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interview: martina mcgloughlin

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How old is biotechnology?

In the broader sense, biotechnology is literally thousands of years old. We've been modifying the world around us since we first realized we could make such things as cheese and bread and, very importantly, brew alcohol. . . .

In the distant past? Brewing alcohol thousands of years ago?


She is director of the Biotechnology and Life Sciences Informatics Program at the University of California, Davis. McGloughlin offers an overview of crossbreeding techniques over the centuries, how it compares with new GM technology, and explains how much of human genes already are shared with plants. She also addresses Europe's GM food fight, U.S. food safety and regulatory performance, and multinational companies' intellectual property rights on GM seeds. (Interview conducted August 2000.)
Yes. They discovered shards of pottery outside Edinburgh that had the remains of Neolithic beer. . . . That pottery dated back to 6500 B.C. We've also been modifying plants and animals literally for thousands of years, through selective breeding and culling of animals, for example, that didn't have the traits we want.

Why have we been modifying nature? If we just took what was there, what would we find?

If you took what was available in the wild, the population of the world would be much smaller than it is. The capability of generating sufficient food to feed individuals from wild produce is very low. You literally would still be a hunter-gatherer society. We wouldn't be settled; we definitely wouldn't have cultivated agriculture; and we wouldn't have any of the technology we have today. Agriculture is the underpinning of advancement of mankind, because we could now concentrate on doing more exciting things than just focusing on where the next meal is coming from.

Comparing today's crops with their wild ancestors, what would we notice? . . .

The ancestors of modern day corn or potatoes are so totally unlike the present cultivars that they would be absolutely unrecognizable for most people. There are also obviously a lot of negative aspects with respect to the ancestors of these plants, insofar as being able to supply sustenance. They are very small. They have poor yield. They oftentimes taste pretty awful. And in many instances, actually, they can be quite toxic. An example would be potatoes and tomatoes. They're all members of the deadly nightshade family. . . . Over the many years of breeding, we've managed to breed out most of these toxins. . . .

How does traditional crossbreeding work?

At first, it was a hit-and-miss process. . . . You're looking for characteristics in the parent plants that you want--traits like good yield, good taste, a high level of disease and insect resistance. And you're also looking for something, of course, that you're going to be able to cultivate in large fields, which is not always the case for many wild plants. So what you do is basically cross these plants to get the particular traits that you're looking for. It takes a long time to get rid of the traits you don't want, because you are dealing with tens of thousands of genes, and you have no control whatsoever at the molecular level.

So you take two plants and you just shuffle them?

in many instances, the negative opinion of biotech is because a lot of the research and commercialization, of course, are done by big multinationals. It's as much a negative against the perception of multinationals as it is a fear of the science itself.Yes. You take the pollen from the male plant and put it onto the flowers of the female plant to get the product, whether it be a seed or a fruit or whatever. Then you backcross it to the parent plant that has the characteristics you want. ...

I'll give you an illustration. . . . The normal tomato cultivar that's used in processing is low in what's called soluble solids, which are the holy grail of processing tomatoes. There's a wild variety of tomato ... which ... has much higher level of soluble solids. This tomato, if you saw it, is really awful looking. It's small, it's green, it's pretty ugly tasting, it has poor yield, and in fact it is a little toxic, because it's a member of the deadly nightshade family. It took 15 years of crossing with the good parent to introduce the trait we wanted, which was the high soluble solids, and to get rid of all the traits you didn't want. Using biotechnology, this was done in one step. ...

What's new about so-called genetic modification? . . .

Over this century, we've been introducing an awful lot of technologies in addition to the original selection and breeding. I think a lot of people don't realize this. We've been using mutagenesis breeding since the middle part of this century, and it's still done quite a lot. . . . Several plants, in fact, something like 1,800 cultivars, have been introduced using this mutagenesis breeding approach. . . .

Another type of technology was introduced in the middle of this century--a technology called wide cross, or embryo rescue. In this instance, you're crossing two plants that are not sexually compatible, that is, species that would never interact in nature. Basically you're using scientific tricks to go in there and rescue that embryo that would normally be lost. . . . It will breed true after that. . . . A large number of products come into the market each year that are produced using these wide crosses.

These could never have been derived from traditional breeding?

These could not happen in nature. Plus, you're also mixing huge numbers of genes, tens of thousands of genes at the molecular level. You have no clue what you're doing. With biotechnology, it's much more precise, much more predictable, and much more controlled, because you're modifying single traits or a couple of traits at a time. So you know exactly what genes you're modifying, and you know exactly what traits you're looking for.

There's still, of course, the possibility of developing types of characteristics that you don't want. . . . The argument is often made that, with using plant genetic engineering, you don't where the gene is inserted. This is true using traditional breeding, too. You don't know how these chromosomes are going to mix. But the technology is always evolving. Now we're in the position of actually being able to use what's called site selection. You can determine exactly where you're going to be able to put the gene in, using some technological tricks. So, in fact, this will make it even more precise. . . .

Historically, genetic engineering was used for other applications, such as medicine, and in making enzymes, and it didn't attract much attention.

About 200 million people worldwide have benefited from the products of genetically engineered pharmaceuticals. Diseases that were really recalcitrant to treatment up until genetic engineering are now being treated very effectively. For example, one of them is human growth hormone, which is used to treat children who are suffering from human growth hormone deficiency. Prior to genetic engineering, this had to actually be extracted from the pituitary glands of corpses.

Now, using genetic engineering, you're just making a copy of the gene, and you're actually making human growth hormone in large fermenters. It's easy to purify, it's high effective, and it's much less expensive.

Likewise, diabetes has been treated using genetically engineered insulin. Prior to biotechnology, most insulin was produced using the pancreases of pigs. Of course, a lot of people were allergic to the product, because it wasn't human. Now you make a copy of the human gene. You put it into your microbe of choice and grow it up again in fermenters.

Chymosin is another example. About 90 percent of all cheese is produced now using a genetically engineered enzyme. Prior to that, you had to isolate this enzyme from the forestomach of an unweaned calf. . . . Using biotechnology, you make a copy of that gene from the calf; you put it into your microbe of choice; you grow it up in a fermenter. It's actually secreted into the medium, so it's very easy to make huge amounts of it. It's also much easier to purify. . . . It's much cheaper to keep microbes than to keep calves. . . .

Detergents have about three or four different genetically engineered enzymes, so that you can wash your clothes at room temperature.

. . . In addition, there are enzymes that protect the quality of your clothes. For example, there is a dye transfer enzyme that protects your clothes from transfer of dyes. ...

But none of these things seemed to cause any fuss.

No, because nobody is even aware of the fact that they're in our products. Indeed, there was no hullabaloo whatsoever when they were introduced, and they have been continuously introduced over this last 10 years. In fact, 90 percent now of all industrial enzymes--used in everything from food production to leather tanning to paper pulping--use genetically engineered enzymes.

The ones with the most publicity are input traits for farmers, such as Roundup Ready traits and BT corn. What was the reason for doing this? . . .

One, it's because that's what farmers wanted. They wanted an alternative to massive amounts of chemicals that are used today to produce our crop plants. Farmers are incredibly productive, but it does come at a price. There is a lot of contamination of soils and groundwater with the excess use of chemicals that are used to control weeds and insects and pests. So this was an obvious area that biotech could very quickly address issues of interest to the farming community. . . .

At that point in time, the biotech companies weren't thinking specifically of the consumer. They really were thinking of the farmer. The first traits that are out there, the ones that have a high level of commercialization, or insect resistance . . . have been used by organic farmers for a long time to control insects. . . .

So this is a natural pesticide?

Yes. . . . It's not toxic to you or to I or to animals, but in the guts of these target insects, it turns into a toxin. . . . Last year, 55 percent of all soybeans were genetically engineered for another type of resistance gene, and this was herbicide tolerance. What this herbicide tolerance gene does is allow a far more environmentally compatible herbicide--glyphosate--to be used to control weeds. ...

What kind of pathogens attack these corn and cotton crops?

I have no problem with organic produce whatsoever.  It is an alternative way of producing crops.  However, it is also an alternative that comes at a cost.  In many instances, it really is the affluent who can afford the products of organic produce.The main pathogen, especially for corn, is European corn borer. That particular pathogen comes up through the stalk of the plant itself. It's very difficult to get at, because it's literally inside the stalk. ... But with the BT gene literally in the corn itself, when the larvae eat it, they are immediately affected.

If you look at the two plants--the control plant and the engineered plant--it's like night and day. The control plant is just completely infected with the European corn borer. The BT plant is completely clean. ...

I've heard that 25 percent of the world's pesticide is for cotton. Is that accurate?

Yes, it is. The amount of pesticides used in cotton is larger than pretty much all other plants combined. Again, I think people don't realize the intensity of pest control, because it's so important. . . .

But farmers still have to spray, even with BT cotton?

That's true using any of these systems. I would never suggest biotech as a panacea. It's a very effective tool as part of an integrated pest management program. . . .

A recent report from the U.S. National Food and Ag Council in Washington has shown that, by using herbicide-tolerant soybeans, farmers saved $280 million in 1998. This allowed them to use just a single herbicide. They only had to spray if the weeds emerged. They didn't have to use multiple sprayings or pre-sprayings. Likewise, they didn't have to use complex cocktails of really pretty nasty herbicides.

. . .

What about the argument that this is tampering with nature, playing God? When you take a trait of a fish and put it into a strawberry, it seems to people that something new is happening.

Yes. . . . They were looking at taking a gene from the Arctic flounder to increase the cold tolerance of tomato plants. A similar type of gene exists in plants as well. ... It's a membrane protein that protects the integrity of the cell, of the plant cell or the fish cell. ...

So it's not a fish gene.

It's not a fish gene. Take an example. There is a protein,

cytochrome c, which is a very important component of our respiratory machinery. Cytochrome c is identical in you, in a pea, in a cow. It's the absolute same gene. ...

Tomatoes, flounders, humans. People are not aware of how much is shared. What percentage of our genome is common? . . .

If you're to look at it from a broad-based ballpark figure, we probably share about 50 percent of our genes with plants, at the basic level. You'll get variations of everything from 20 percent to 80 percent, but it's in the middle there somewhere. With chimpanzees, we share 99.5 percent; there's a really tiny level of difference there. Much of the housekeeping genes--those that help us breathe and metabolize food and live from day to day--are shared with other organisms to a high degree.

So from a genomic standpoint, it's not shocking to move . . .

No. From a genomics point of view, it is not at all shocking, because you will find these type of genes in nature being used in a similar way by all sorts of different organisms. This sharing has been going on for thousands of years. . . .

What about food safety? Some say that these new foods will be toxic or allergenic.

In fact, an enormous amount of research goes into every single product before it even gets as far as the field, never mind before it gets to commercialization. It would be a very stupid company that would go ahead with a product that may hurt its consumer. That's not a very good business strategy. . . .

For some, the bulk of the concern is ecological--gene migration, etc. What's to stop some of these modifications getting to other plants?

With most of our crop plants, we actually are growing them in areas that are as far away from where they originated. However, of course, there are a few that will have wild relatives in the area. So the issue of potential gene flow--the genetically engineered gene escaping into those wild relatives--has come up quite a bit.

First of all, we literally treat our crops like queens or princesses. We mollycoddle them. We give them everything they want. If they were to compete in the wild, they would look very, very different. For example, if you let your cabbage grow wild, it would no longer be a nice, neat, compact green head. It would be this long, stringy thing that you wouldn't dream of wanting to eat. When these plants are competing in the wild, they're throwing off everything that doesn't give them a selective advantage, because now they're competing. . . .

What about the buildup of resistance?

Of course, this is always a problem with biological systems. Biological systems are infinitely flexible and far smarter. . . . They always seem to manage to be very effective at overcoming whatever mechanism we use to try and control them. This has been the bane of the chemical industry forever. You constantly have to be one step ahead of the pest that you were controlling, as it developed resistance. And this is also a potential problem in biotech, if you're going to be using single genes. So several approaches are being taken by researchers to address this area.

The first is one that's mandated by the EPA. Within these BT crop plantings, you have to have at least 20 percent of the field planted to non-engineered corn, for example. By having this non-engineered corn, you're removing the selective pressure. So you're allowing these insects to grow up without selection for resistance to BT. So, effectively, what you're doing is diluting out the resistance gene. ...

Critics say that this is a case of corporations pushing things through too fast with inadequate regulatory oversight. What do you say?

I think the regulatory environment is very effective at looking at all the potential problems, both from a consumer health point of view and an environmental impact point of view. The watchdogs in place at the USDA, EPA, and FDA really look at all of the potential negative impacts of this technology, and the checks and balances are in place to address this.

In many instances, the negative opinion of biotech is held because a lot of the research and the commercialization, of course, are done by big multinationals. It's as much a negative against the perception of multinationals as it is a fear of the science itself. This notion that these multinationals are going to hold on to the intellectual property components is really going to have a negative impact on developing countries. ...

Forgetting the corporations, regulatory agencies, and activist groups, how would you characterize the position of agricultural scientists?

I think most agricultural scientists who are familiar with the science itself and the technology itself are very supportive, seeing this as a new set of tools that can be used to improve agricultural productivity, while minimizing the impact on the environment. . . . If you're going to look at increasing productivity over the next 50 years, the demands on our soils and environment are going to be enormous to be able to meet the world demands for these food.

If we're not going to resort to putting our national parks under the plow or cutting down rainforest, we're going to have to increase productivity on the land that's available right now. We're going to have to be able to use marginal soils that you can't use right now because of, for example, heavy metal contamination, and because of other environmental stressors, like drought and cold and heat and high salt. Using biotech, you can actually develop crops that can grow in all of those types of severe high-stress environments. Without biotech, you couldn't do it. . . .

What is the future, the potential of this technology? ...

There's an incredible probability of being able to use this technology to do things you could never do in nature, for example, like producing nutriceuticals in plants, therapeutics and vaccines. For example, right now a company down the road here in Vacaville, Large Scale Biology, is engineering tobacco plants . . . to produce anti-cancer agents. So now instead of causing cancer, tobacco will be curing cancer. . . .

In another example, Dr. Arntzen at the Boyce Thompson Institute is introducing genes for vaccines against diseases that are really prevalent in developing countries, like hepatitis B and cholera. Right now he's producing these vaccines in potatoes. . . .

These are edible vaccines?

These are edible vaccines. Chewing on raw potato isn't exactly the most palatable, but he's going to put these genes into bananas, so you're actually going to be able to give these children bananas and vaccinate them against cholera and hepatitis B. Now, these will be controlled as medicines. It's not like you'll be able to grow your banana plant in your back yard and go out and vaccinate yourself. But it's an incredible way to be able to deliver these, especially in countries where you can't maintain the cold chain, where refrigeration is a problem. . . .

Over the last few years, things have really gotten strained in Europe.

I've seen the evolution, of the attitudes over there. When I was over there originally in 1993, 1994, it was really interesting. When I went into Safeway and Sainsbury's, I saw genetically engineered products on the shelves. I saw a can of tomato paste produced using a similar technology that Calgene used to produced their Flavor-Saver tomato. But, in fact, this was used to produce processing tomatoes. In addition to allowing the tomato to stay on the vine longer, it actually built up the soluble solids and the flavors--all the things you want in a tomato. And the company, Zeneca, clearly labeled on the can, "This product is produced using genetically engineered tomatoes grown in California." The tin was a little bigger than a normal tin, cost less, and it was literally flying off the shelves. People had no problem whatsoever with buying it.

But then mad cow disease struck and suddenly the whole country--in fact, the whole continent--basically said, "Well, who's minding the shop? Who's protecting us?" Mad cow disease, of course, had nothing to do with biotechnology at all. It just raised people's awareness. ... They really began to say, "Hey, we're being left wide open here. We don't have a regulatory authority we can trust." . . . Perception is everything. There was a major backlash against all technology, and biotechnology got caught up in that whole furor.

There were, of course, several other issues and agendas--some hidden, some not so hidden. I remember one time asking a particular individual who's with the group Genetic Concern, "If I could prove to you on every single count the safety of this technology, both from a consumer perspective and from a environmental perspective, would you accept it?" And the individual said, "No, because it's an American technology that's benefiting Midwest farmers. Why should we take any of the risks?" . . .

In Europe, they had scientific review panels, which said similar things as were said here. But in the balance, they got ignored, didn't they?

Yes. Unfortunately, the science was ignored. I'm quite familiar with many of the scientists there, who were very frustrated by the fact that the reports and recommendations that they put forward literally were ignored in favor of a knee-jerk response to public opinion. . . . There were some very loud groups with a lot of rhetoric and a lot of time on their hands, and they were able to put forward alternative views, even though those particular views were not founded in science.

They stick to the idea that, although we've been modifying foods for thousands of years, we're going to treat one process differently. Is that right?

That's a complete departure, both from the original intent of regulations on the U.S., and indeed on the European side, where the focus up until now had been on the product, not the process by which it's produced. If you look at a package of sausages, it doesn't say, "This was produced using extrusion processes." Most people would never want to see how sausages are produced. . . . Agricultural practices or processing practices have never been a requirement of labeling. And now suddenly they are, which is a total departure from the way regulations have been put into place on both sides of the Atlantic.

So now they're singling out a particular process. If it's produced using recombinant . . .

Yes. If it's produced using recombinant DNA technology, then you're required to label it. And there is a threshold level of 1 percent. This decision, of course, is made at a parliament level. It had little input from the scientists, because every scientist will tell you that it's impossible to actually enforce those regulations because the type of tests that are out there are notoriously inaccurate. . . . [Researchers at] KPMG ... determined that the overall costs of ... testing will put between 5 to 15 percent of cost that will be passed on to the consumer, on all of these products. Effectively, what you're doing is imposing a tax on a technology that in fact is reducing environmental impact and potentially increasing the healthfulness and safety of our food. ...

Some of that fear of genetically modified food has spread to the U.S. Some individual manufacturers have been targeted. What's happened for them?

There has been a very effective writing campaign to the food processors and food manufacturers, because they are obviously the middlemen. They're the individuals who take the product from the producers, the farmers, and make it available to grocery stores. They feel they're in a very vulnerable position. . . . Gerber, which is owned by Novartis, which has a huge focus on using biotechnology in crop agriculture, decided that it's not going to use any products of a recombinant DNA technology in its baby food. ...

But purely from a food safety point of view, the raw material would be in better shape if it was genetically modified, wouldn't it?

Yes, because you're not going to have the contaminants in there that you would have if you're not controlling them. The decision by Gerber had little, in fact, had nothing, to do with science. It had everything to do with public perception. . . .

What happened with Frito-Lay?

The president of Frito-Lay happened to be visiting Europe and became aware of the surge of anti-biotech feeling there, and called back and said, "We're putting an announcement out that we're not using any GMOs." Now, what they were focusing on was GMO potatoes. They're still using corn oil, which is produced from GMOs. . . .

Can you imagine a scenario where things would be held back, where there would be a rapid change in consumer feeling?

The only thing I could see that would do that is if there was some devastating problem out there. But that's interesting, because you've seen that happen with other products, where food contamination has been an issue, and people have died because of contamination. With biotech products there hasn't been one incident. There's not been one negative instance from a biotech product in 25 years of research. Any problems have been caught really early. . . .

What about voluntary versus mandatory labeling?

Right now, as regulations stand, all food products that are approved by the FDA do not require mandatory labeling, because what they focus on is the product, not the process by which it was produced. This particular stance, in fact, was challenged in a number of lawsuits. The one that had the highest profile was the Ben & Jerry lawsuit some years ago in Vermont, where they were looking at labeling milk produced from cows that had been treated with BST. The judge in that instance said, "If you were going to focus on labeling purely with the notion of satisfying consumers' right to know, you'd have encyclopedias attached to every single bottle of milk that's up there," and said that this was not sufficient reason to demand labeling. . . .

There's such a huge public swelling of demand. . . . So, from the companies' point of view, it might be of value to these companies, as part of a public relations effort, to say, "We will voluntarily label," so they have control over what they're going to label. There are a lot of problems with doing that too. . . . Every single term that you use is value-laden, and it's really difficult to decide what is the most effective label that will inform people as opposed to scare them. . . .

Some environmental groups argue for a return to another way of life. "We have enough food. We just need to distribute it." They're not moved by your environmental arguments, and they're trying to escape from your Third World developing country arguments.

It would be wonderful if we could all live in a bucolic Turner chocolate-box environment, where we all are back working on the earth, looking like a scene from American Gothic. But that's not a reality. . . . The reality is, if you're going to look at the productivity that you could achieve by going back to zero-input agriculture, versus what you can achieve using biotech means, they just do not balance up. The costs would literally skyrocket. You can even see that today, with the cost of organic produce. . . .

I would like to reiterate, I have no problem with organic produce whatsoever. It is an alternative way of producing crops. However, it is also an alternative way that comes at a cost. In many instances, it really is the affluent who can afford the products of organic produce. For many instances, people living in inner cities would not be able to afford to pay the amount that's necessary to be able to make organic farming a viable solution for all agriculture. . . .

Poor farmers in developing countries are organic farmers, and they don't want to be.

It's very difficult for them. I always like to quote a researcher from Kenya. Florence Wambugu has said that the real advantage of biotech is that it's package technology in the seed. You don't have to teach these farmers new culture practices. You don't have to get them to completely change the way they do farming. You just give them a seed, and that increases productivity in that seed itself. She said that for years, people have tried to change cultural practices of these farmers, and it just hasn't worked. It has been a complete failure, because you have to modify infrastructure, you have to re-educate them as to how to modify their farming practices themselves.

But with biotech, the technology is in a seed. All you have to do is give them the seed. At this stage, about 40 different countries are capable of producing these biotech products. They don't have to depend on the U.S. or First World countries to provide them with this technology.

If they succeed in growing crops where they haven't before, that will inevitably change those countries.

The complexities of food distribution are enormous. They're affected by politics, by local conflict, by so many other considerations. I would never suggest that biotech is going to be the answer to all of this. You are going to have to deal with the economic and political realities in the regions themselves. However, as I said, the advantage of biotech is that it can help alleviate the situation. . . . It definitely would be able to provide the farmer with an alternative way of getting the nutritional requirements at a sufficient level with minimum impact on the environment. This, to me, is one of the big advantages of biotechnology insofar as developing countries are concerned. . . .

Do you think some of the criticism of genetically modified foods has to do with an issue of ownership as well?

Yes. The whole focus on multinational corporations gaining a foothold or gaining control of intellectual property is one of the big components, without question, too. . . . To give you an example, hybrid corn. Hybrid corn has been in existence for 50 years. It's accepted the world over as a way of producing vigorous corn . . . and it has been controlled by seed companies for 50 years.

There's an interesting quote by a food scientist from 1940, who basically said, "U.S. corporations are going to destroy agriculture the world over, because they have this ownership of this new hybrid corn." Of course, that hasn't happened. Everybody buys hybrid corn. So I really think, if you look at history, you do see the value--in fact, the necessity--of having an exclusive right to use a technology over a period of time, to be able to recoup the costs of developing that technology. Then it goes into the public domain. . . .


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