May 22, 2000 / Alberta Report Newsmagazine / Economics / 37 / News / Mike Byfield
According to this story, traditional selective breeding, although a genetic modification itself, takes place within compatible species: tomatoes to tomatoes; dogs to dogs, or at least coyotes. Genetic engineering, in contrast, can introduce DNA from a mouse or a bacterium to a flower. GM opponents, whose dominant political arm is Greenpeace, object on two basic grounds:
- Environmental: GM salmon reportedly grow five to 50 times larger than the wild varieties and behave more aggressively. Anti-GM scientists worry that such freaks, whether plant or animal, may escape, crossbreed into wild species and then cause irreversible havoc. Similar impacts have occurred when species reach new continents, such as European rabbits breeding riotously in Australia.
- Human health: If all the genetic DNA in a human body were unraveled, it would reach the moon and back 8,000 times. Because genes are so difficult to fully understand, Greenpeace fears that blindly adding small, alien elements could have unintended consequences, such as triggering allergies or cancer.
These effects, like many known diseases, might not become visible for years.
Wilf Keller, research director for the Plant Biotechnology Institute of the National Research Council in Saskatoon, was quoted as saying, "It is true that genetically engineered plants can and occasionally will react with wild species," and that GM canola, for example, is similar to wild mustard and might interbreed. But most mutants are sterile or do not survive. And even a cross between a Roundup resistant canola and a weed would remain vulnerable to other herbicides.
Biotechnology will reduce even this modest risk dramatically, Mr. Keller forecasts. A desired quality -- for example, resistance to certain insects -- will be confined to a plant's leaves, leaving its seeds in their natural state. "Only fingers and toes grow nails in people, and similarly we will direct our effects away from reproductive tissue," the Saskatoon scientist says.
Potential health risks are inherent in any new bioproduct, Mr. Keller continues, including the many drugs and edible compounds developed annually.
"Our government has excellent screening procedures and they work," he argues. Although inadvertent side effects are more likely on animals and insects, they can be assessed and addressed on an ongoing basis. One experiment showed that monarch butterflies which ate pollen from GM cotton were badly affected. That conclusion draws a chuckle from Mr. Keller. "The butterflies were given nothing else to eat. If I tie you up and throw you in the water and you drown, does this mean water is poisonous to people?"
Greenpeace also opposed the Green Revolution, theorizing that its biotechnically developed, high-yielding supercrops destroyed local agricultural diversity. Yet India now exports grain, while China imports modest quantities only to render its own flours more tasty. Similarly, biotechnologists hope to heal many ills with GM plants