Report from Working Group on Genetics and Biotechnology

Our group has had a busy but frustrating time over the past few months: We have been busy because there are so many issues to deal with and frustrated because it is difficult to make a difference: Some of the issues are, e.g.:

  • the rapid approach of completion (within 2-3 years) of unravelling the human genetic code. This issue has multiple subtexts: e.g., a) will your genetic code be kept private- suppose you have a hereditary defect or a gene for a health risk factor; b) since a large US company is now trying to patent human genes and the US Patent Office has decided that they are patentable, will your genes belong to them and if you need gene therapy in the future, will you or your health supplier have to pay royalties?
  • the Canadian Environmental Protection Act was revised recently and weakened from the proposal of the all-party Commons Committee at the last minute by 150 amendments made by the government at the behest of lobbyists for the polluting companies. We made an effort along with other groups to have the Senate restore in the act a time-limited complete phase-out of release of polluting chemicals into the environment and the legal establishment of the “precautionary principle” [that no product or substance can be placed in the environment or sold to the public unless the maker has established that it is safe and is liable for any damage. This should include genetically modified organisms]. We were unsuccessful because the Liberal majority in the Senate cut off debate and did not allow amendments.
  • research on the use of human stem cells, undifferentiated cells derived from early human embryos, has pushed ahead, especially in the US, initially supported by private funding, because the US Congress had outlawed use of federal funds for this purpose. The NIH (the largest source of federal funds for biomedical research) recently recommended that this ban be partially lifted. The goal for use of these cells may be a worthy one: to develop techniques to control their differentiation so that a stem cell can be provided with the genes of an individual needing a transplant and made to differentiate into the required organ, overcoming the shortage of organs for transplant and the need for dangerous immunosuppressing drugs. The problem is that it appears likely that there will appear a commercial need to make human embryos with all the ethical issues involved.
  • research on and use of xenografts, graft organs from other species, usually pigs or baboons, transplanted into humans. The problem is that other species may have viruses that have not yet crossed the species barrier into human and which might be fatal (consider HIV which may have crossed from monkeys to humans in Africa). Such transplants could lead to new human diseases. The issue then is not just “informed consent” by the individual proposed recipient, but the public health. My Co-chair, Phyllis Creighton, feels strongly that the problems of the shortfall in organs for transplants should be solved by appropriate increase in donations rather than by either of these two technologies. So far we do not have a strategy to propose as to how to accomplish this.
  • the spread of genetically modified organisms (plants) into use as sources of food products, on the market unlabelled. Already in the USA and in Canada, a high proportion of soya products, canola products, corn products, cotton products, and others are derived form plants which are GMOs These are frequently genetically engineered to contain resistance to a proprietary herbicide (such as Roundup® from Monsanto) which can be applied in higher concentrations and earlier. To insert these genes, artificial gene constructs are made with viral proteins to allow entrance into the cell nucleus and with marker genes, often resistance to an antibiotic such as tetracycline, so the successfully engineered cells can be recognized. Seeds for GM plants are patented and sold to farmers with a contract to ensure no seed saving. These are enforced by rules which permit the company representative to sample the plants from a subsequent planting and levy fines if seeds have been saved. Even fields of neighbouring farmers have been sampled and charges brought. Several of the very large chemical and seed producing companies, including Monsanto and Novartis, have gone further. They developed or bought companies which possessed patents on genetically modified seeds which produced plants with sterile seeds, thus requiring seed repurchase by the farmer each year. These technologies, termed Terminator Technology by concerned organizations have been heavily criticized as having only the aim to increase profit at the expense of the farmer and consumer. Recently Monsanto announced that it would not develop this technology commercially. Its ultimate status remains to be seen.

European governments, except in the UK, and consumers have resisted the introduction of unlabelled food from GMOs. This is perhaps in part a reflection of extreme cautiousness about food in general, based on recent problems with a fatal disease of the central nervous system, passed to cows from feed made from sheep offal and possibly to humans in the UK and Europe from UK beef. European governments, except the UK, have outlawed import of food containing products from GMOs. In the UK there has been tremendous resistance from consumers to buy food or food products GMOs and this pressure has resulted in large retail organizations refusing to buy such products. The US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, which wish to export such food have complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and/or have resisted attempts to negotiate a Biosafety Protocol under the RIO treaty on Biodiversity which would allow governments to exclude such imports either as seeds or plant products.

This whole issue has become highly controversial with proponents of genetically engineered plants claiming that the food products are safe while attacking anyone who suggests or presents evidence, either theoretical or experimental that they may be hazardous to the consumer (e.g. by producing new allergenic proteins or reducing nutritional values) or to the environment (e.g. by spreading herbicide resistance genes or antibiotic resistance genes. This has raised the whole issue of how food safety of products from GMOs should be evaluated.

I have spent a lot of time in the last few weeks trying to find out the details about how this is done to protect the consumer and the environment in the US and Canada. I have been deeply concerned about what I have found out about the process. There seems to be no set procedure and no single independent (without a conflict of interest) agency seems to be in charge in either the US or Canada.

In the US, the Food and Drug Directorate may declare a food product from a GMO “substantially equivalent” to a non-GMO product based on estimates or tests by the company that produced the GMO that no new allergens have not been produced and that no toxic substance is present. The Environmental Protection Agency plays little definite role in ensuring that GMO plants do not harm the environment and its funding to carry out its own research on consequences of Biotechnology have been abolished, leaving only some small discretionary funding which can be requested but in competition with requests for all other purposes as well.

The Liberal government in Canada proposes to consolidate food safety testing, taking it away from the Health Protection Branch, but placing it under the Ministry of Agriculture. This seems to me to set up a major conflict of interest. We already know from the experience with Monsanto’s attempt to get the use in cows of bovine growth hormone produced by genetically modified micro-organisms s approved by the HPB that extreme pressure will be exerted by the large corporations and by the government on their behalf. That was stopped only because scientists from the Branch publicly protested and subsequent Senate hearing resulted in approval being denied (not on the grounds of human safety concerns but on the grounds of damage to cattle from mastitis and udder damage).

This last instance makes us note that GM organisms are not just plants, but also animals. The cloning of calves, sheep, etc is already commonplace in laboratories and attempts at their commercial exploitation is not far off. It may not happen if animals cloned from adults cells are found to age very rapidly. Cloning from stem cells such as germ cells is perhaps a better possibility and is under investigation. Genetic knockout mice, in which a given gene has been deleted, have been extremely valuable in defining functions of some genes, leading sometimes to unexpected functions. So far this technique has not led to environmental problems because these animals are confined to the laboratory and nearly all would not survive in the wild environment.

It is apparent from the above that the Biotechnology issues facing our society are very complex and we as a working group are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tasks of trying to keep abreast of them, report and act on them as you may direct. It seems to me that we need to expand the group or subdivide the tasks. I urge the Board to consider how to manage this.

Finally I wish to pass on a very valuable summary of ten reasons why Biotechnology will not provide world food security, despite the claims of biotechnology companies and their scientific advocates, as we proceed into the next millennium with populations, poverty and the spread between rich and poor still increasing. This summary was posted in the public domain by its authors.

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ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)