Genetically Altered Food? They Dissent

"Genetically Engineered Plants Are Safe - and Necessary," Jan. 28, is a terrific example of what's wrong with current agricultural research. It is driven by money from chemical companies who hope to make billions of dollars at consumers' expense.

An optimal agricultural system raises diverse, bountiful crops in a way that is "life-promoting" for the participants, consumers, biosystem, and local community. Genetic engineering appears to fail on all counts: Respected scientists question the health implications. Runaway "superweeds" may be harder to eradicate. Farmers will have to pay more for engineered seeds. Seeds controlled by distant corporations will further reduce opportunity for small local seed companies, seed saving, and seed company competition.

But there is very good news. Successful solutions are already practiced in organic farming. High yielding when done right, it uses no synthetic chemistry. It is life-promoting for all, except chemical companies. For all practical purposes, there is no organic farming lobby and thus no research grant money. Yet organic produce sales have been the fastest growing segment of US agriculture! We organic farmers are proving that the statement, "genetic engineering is our best hope for reducing reliance on harmful pesticides and herbicides," is utterly false and misleading.

Robert M. Gregson

Vashon Island, Wash.

Some points in the article need correction. First, it states that Bt-corn received one of the "most intense regulatory reviews applied to a food" in the US. US policy is that genetically engineered foods do not need intense regulatory scrutiny, and by and large they do not get it. Ciba-Geigy voluntarily consulted with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), allowing the Agency to examine data the company chose to supply.

The FDA did no studies and required none. It did not certify Bt-corn as safe. It merely issued a statement that it was FDA's understanding that Ciba-Geigy had concluded its product did not require premarket review by the FDA.

It is not hard to imagine why the Europeans were not reassured by such paltry efforts. The furor illustrates one problem with weak policy: It leaves the US without a defense when safety concerns are raised.

The article also errs in portraying genetic engineering as natural. Genetic engineering involves highly artificial techniques for isolating and manipulating genetic material. Novel genes can be inserted into new hosts without regard to natural boundaries. Camel genes into bacteria, oak genes into pigs - name the combination and it is theoretically possible. Reference to the origin of chloroplasts is not particularly apt. Eucaryotic cells with chloroplasts arose a billion or so years ago, giving the rest of nature time to adjust. If this is the example of nature as a genetic engineer, she was admirably cautious and has been in retirement for some time.

Much needs to be done to assure an adequate food supply for the growing human family, including improved infrastructure in developing countries, fairer trade practices, and recapturing lost agricultural biodiversity. Whether genetically engineered crops are necessary or sufficient for meeting the challenge is still an open question.

Margaret Mellon, Ph.D., J.D.


Union of Concerned Scientists

I distributed this piece to my sophomore logic students, and here is what they found. To call opponents' arguments "absurd", "flimsy": fallacy of accent. To claim "safety" for biotechnical alterations by citing wide scientific support: fallacy ad autoritatem. To label contrarians "bioextremists": fallacy of name-calling. To justify biotechnology by claiming nature does the same: false analogy. To portray altered plants as the best alternative to pesticides: circular reasoning. To offer only one alternative, genetic engineering or mass starvation: false dilemma.

In short: This was not a bad illustration of the hubris among scientists who are not accustomed to having their own agenda scrutinized. The biotechnological emperor wears few, if any, logical clothes.

Dr. Georg Retzlaff

Denmark, S.C.

Voorhees College

Letters should be mailed to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, faxed to 617-450-2317, or e-mailed (200 words maximum) to oped@csps.com

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