Genetically Manipulated Food News

22 January 1998

Table of Contents

Genetic Discrimination: A Primer (Radio Interview)
Cuba attaining sustainable agriculture
Excellent news from Austria about GE
Cloned Cows May Carry Drugs in Milk
The Fallibility of Scientific Authorities

Here is an article from the LOKA INSTITUTE at loka@amherst.edu http://www.amherst.edu/~loka that was recently forwarded to me by: Mike Nickerson, at sustain@web.net

Genetic Discrimination: A Primer

Diane Horn Interview with Phil Bereano on KCMU 90.3 FM-Radio (Seattle, Washington, USA)

1. INTRODUCTION: SCIENCE & POLICY

DIANE: Recent "advances" in genetics are being touted as bringing in a new era in medicine. The Human Genome Project (HGP) is rapidly determining the complete sequence of human DNA. Genetic tests now can tell us whether we are predisposed to breast cancer or whether we will get Huntingtons' Disease. Is this a good thing? Will this information help us? Or will it be used in ways that are detrimental to individuals and to society? To help answer these questions, we have as our guest Phil Bereano, Professor of Technical Communications at the University of Washington. Phil is an expert on engineering technology and public policy. He is also a member of the Council for Responsible Genetics, the Washington Biotechnology Action Council, and is on the local and national boards of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The number of genetic tests available to us has increased dramatically in the past few years. What are the dangers of genetic testing?

PHIL: The dangers of genetic testing depend not upon science, but upon law and public policy. If one is in a jurisdiction which has strong and adequate laws protecting privacy of genetic information and protecting against genetic discrimination, then there are few reasons--except personal reasons--not to get tested. Unfortunately a large majority of Americans live in states which do not have these protections and there are no national protections. So for most Americans, what we have is a dilemma.

DIANE: Do you feel that the scientists and people that develop these technologies don't think about the ethical implications of what they are doing?

PHIL: I am sure many don't. The week when we had the startling news about the cloning of the sheep in Scotland (Dolly) the lead inventor is quoted very explicitly saying that the ethical and social implications of what he was doing are not relevant to him. "I am only a scientist," he said. What this represents is the development of an artificial construct--a social construct--which supports the reductionist notion that we can segregate all of our human activities, including science, from a social context and that science does not have social responsibilities.

Now, in the case of genetic engineering, we are also talking about a science which has been initiated and funded by government tax money to the degree of 95 percent or something like that. So, for scientists to say somehow that they don't have social responsibility is to deny not only their responsibility as citizens but their responsibility as professionals who are highly privileged in this society, and supported by the taxpayers. DIANE: It sounds like a little bit of "it is not my department" coming through the system

PHIL: Exactly. It is the perfect reductionist mode which is like the industrialist manufacturers saying, "oh, worrying if there is a carcinogenic effect in the chemicals we are using isn't my responsibility." American citizens are increasingly not willing to put up with this. I think this is one reason why scientists have lost their mantle of authority.

Many biologists still think they can operate under the old-fashioned mode of the altruistic biologist. But they aren't being altruistic. Most of them are in fact being hired by private companies or are major shareholders and consultants to private companies. The conflict of interest in the case of situations at universities, such as at my own university, the University of Washington, is really quite substantial in this regard. The private interests of scientists often are not very socially responsive.

So, unless we understand the social context under which science operates, I think we are deluding ourselves. As citizens we are disempowering ourselves.

2. DEFINITION & EXAMPLES OF GENETIC DISCRIMINATION

DIANE: How would you define "genetic discrimination"?

PHIL: Genetic discrimination is making distinctions between people by perceived heritable characteristics which have no basis in rationality or in public policy. That is to say, it is not discrimination for a black person to realize that white people are not black, or for white people to realize that black people are not white. In other words, there are differences among people and in many contexts it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge them and deal with them. But making public policy decisions on whether benefits, costs, and risks are assigned to people based on these distinctions presents the issue of discrimination.

DIANE: What would be an example?

PHIL: Insurance writers generally distinguish between smokers and non-smokers when writing policies. Smokers get higher rates because they are at greater risk. Since that is related to good public policy goals--the protection of public health--it is allowable in the United States. Now it is also true that statistically Mormons live longer than non-Mormons. Maybe it is because of their life style or environmental issues, or maybe because of their genes--some people predict--or maybe both of them. For whatever reason, it is statistically demonstrable that Mormons live longer than non-Mormons. In no state is it permissible, however, for an insurance company to offer lower premium rates to Mormons and higher ones to Baptists and Jews.

The reason is not because of science. It is because we have public policy concerns which override science. This is something that scientists don't want to acknowledge or understand. But this is something that people do need to understand and to appreciate. The long history of religious discrimination made such a severe mark on the American consciousness that we have the First Amendment and other public policies to say that it is wrong to discriminate on religious grounds even if it is scientifically justifiable.

DIANE: How about if it is shown that you are predisposed to a genetic disease? Would you consider this discrimination as well?

PHIL: Yes, I believe that health care is a right, not a privilege of those who are either wealthy or who are lucky in the genetic lottery. In every industrialized country, except for the U.S., health care is understood to be an inherent human right. It is only in the U.S. that we have the discussion about genetic discrimination with regards to health insurance. That is because we have private entities interceding in this system whose goal is to make money--not to take care of the sick.

DIANE: So the real problem in this country is the health care system we have and the genetic discrimination issue is kind of an artifact of the system.

PHIL: There is also genetic discrimination in life insurance, employment and liability insurance. I even know of a case of someone who couldn't get automobile insurance because they claimed he had bad genes. So, health insurance is not the end of it. It has been the entering wedge mainly because we have begun to have more explicit debates in the U.S. on matters of health care policy; for example, the whole debate around the issue of what is called "pre-existing conditions" and whether those should be reasons for denying insurance. In Washington State, under reforms that were enacted a number of years ago, it is not permissible for an insurance company to refuse to issue individual health insurance because someone has a genetic predisposition. This is also the law in about 14 other states, usually by statute.

What is a genetic predisposition? It is really a pre-predisposition. If you can't deny the manifestation of it, i.e., you can't deny insurance to someone with cystic fibrosis, how can you deny insurance to someone who might get cystic fibrosis? Diane, you referred to the fact that all kinds of claims are being made as the Human Genome Project marches on finding genes that cause certain things. Actually, very few diseases are caused by a single gene, as far as I understand, and very few diseases are 100 percent inevitable. If you get the disease, it is not clear when in your life you will get the disease or how severe it will be.

Furthermore, many genetic diseases, if not curable, are certainly treatable through drugs. Part of the reason why people don't immediately realize this is the ideology that is promulgated in this country that genes are the blueprint of your destiny. They are not. If you have a certain genetic disease and take certain medical intervention, you are not going to have any symptoms.

For example, in this country, and I believe it is in every state, newborn babies are tested for not only their blood type and things like that, but for PKU. PKU is a genetic situation in which the body is unable to correctly metabolize certain proteins. I think it is because of the absence or malfunction of a certain gene that performs that metabolic function. Anyway, it has long been recognized, long before the Human Genome Project, that putting the newborn on a certain kind of diet can in fact compensate for this condition. That is why every state has required, even at a time when genetics was a much more rudimentary science, that newborns be tested for PKU. A person that has been through that regime is not in any demonstrable way different from anyone else. So I want to assure listeners that when we are talking about genetic diseases, we are talking about an enormous grab bag of different kinds of situations. Some of these are mild manifestations in some people and never occur until late in life.

DIANE: Do you have some stories of discrimination.

PHIL: Lots. I'll just talk about a few. I was at a meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners trying to get them to understand this issue and pass a paper that would reflect it. One of the people whom my colleagues and I from the Council for Responsible Genetics got to testify was a lawyer with a blood disease--an iron imbalance--that was treatable through some kind of blood-letting maintenance system. He is perfectly healthy and has been for years. He had to testify fairly rapidly because he was going off to play in a soccer game! However, he cannot change jobs because leaving would mean the loss of his group insurance coverage and he was told by insurance carriers they would not cover him on an individual policy.

Another example shows that it is also the case with Health Mantenance Organizations (HMO). A woman who was enrolled with her family in an HMO was in for an exam to confirm her suspicions that she was pregnant. She was told by the OBGYN, who knew the woman had a youngster with cystic fibrosis, that the fetus might be carrying defective or abnormal genes that would predispose the fetus to cystic fibrosis and he would like to arrange for a test. The doctor assumed that if there were cystic fibrosis, the woman would schedule to have an abortion. The woman said she wanted to discuss it with her husband first.

A few weeks later the doctor encouraged her to have an amniocentesis test when she was in for her visit. She informed him that she and her husband had decided not to do that. Rather, they would let nature take its course. They love their first child despite the problems and would be willing to go through it again. The parents were then notified by the HMO that if the woman did not submit to an amniocentesis and agree to abort the fetus if it were shown to display the defective gene, the HMO would not only refuse to cover her pregnancy, but they would disenroll the existing child with the disease.

This of course was flagrant and outrageous, and the woman knew some good attorneys and publicists; they did a whole campaign and the HMO had to reverse itself.

3. CIVIL LIBERTIES & GENETIC PRIVACY

DIANE: How widespread is this?

PHIL: We don't know because, of course, most people are either afraid to get tested or to reveal their test results because they understand that they are subject to discrimination.

The civil liberties of genetic privacy are important concepts that we have to understand. The ability to control information about one's self, whether it be credit information, life style information or health information, is an important civil liberties value that has been substantially eroded over the recent decades. In the guise of rationality, efficiency and better maintenance of things, it will further erode if we are not vigilant.

For example, in the last election Bill Clinton was fond of saying to audiences something to the effect of, "In the not too distant future when a newborn baby arrives, the whole genetic makeup of that child will be printed on a card and you, the parents will be able to make all kinds of decisions about your child on the basis of that information." Aside from the question of whether or not this is actually possible, the issue I want to ask is, is this desirable? How many hospitals, doctors and health insurers will also have all of that information? How many employers and HMOs will also have the information?

Will we get to situations where families will object to marriages unless you present your genetic profile and it is approved by your perspective in-laws? This is not so far fetched. We already have communities in which genetics is being used as a basis for making arranged marriages.

DIANE: So, medical records are being put into computer databases which make it much easier for someone to access to find out information?

PHIL: Exactly. There is a single database in Massachusetts which the insurance companies use has about 15-20 million personal medical records in it. Most people don't know about this. The rights of controlling what I call the "front end problem"--the taking of information--is a major issue.

But then the other privacy rights which have to do with the control of the information are equally important. For example, can you the individual specify the situations in which the information can and cannot be used? Do you get notified when third parties approach the databank and say, "we would like to use this information". Do you have the right to review the information and change or correct it if it is inaccurate? Do you have the right add explanatory or additional information in your file?

Francis Collins, Director of National Institutes of Health's ethical program for the Human Genome Project (which is roughly 4 percent of the entire project) went to existing data banks taken for Tay Sachs disease 20 years ago, and examined the stored blood samples for a cancer gene. He is a world renowned researcher who gets access to stored data (they were blood samples by the way, so all kinds of information about people was included) and we trust his good judgement as to what he is looking for. But say we are looking for something that is a little more controversial, like schizophrenia. Would you like to be labeled that you have a gene for schizophrenia or alcoholism? Or other bizarre behaviors that people are claiming are genetic? Of course, none of the people that gave blood that was in the sample were asked for their permission.

Should they have the right to give or deny permission? I believe, as a civil libertarian and as an American, yes. People ought to have the right to control information about themselves.

4. MISUSES OF GENETIC INFORMATION

DIANE: There was a 1989 survey sponsored by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment that found several Fortune 500 companies were doing genetic screening of their employees. What are the implications of genetic screening in employment, and has anyone lost their job as a result of the screening?

PHIL: Sure. The Air Force, to give the most outrageous example, screened African-Americans for sickle cell trait. Sickle cell trait is the presence of a single gene, not a pair of genes, and can not cause Sickle Cell Anemia. But, despite the fact that this was routinely pointed out to the Air Force for many years--at least a decade or so--they refused to allow African- Americans with this trait to become Air Force pilots. They were afraid that changes in oxygen levels in the cockpits would trigger sickle cell disease. This might be true for someone with two genes and a history of sickle cell. How severe it is might then become an issue. But, this is impossible with people who have sickle cell trait. This is an example of the misuse of information.

The testing of employees, or applicants for employment, is rampant. One of the most notorious cases I would like to mention has to do with Lawrence Labs in California which has secretly been testing employees, women, African-Americans, and Hispanics, for pregnancy, sickle-cell, and hypertension, without their knowledge or consent. This is the subject of litigation now on appeal to the 9th circuit Court of Appeals. This is the kind of invidious, discriminatory thing that genetic testing makes possible.

We do have legislation that purports to block such processes--such as the Americans with Disabilities Act-- forbidding discrimination on the perception of a disability. We have acts related to gender equality and how to treat pregnancy and so forth. Nonetheless, indications are that screening is widespread. It is power. It is a tool that is offered to those in power and it is a way that people in power express their power by manipulating, surveilling, and monitoring people who have less power than they do.

DIANE: Another place where it may come in also is with employers wanting genetic information and then making decisions about whether to hire someone who has a disease they think will lead to a health condition that they don't want to pay for, etc.

PHIL: This situation has actually gone up to the U.S. Supreme Court. I think it was an attempt to bar women from a lead battery manufacturing operation and the company lost on the grounds of gender discrimination. The company was saying that lead interferes with reproductive capabilities and so forth. One of the main occupational health aspects of this is that employers would rather discriminate against prospective employees than clean up the work place. I don't think men should be exposed to excess lead levels either.

If we think that this kind of differentiation ought to be allowed, doesn't it make sense that if people are allergic or susceptible to this and that, we keep them away? What we are doing is: (1) We are treating those people as damaged goods. We are devaluing their personality. (2) We are discriminating in ways that are not justifiable. The employers should clean up their act.

5. WHAT YOU CAN DO

DIANE: What can we do as individuals and as a society to see that the new genetic technologies are used in social and responsible ways?

PHIL: People need to organize around these issues. That is the way that social change happens. People need to speak to their legislators and say, "I want you to support bills outlawing the use of genetics for...," etc. People need to organize speak-ins at their churches and synagogues, union halls, community groups etc. There are people who can speak to these issues and help organize citizens around these issues.

The following WEB SITES are also good resources for learning more about the issues surrounding both human and agricultural uses of biotechnology:

For a glimpse at how a deliberative panel of everyday citizens views issues in biotechnology, see the "Conclusions of the Lay Panel at the Consensus Conference on Gene Therapy 22-25 September 1995" from the Danish Parliament's Board of Technology: http://www.tekno.dk/eng/publicat/f95gethe.htm

Some GOOD BOOKS include:

For MORE INFORMATION contact the Council for Responsible Genetics (you can reach Phil Bereano through CRG too): Council for Responsible Genetics, 5 Upland Road, Suite 3, Cambridge, MA 02140, USA. Tel. +(617) 868-0870; E-mail gwatch@neu.edu.

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ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE

The Loka Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making science and technology responsive to democratically decided social and environmental concerns. TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE LOKA INSTITUTE, to participate in our on-line discussion groups, or to help please visit our Web page: http://www.amherst.edu/~loka . Or contact us via E-mail at loka@amherst.edu


(Reprinted from the January 17, 1998 issue of the People's Weekly World. May be reprinted or reposted with PWW credit. For subscription information see below)

Cuba attaining sustainable agriculture

By Lem Harris

Driven by necessity, Cuban agriculture has been forced to abandon standard power farming practices and is applying sustainable soil and crop practices. This has aroused interest of progressive agricultural associations in the United States. Last year, Food First and the Institute for Food and Development Policy, using a grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation, put together a delegation of 26 American farmers and agricultural researchers to study the new Cuban farming methods. Their report is summarized in Minnesota's Land Stewardship Letter, April/May 1997.

In 1989, Russia stopped delivering crude oil to Cuban refineries in exchange for Cuban sugar. At the same time Cuba found itself unable to import chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Such imports dropped by 80 percent. The U.S. anti-Cuban embargo has cut off most normal agricultural inputs. This forced Cuba to literally plunge into an agricultural conversion affecting the nation's entire crop.

When gasoline for farm tractors became scarce, Cuban agriculture could turn to 100,000 oxen, "leftovers" by survived Cuban farm mechanization. Since then by castrating many existing bulls and a nationwide breeding campaign, the number of oxen working the Cuban land has risen to 400,000. This has required the production of a whole line of cultivators, seeders and harvester suitable for ox power.

Cuba's pest reduction program does not depend on chemicals any more. More than 230 locally controlled and operated Centers for the reproduction of Entomophages and Entomopathogens (CREE) create nontoxic pest controls. One such CREE is located at a Agricultural High School where students scout the fields to determine infestations, raise the bugs, do the releases and monitor the results.

Another center known as Pasture and Fodder Research Institute, is guided by the principle that diversity leads to stability. Instead of trying to concentrate the maximum number of cows in a factory type of operation, they study the best ratio of livestock to horticulture per hectare (2.47 acres).

This admittedly involves much human labor but Jose Suarez of the institute says: "Yo vivo enamorado con mi trabajo." (I am in love with my work.) The one demonstrative hectare for which he is responsible has an amazing array of fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, living fences and indigenous forage plants. Suarez explains that they are trying to learn what regimen will yield the highest return of human needs.

One can argue whether Cuba's program is progress or retreat to more primitive agriculture. Hector Bouza, director of the Cuban Mechanizing Institute, affirms that most machine cultivations of the soil damage the microorganisms. Microorganisms that live in the shade die in the sun and vice versa. Excess stirring of the soil raises havoc with soil life. While making a good seed bed it also promotes weed growth.

A conclusion drawn by the visiting farmers and researchers is that Cuban agriculture today is demonstrating an agriculture that is friendly with the natural world and is also the best way to meet Cuba's urgent food needs.

The cost to Cuba is excess human labor. But if the nation is fed and Cuba survives, it is labor well spent. No one expects that oxen will remain the permanent source of Cuba's farm energy, but as a temporary measure for survival as long as normal channels are closed due to the criminal embargo, it stands as witness to the fierce determination of a nation to remain free from foreign domination. ##30##

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Read the Peoples Weekly World Subscription info: pww@igc.apc.org

Richard Wolfson, PhD

Consumer Right to Know Campaign, for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street, Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2 email: rwolfson@concentric.net

Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html contains more information on genetic engineering.

To receive regular news on genetic engineering and this campaign, please send an email message with 'subscribe GE' to rwolfson@concentric.net for details. To unsubscribe, send the message "unsubscribe"


Excellent news from Austria about GE

Over the last two weeks there has been a very intensive GMO discussion and campaign in Austria (again). Reason for this was an application of Pioneer (on Dec 19) to grow GE (Bt) corn in Austria at ten sites in four provinces.

If approved, this would have been the first release of a GE plant in Austria. Greenpeace and Global 2000 manged to create an avelange of protests against this proposal. Five of the ten farmers withdrew their permits towards Pioneer to grow these GE crops on their land.

All regional gouvernors of the provinces, where GMO releases should happen, opposed it. Thousands of protest postcards were sent to the responsible ministry to protest

All newspapers and TV were (once again) full of GMO coverage (mostly in favour of us). Last week the responsible minister Mrs. Prammer already indicated that she (most likely) will not approve this Bt application because of the remaining risks (bt resistence etc.) and the lack of a GE liability law (which is currently only in preparation)

Last friday (jan 16) Grenpeace escalated the discussion by starting (at 6 am in the morning) a blockade of the Pioneer HQ in Parndorf (province of Burgenland), 60 km east of Vienna. Yesterday evening (sunday) Pioneer withdrew their application. The pressure on them was too big.

This means that in 1998 again NO GMO RELEASES will be done in Austria!!!!

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. You will see that allsorts@gn.apc.org will be the return address for all emails both genetics and otherwise until we install new software. Hope this does not cause too much confusion!

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Genetic Engineering Network
PO BOX 9656, London, N4 4JY
0181 374 9516 (this number is for Genetics info)
For genetics action info on the web check out:
http://www.envirolink.org/orgs/shag/genetix.html ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Reclaim The Streets can still be contacted via rts@gn.apc.org

Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998 05:16:48 +0100
From: Judy_Kew@greenbuilder.com (Judy Kew)

Cloned Cows May Carry Drugs in Milk

By ALISON FITZGERALD
© The Associated Press

BOSTON (Jan. 20) - Researchers announced today that they have successfully cloned two identical, genetically engineered calves, a step that could lead to the mass production of drugs for humans in cows' milk.

Named George and Charlie, the male calves born last week were created through a combination of cloning and genetic engineering by Dr. James Robl at the University of Massachusetts and Dr. Steven Stice of Advanced Cell Technology Inc.

They were to detail their findings at the International Embryo Transfer Society meeting today.

The calves aren't the first animal clones with altered genes - lambs Molly and Polly have a human gene expected to make them produce a protein helpful in blood clotting. But even Dr. Ian Wilmut, the Scottish researcher who genetically engineered the lambs and the now-famous Dolly, acknowledged that drug-making cows could be more valuable because cows produce much more milk than sheep.

Researchers said the calves mark the most viable step so far toward ''pharming'' - developing pharmaceuticals using farm animals.

''It's a big deal,'' said Mark Westhusin, a researcher at Texas A&M University. ''This technology has the potential to be a lot more efficient than the technology that we have now.''

The calves were born at a ranch in Texas.

George and Charlie contain two genetic alterations - a ''marker'' gene and one that made cells resistant to an antibiotic. Those markers have shown up everywhere, from the blood to the spleen to the bones.

The UMass researchers haven't produced a cow that can produce a drug, but that next step could be coming soon. The researchers said they have pregnant cows carrying female fetuses that have been altered to produce milk with the human serum albumin, a protein essential to the blood that is widely used by hospitals.

Advanced Cell Technology, the company founded by the researchers, already has a deal with Genzyme Transgenics Corp. of Framingham to produce albumin.

''We've taken a significant step toward making this commercially viable,'' Robl said.

Robl said the technique his team used to clone the calves was a variation on the nuclear transfer process Wilmut used last year to clone Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell.

But Stice said unlike the method used with sheep, cloning the calves did not require surgery and was relatively quick.

In nuclear transfer, scientists remove the nucleus from an egg and replace it with the nucleus from another cell. The egg is then placed into the uterus of a surrogate mother that gives birth to an offspring that has only the genes of the original cell.

But the process can require at least two surgeries. The UMass researchers said the genetically altered eggs they used were grown in a laboratory, then inserted into the uterus without surgery.

Another researcher on the team, Jose Bernardo Cibelli, said the team's technique takes cells that have already differentiated to produce a specific type of tissue - muscle, for example - and brings them back to the state where they can divide and form every type of cell in the body.

Robl and Stice say that process could lead to the ability to produce cells that can be transferred into humans to treat such diseases at Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

''The cells that we use are very easy to program, very easy to genetically alter,'' Robl said.

The lambs Molly and Polly, born in July, differ from Dolly in that they were cloned from the cell of a sheep fetus, not an adult animal. The sheep will be tested this spring to see if their milk produces useful quantities of factor IX, a protein that helps blood clot.

It is hoped that the factor IX could be extracted from the milk and used to treat patients with hemophilia, an inherited bleeding disorder in which the blood lacks the ability to clot.

''Obviously, I'm delighted that the nuclear transfer technology is very robust,'' Wilmut said upon learning of the cloned calves.

Neither the lambs nor the calves are absolute pioneers.

Other techniques have been used to reap drugs for the treatment of cystic fibrosis and heart attacks from the milk of genetically engineered sheep or goats. These animals, however, were produced by injecting genes into a fertilized egg and then implanting the egg in a surrogate mother, a technique less efficient than cloning.

Only about 2 percent of such eggs grow to live animals and only a small percentage of the survivors actually contain the target genes.

Scientists at the conference, many of whom are researching animal cloning, said the arrival of George and Charlie has been much anticipated.

''It's not Dolly, but it's a substantial contribution,'' said Dr. Caird Rexroad, the society president. ''We've all been awaiting more information on what you can do with cattle. A cow can make a tremendous amount of protein.''

AP-NY-01-20-98 1207EST

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. All active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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The Fallibility of Scientific Authorities

by Jaan Suurkla, MD
Physicians Against Genetically Engineered Food

The support from scientific authorities to the exploitation of Genetically Engineering of Foods on one hand and the strong criticism of opposing scientists has impressed and confused laymen as well as decision-makers. Can the majority of experts really be wrong? May leading authorities who have a decisive influence on safety assessment really have made erroneous judgments ? The history of the Nuclear Energy (NE) issue may provide some illuminating lessons to learn. ( The text below has been checked for correctness by a nuclear physicist who was involved in the opposition to NE-exploitation).

The history of GE is conspicuously similar to the history of NE in important respects. For many years, a vast majority of international experts were in favour of nuclear energy and critical opponents were not taken seriously. Scientifically well-founded counter-arguments from qualified scientists were neglected, if not publicly ridiculed, by leading authorities. The opinion of the majority of the leading authorities was uncritically taken as the Truth irrespective of the factual content of the criticism.

The general opinion of the scientific authorities was that Nuclear Energy is very safe and that accidents are extremely improbable - yes, virtually impossible, considering the "advanced" and "almost ridiculously" rigorous safety measures. The opinion was backed by powerful multinational companies co-operating with governmental organizations. As in the GE case, NE development was made an important national issue in some countries. It was considered vital to promote the technology so that the nation will remain in the forefront of its development and the industry will have a competitive advantage from its leading position.

As in the case of GE, the NE technology was launched in spite of considerable deficiencies in the research about potential complications. The reason was the same - multinationals expecting huge gains, pressing and manipulating governments to satisfy their desire for rapid exploitation.

The opponents were, as in the GE case, various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO:s) and a small number of courageous scientists who dared to oppose the massive opinion of their colleagues. They revealed serious defects in the safety assessments and expressed concern about unconsidered potential complications.

The Three Mile Island nuclear power station incident in Harrisburg supported some of their criticism (its obvious counterpart in the GE case is the Showa Denko Tryptophan EMS disaster). But as in the case of the Showa Denko disaster, the governmental experts did their best to explain away the Harrisburg case.

With the growing public awareness, and an increasing number of more or less serious incidents, it became increasingly impossible politically to ignore the critical evidence and arguments presented by opponents to Nuclear Energy. So with time, it became more and more obvious that the scientific authorities and the majority of scientists had been seriously wrong in their safety assessment of Nuclear Energy based power generation systems. Governmental officials and politicians began to realize that they had been fooled by the rosy and distorted propaganda skillfully displayed by the proponents of NE and supported by leading scientists, several of whom earned considerable incomes as advisors of the industry. So the tide began slowly to turn.

With the Chernobyl Catastrophe, continued NE exploitation became seriously questioned by most governments.

In the case of GE, we are in the early phase of a turning tide. Governmental organs and politicians, who so far have been misinformed and manipulated by the GE proponents, are beginning to wake up to reality due to the information from NGO:s. Therefore, it is most important to make every possible effort to awaken the public opinion so as to create a strong public demand for reality-based assessment of the hazards of GE foods. The possibilities of success should be considerably better than in the case of NE. This is because NE satisfied a great demand for energy, while the presently developed GE foods are of very limited if any value to humanity, mainly satisfying the profit demand of the Genetic Manipulation industry.

We can only hope that the tide will turn fast enough so that we can avoid a GE counterpart to the Chernobyl Catastrophe. It is time for governments to consider the *whole* spectrum of facts and potential dangers in stead of using the opinions of selected, biased scientific authorities as an alibi for their position.

The situation is potentially more serious than for NE as the pollution of GE genes will, contrary to radioactivity, not decay and remain localized. It may in stead increase with time and spread globally. And while radioactivity can easily be detected, harmful genes released into nature are difficult or impossible to detect. And harmful effects like unexpected toxins likewise. The toxin hazard is unnecessarily accentuated because no rigorous testing is required in the case of substantial equivalence. Because of the rubbery nature of this principle, recommended by international scientific authorities , virtually anything will pass as "substantially equivalent". Therefore, in the worst case, millions may suffer before the cause is detected. And because of absence of labeling or highly deficient labeling rules (as is the case in EU), the discovery of the real cause of such a catastrophe would be greatly delayed.

The NE history thus shows that the majority of scientists and leading authorities may be wrong in their judgement about safety issues of a new technologies. The striking parallels with the situation of GE gives reasons to suspect that the same may be true in this case. This leads is to the question - are there common mechanisms in these two cases that may contribute to the serious judgement errors by leading scientists?

WHY WERE THE LEADING NUCLEAR ENERGY EXPERTS MISTAKEN ?
-- Can we learn from history?

May international authorities, consulted for the assessment of safety issues be more likely than others to be biased in favour of exploitation of the technology they are experts on?

There are psychological reasons to expect this. - The scientific authorities have built their career and the basis of their prestigious position on the technology. They may often have become members of prestigious governmental and international expert commissions because of the technology. An important common factor in the NE as well as the GE case is that a very large part of the applied research has been financed by the industry. In addition to making many important scientists more or less dependent on the industry for their work, the industry was able to pay them considerably better than the universities. And also those still working at the universities had opportunities of getting generous consultancy fees from the industry.

It is but human, under such premises, to succumb to reality-distorting subconscious defense mechanisms that makes a person neglect or seriously underestimate crucial critical factors that should justify a critical or at least most cautious stance. I think such psychological mechanisms explain the obviously unrealistic safety assessments of leading nuclear energy experts. And similar subconscious mechanisms may make leading scientific experts of FAO and other regulatory bodies neglect or seriously underestimate various hazards with Genetic Engineering.

The combination of heavy involvement of powerful financial organizations and considerable governmental involvement is a factor common to NE and GE in the countries leading the technology development. The consent of scientific authorities is vital for governmental approval of the technology. Therefore it is inevitable that they will be exposed to great efforts to make them cooperate. It seems obvious that that such a situation may contribute to a risk for a biased position among key scientists.

Another problem is that, both in questions of GE safety and in the NE case, experts with a narrow laboratory background have had a considerable influence in safety assessment issues. This is unfortunate as they are mostly incompetent to assess the consequences of the technology outside the laboratory walls. Or even to foresee complications outside their narrow specialty even under laboratory conditions. If the complications of technology may cover wide and disparate fields, an undue influence of narrow specialists may have serious consequences.

So there are a number of similar factors in the case of NE and GE that makes it justified to expect that the GE authorities may run the risk of making serious errors in the safety assessment questions similarly as was the case in the NE issue.

A lesson that can be learned from this is that facts and not the scientific status of a scientist should be what should be considered by the decision-makers in important safety issues. To that end it is necessary that vital decisions concerning new technologies should not be allowed, as presently, to be made on the basis of scientific analyses that are impossible for the layman to fully understand. A procedure should be established that enables the non-specialist and even the well-educated layman to make a qualified judgement of relevant scientific facts without without the interference of the opinions of scientific authorities involved in the technology under assessment. Such a procedure is suggested below.

A SUGGESTED PROCEDURE FOR SAFETY ASSESSMENT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES

For the reasons presented above, we, the Physicians Against Genetically Engineered Food, think it is most important *not* to appoint authorities to be in charge of safety assessment of the technology they are themselves deeply involved in. In stead, an interdisciplinary commission of scientists of many disparate disciplines should be appointed. The chairman should always be a scientist who has developed a skill in non-reductionistic interdisciplinary research with systemic analysis of complex phenomena. Scientists in fields directly related to the technology should *not* be members of the commission. The work of the commission should be arranged as *public hearings*, assessing the scientific quality of the factual evidence and opinions presented by various authorities on the technology in question. The scientists responsible for the safety assessment should have a high degree of integrity in addition to being leading researchers- "Master scientists". And be clearly independent of the industrial interests involved.

The hearing should carefully investigate the research of all potential hazards of the technology. Its duty would be to answer the question whether the amount and quality of the research has been enough to reliably assess all conceivable potential hazards.

The analysis has to be presented in such a language that it is possible for non-scientists to understand it. Every observation that lies at the basis for the judgement has to be assessed and evaluated for relevance and presented in the same pedagogical way. Every critical opinion pronounced by scientists in the society (irrespective of his position in the scientific prestige hierarchy), every observation indicating potential hazards and every doubt expressed by non-scientists has to be considered and openly assessed by the commission in a pedagogical manner so that everybody can judge if their conclusion is logical, impartial and objective. Thereby, it will be possible for people and decision-makers to judge the objectivity of the safety assessment of the commission.

The suggested procedure contrasts with present practices. An extreme example of the opposite to the above suggested procedure was the assessment of the safety of the CIBA maize made by scientists appointed by the European Union. In this case, the assessment documentation was kept secret (but leaked out). Only the conclusion that the maize was safe was published.

Finally, and most importantly, the commission should address the question if there are alternatives that are safer to Health and Environment and have a better compatibility with ecologically sustainable development. If such alternatives are available, there is no reasonable justification to allow a potentially hazardous technology. And if there is no alternative, it is most necessary to judge whether there is a reasonable relation between the risks and benefits of the technology. If not, exploitation of the technology should not be allowed.

The suggested procedure, might perhaps help prevent the history of biased authorities to repeat itself in the case of the exploitation of new and powerful technologies. At least it would be a considerable improvement compared to present practices.

If the suggested procedure had been applied before market release, neither the exploitation of Nuclear Energy nor of Genetically Engineered foods would have been allowed because it would have been found that the knowledge required for reliable safety assessment was seriously insufficient.

In any case, it is contrary to fundamental democratic principles to let a technology that may have important Health and Environmental impacts be forced upon people without careful and honest information about all relevant scientific facts to them and their elected representatives. The present attempts to force GE-foods upon consumers against the will of the majority in many countries by misleading them through systematic propagandistic manipulation with the aid of PR experts, represents a serious contempt for democracy, characteristic of authoritarian states. The same goes for the systematic efforts of the Gene Manipulation Industry to prevent the freedom to choose what to eat by counteracting labeling and by pressing for a change in the regulations for organic food.

Considering the power of today's technology it is most necessary to start open public investigation of the suggested kind in all cases of new technologies that may endanger the environment or the Health of people. - Starting immediately with genetically engineered food and the release of all kinds of GE organisms into the environment. Physicians Against Genetically Engineered Food

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Jaan Suurkla, MD
Chairman of PHYSICIANS AGAINST GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD
An international network for a moratorium on commercial release of GE-products.

E-mail: m-25430@mailbox.swipnet.se
Website: "Genetically Engineered Foods - Safety problems" http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/indexeng.htm
Tel +46-322621347 fax (on the computer, so please make a second try if the first is not answered as it may take time to get it started)

Non-Physicians are welcome and can contribute importantly as associated members.

The membership registration form is found at: http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/lmgreg.htm

Sign the 1997 State of the World Forum statment on Life and Evolution

It requires a moratiorium to the release of GE organisms and has already been signed by several scientists. You will find the statement at: http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/stateofw.htm and the signature form at: http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/stwform.htm