By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
If Olestra was meant to be fat-free fat, what we're being sold with Exorcist is GM-free genetic modification -- in other words, another brilliant invention from the department of wishful thinking. Stemmer is right in that the Cre/loxP system can excise foreign genes, but how efficient is this mechanism? One researcher whose work Stemmer cites notes that while Exorcist can be extremely effective in plant tissues such as leaves, in his experiments on seeds it has had a high failure rate. David Ow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, California, has also shown that even when foreign genes are deleted they can mysteriously persist inside a plant's cells -- a ghost in the genetic machine. Ow doesn't know how this works, but these gene wraiths are clearly still haunting the organism.
Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, warns that we must be careful of such high-tech mechanisms, which may work well in one environment but not necessarily in another. Ellstrand worries that while a technology like Exorcist might be effective in a U.S. field, that would not guarantee it'd work in the highlands of Mexico, say. Since vast amounts of U.S. grain are exported to Mexico and other places, we would have to be sure that any such genetic mechanisms would function properly under all potential field conditions.
For most GM opponents, moreover, the primary problem is not toxicological, it's political. Sure, there's concern about the health risks of foreign genes (such as when the gene for a protein that causes Brazil-nut allergy got into a GM soybean), but a desire for culinary caution is not the driving energy behind the anti-GM movement. To those of us who are skeptical about genetic modification of our food supply, the real question is not how to make this technology safer, but whether we should be using it at all. You only need an exorcist if you let the demons in.
Opposition to GM crops is first and foremost a political stance against the industrialization of our food supply and the takeover of agriculture by big business. Exorcist will do nothing to allay these concerns. Indeed, it only exacerbates the problem by piling on yet more genetic modifications, thereby increasing agricultural reliance on proprietary technology that enriches a few mega-corporations at the expense of small farmers the world over. That is why in 1998 Zambia and a dozen other African nations endorsed a statement to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's negotiations on "The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources" declaring that any science imported to help alleviate the continent's food problems "should be building on local knowledge, rather than replacing and destroying it."
The very soul of agriculture is at stake here; what we need is not some genetic conjurer with a magic disappearing wand, but a serious social debate about how our food is produced and what price we are prepared to pay for a GM-free tomato.
Margaret Wertheim's latest book isThe Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet.