Genetic engineering – especially when it comes to food – is a battleground. On one side: people who fear a world of contaminated food, harming humans and the environment. The other side fears we’ll miss an opportunity to prevent hunger and disease. Now there’s a ground breaking initiative that might produce compromise. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports that some researchers think safety can be built into the bio tech industry:
Genetic engineering – especially when it comes to food – is a
battleground. On one side: people who fear a world of contaminated
food, harming humans and the environment. The other side fears
we’ll miss an opportunity to prevent hunger and disease. Now, there’s
a ground breaking initiative that might produce compromise. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports that some researchers
think safety can be built into the bio tech industry:
To remove a gene from one organism and transfer it to another…
that’s genetic engineering. Genetically modified or GM crops are
easier to grow, according to bio tech supporters and in the future
might be more nutritious. But they also might contain hidden
allergens, because they use genes from a plant or animal that
people might be allergic to. And there are concerns that GM crops
might harm the environment by crossbreeding with natural plants in
the wild. And so the University of Minnesota is proposing a
solution – an entirely new profession – call them biotech safety
engineers – along with a new science of bio safety. Anne
Kapuscinski is a researcher at the University of Minnesota and a
force behind the initiative called Safety First. Kapuscinski says
rather than regulating the industry after a new product is developed,
companies should prove safety first.
“It will mean that some ideas that will be on the lab bench won’t go
any further in development because the developers
will realize there are safety concerns that we don’t know how to
mitigate, or how to prevent from happening or how to address.”
And that could save companies money… by avoiding costly mistakes
such as the Starlink corn debacle. That’s when genetically modified
corn accidentally mixed with conventional corn and got into dozens of
foods. Kapuscinski says it was common knowledge in the industry that
the corn could get mixed up because of the way it’s transported and
stored… which might have been avoided with uniform safety standards
and government oversight. But until now, industry has resisted that.
They’ve been touting the benefits rather than the risks such as this
ad campaign put out by a group called the Biotechnology Industry
“Biotechnology, a big word that means hope.”
But one expert says if the industry wants to inspire public
confidence, it should support the Safety First initiative. John
Howard is the founder of a Texas based biotech firm called
ProdiGene. Not all biotech companies support the University of
Minnesota effort, but Howard thinks it has a good chance of
alleviating public concerns.
“The problem is, however, if you do it yourselves, what
credibility do you have as a company promoting your own safety
assessment? So an independent agency or source that comes out
and says, ‘Look, this is now credible, we’ve looked at all the safety
issues,’ that’s great, and if they find something that we’ve missed
then fine, we want to do it that way.”
John Howard says his company is working to bio-engineer corn to
deliver drugs. For instance, if you need insulin you could have it
in your breakfast cereal.
Opponents of bio tech say we don’t know all of the ramifications of
engineering drugs into food or altering the genetics of any organism,
but John Howard thinks we know enough to be safe.
“You can always argue that we just don’t know
enough yet and that’s an argument that can go on and on. And this
applies to everything that we think about in terms of risk. But
what you can do is look at a risk benefit equation. There’s
no question this is a for-profit company, let’s not make any mistake,
but not at the expense of harming people.”
And supporters say the Safety First initiative will see to that.
Lawrence Jacobs is a political scientist at the University of
Minnesota and a leader in Safety First. Jacobs says, like it or not,
GM food is here to stay.
“If we do not find some credible way to address the biosafety issues in
biotechnology, we are heading for a major maelstrom. The challenge
that’s out there now for the biotechnology industry right now is get
your act together. And the potential for consumers to panic in this
country is significant.”
Of course safety standards are already engineered into the
manufacturing of airplanes and cars. But will that work in an
industry which is manufacturing a living thing?
Supporters of the Safety First initiative say there’s too little
oversight on an industry that could have much greater impact on health
and the environment.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky.