
transgenes speed horizontal gene flow? Why? How safe are
antibiotic-resistance markers and viral carriers? How certain and permanent
is "substantial equivalence" of gene-altered foods? Does evolution occur in
the genomic "nanoecosystem"? Are so-called "junk genes" its vital
biodiversity? What comes of ignoring genomic and environmental contexts that
influence expression in the phenotype or of injecting alien genes into
random genomic sites?
And now for the tough, fundamental questions: What would be the long-term
ecological implications of success in creating the properties being sought?
Is redesigning evolution to work not at its biological pace but at that of
quarterly earnings reports--and to align not with biological fitness but
with economic profitability (survival not of the fittest but of the
fattest)--really a good idea? Can it still foresee and forestall? Can novel
life forms with unexpected consequences be
reliably recalled? Is transgenics, as someone said of nuclear fission, "a
fit technology for a wise, farseeing, and incorruptible people"? And is
transgenics really essential to avoid starvation--or is it, as nuclear power
proved to be, just a distraction from available, superior, but
systematically suppressed and overlooked alternatives (5)?
Amory B. Lovins
Executive Office Research),
Colorado 81654-9199, USA
References and Notes
1.M. Pollan, N.Y. Times Mag., 25 October 1998, p. 44.
2.For example, M. Lappé, E. B. Bailey, C. Childress, K. D. R. Setchell, J.
Medic. Food 1, 241 1998/1999).
3.J. Rissler and M. Mellon, The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops (MIT
Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996).
4.T. S. Ramey, M. J. Wimer, R. M. Rocker, "GMOs are dead" (Deutsche Bank
Research, New York, 21 May 1999).
5.A. B. Lovins and L. H. Lovins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1 August 1999,
condensed from "A tale of two botanies,"
posted at www.rmi.org/twobotanies.html; G. Conway, The Doubly Green
Revolution (Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK,
1997); National Research Council, Alternative Agriculture (National
Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1989); Lost
Crops of Africa, vol. 1, Grains (National Academy Press, Washington, DC,
1996); P. Hawken, A. B. Lovins, L. H.
Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
(Little Brown, New York, 1999), esp. chap. 10.
Editorial writer Beachy is identified as president of the Donald Danforth
Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. But he does not inform us that
for many years he has collaborated with, and been financed by, the Monsanto
Corporation (1), a leader in corporate plant biotechnology and the subject
of much criticism in this area (2). The Monsanto Corporation is a founding
partner of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (3). In addition, Beachy
chairs the Scientific Advisory Board
of Xyris, another agricultural biotechnology firm (4). These significant
corporate involvements and their consequent biases cannot be inferred from
his stated affiliation.
As Beachy notes, plantings of genetically modified crops have increased
dramatically over the past few years. He asserts that the commercial use of
such crops followed "comprehensive scientific reviews." Others refute this
statement. Beachy's pro-Monsanto biases are revealed by his not
acknowledging the arguments of reputable scientists and biotechnology policy
analysts that the "reviews" have in fact been minimal, short-term, and
conducted by industry (and largely unpublished, rather than public and peer
reviewed) and that they have not addressed the full range of risks posed by
these novel organisms (5). Differing views about the risks of genetically
modified crops are thus matters of scientific debate (6). However, by posing
the issue in terms of "hysteria" and "fear of biotechnology," Beachy uses
his position as editorialist to obstruct essential
technical and public discourse.
As a matter of policy, Science should follow the practice of other
scientific society-sponsored journals (7) by requiring that all authors and
editorialists fully disclose financial interests in their subject matter.
Only then can readers knowledgeably evaluate the writer's statements and
TX 75050, USA
Institute of Technology,
*The signers of this letters are all board members of the Council for
References and Notes
1.R. N. Beachy, The Scientist, 4, 15 (1990);
2.For example, D. Barboza, N.Y. Times, 5 August 1999, p. C1.
5.For example, M. Mellon and J. Rissler, Bio/Technology 13, 96 (1995); B.
Purrington and J. Bergeleson, Trends Ecol.
Evol. 10, 340 (1995); R. Wrubel, S. Krimsky, R. Wetzler, BioScience 42,
6.Board of Science and Education, The Impact of Genetic Modification on
Agriculture, Food, and Health (British
Medical Association, London, 18 May 1999),
www.bma.org.uk/public/science/genmod.htm; R. Weiss, Washington
Post, 18 May 1999, p. A2; P. Mitchell and J. Bradbury, Lancet 353, 1769
(1999); Anonymous [editorial], ibid., p.
7.D. Rennie, A. Flanagin, R. M. Glass, J. Am. Med. Assoc. 266, 266 (1991).
Lovins questions the conclusion that current regulatory mechanisms are
sufficient to oversee foods developed through genetic modification. The fact
is that the FDA has absolute legal right over the foods developed by any
process. New varieties produced by means of biotechnology must be shown to
possess chemical equivalence with the parent materials; such proof is
provided by the company making application. After review (generally
requiring 12 to 18 months), the FDA rules to accept or reject; it also holds
the right to remove any food product at a later date. The EPA evaluates the
environmental safety of any new pesticidal product (such as the Bt protein),
and sets daily allowances of residues of the protein and/or its derivatives
in the food or in the environment. The USDA determines whether the new
variety does or does not have impacts on the ecology of the environment in
which it is planted and, accordingly, determines acceptability. These
processes together can require up to 6 years to gain approval of a new
variety developed by genetic transformation. Such requirements are not
required of varieties produced by chemical or radiation mutagenesis, or by
other techniques used in plant breeding.
Lovins and board members of the Council for Responsible Genetics question
the independence of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Legal
documents that establish the Center are open to the public and confirm the
independence from Monsanto Company and other companies. I would not have
accepted the position as president and director of the center under other
conditions. Like the authors of the letters, I, too, believe in full
disclosure. I am currently a member of the
Science Advisory Board of Akkadix, in San Diego, a newly established
corporation, and Advisor for Biotechnology for the Rohm and Haas
Corporation, in Philadelphia. I have not received support for sponsored
research from the Monsanto Company since 1991 and have served only as an ad
hoc consultant. I have served as an ad hoc consultant and advisor for a
variety of other biotechnology companies since 1982.
I respect the right of others to disagree and expect all reputable
scientists to present accurate information and honest conclusions.
Regardless of the differences of opinions expressed in these letters, I
believe that all can agree that the more scientists learn about plants, both
within or outside of agriculture, the greater the likelihood that we will
develop sustainable methods to meet the challenges of a growing population.
Roger N. Beachy
Plant Science Center,
St. Louis, MO
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