Join 3,416 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Isolating the gene responsible for caffeine
August 31, 2000 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Isolating the gene responsible for caffeine is expected to lead to decaffeinated beans, and a higher-quality coffee product, all-around... But are they considering other applications? With a bit of gene splicing, anything is possible. Caffeinated oranges, anyone?
posted by Jairus (35 comments total)

 
ya.. ha
posted by Vik at 4:06 PM on August 31, 2000


I want the caffeine gene to be spliced right into my brain. Can they do that yet?
posted by ido at 4:52 PM on August 31, 2000


I apologize in advance for another humorless post :)

"We've got to get past this scare-mongering that's going on about the growth of genetically modified produce," Crozier said.

"Scaremongering"?

First of all, GM technology has been a disaster for the environment (genetic pollution, new viruses, radical reduction in biodiversity etc). That's indisputable.

Secondly, there is convincing evidence that particular GM products -- including Bt corn and rBGH milk -- are hazardous to human health. To take an uncontroversial case:

"In 1989 and 1990, a genetically engineered brand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed more than 30 Americans and permanently disabled or afflicted more than 5,000 others with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, before it was recalled by the FDA." (source).

This was of course a "mistake" -- but that's the whole point: GM technology isn't ready for prime time, health-wise.

Finally, it is clear that the socio-economic consequences of GM technology on third world countries are very grave indeed. See Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva.

Needless to say, the view that GM technology is unsafe is not fringe science. In fact, the evidence of harm is sufficiently convincing that:

"On May 17, the prestigious 115,000-member British Medical Association (the equivalent of the AMA in the US) issued a report which called for a moratorium on GE foods and crops, declaring that more "independent" research is needed to determine the possible toxicity of bioengineered food." (source)

Further Resources:

Union of Concerned Scientists

Organic Consumers Association
posted by johnb at 10:47 PM on August 31, 2000


Wow, I have no disagreement with John B. Actually, one small disagreement. The stuff I have read has not mentioned any human health risk with Bt Corn. I know it is a small butterfly problem, and more seriously it devalues Bt as a natural pesticide. I do not have time to follow your links at the moment, but they do no seem like they will directly address this. Have you read something different?
posted by thirteen at 11:06 PM on August 31, 2000


Well, the jury's still pretty much out on Bt corn, really. The first study that caused all the fuss basically demonstrated that monarch butterfly larvae die when fed the pollen from Bt corn, but they didn't control for things like dosage and abundance. There was a more recent study out of Iowa earlier this year that showed that there is clearly an impact on monarchs in the field, but it didn't really quantify whether or not it would have a significant impact on the monarch population. Clearly, Novartis needs to do a lot more testing on the environmental impacts of Bt corn, but nothing has suggested yet that it's hazardous to -human- health. The Bt protein is a natural insecticide--mammals don't have the right receptors to interact with Bt.

Also, I was a little confused with the L-tryptophan case. I hadn't heard about that one. But it seems to me that, well, an L-amino acid is an L-amino acid is an L-amino acid. It would seem that if this company's dietary supplement was making people sick, that was an isolation, purification, or quality control problem, not a problem with the technique of genetic engineering.
posted by shylock at 2:27 AM on September 1, 2000


Just for the slightly confused here, monarch larvae subsist solely on milkweed varieties (genus Asclepias), whereas corn is genus Zea. The issue is not with monarch larvae eating corn, but rather corn pollen dusted on milkweed leaves.

I found a reasonably balanced article here, as well as the follow-up study done by Iowa State University.
posted by plinth at 5:39 AM on September 1, 2000


First of all, GM technology has been a disaster for the environment (genetic pollution, new viruses, radical reduction in biodiversity etc). That's indisputable.

Something tells me that indisputable as you may think it is, pro-GMers would, in fact, dispute your claims.

In some ways, GM is just a faster way to do what we've been doing since humans started farming: breeding animals and plants to have the features and traits we want. Look at all the different kinds of dogs, for golly's sake, and what we've managed to do to them. GM can produce good results or bad results. It makes it a whole lot easier though. Much like the Internet's relationship to information distribution.

But GM can also do things that plain-old cross-breeding could never do, and these results (caffeinated tobacco, anyone?) are far more influential on the environment. I think it is correct to say that we do not understand biodiversity and the balance of ecosystems very well, and as such, experimenting with massively changing such things is dangerous. But what can you do? It's going to happen whether you like it or not.

To steal a cliche, if you outlaw Genetic Modification, only outlaws will practice it. And maybe that's even more dangerous?
posted by daveadams at 6:37 AM on September 1, 2000


Daveadams has hit on the most important point of GM farming - it's not *what* we are creating at the moment, it's the tests we do with what we create that are the potential danger areas. A head of GM corn in a laboratory isn't going to do anyone any harm, but a field full, interacting with the surrounding ecosystem - well, fact is we don't really know. It makes me question the 'field trials' that our Government is conducting at the moment to determine if GM wheat and corn is safe to grow in the UK. How can this be a trial? If anything goes wrong, they can't collect the pollen back into the lab and re-re-engineer it.
Evolution has had millions of years to balance the ecosystems we have on earth, what makes the human race so arrogant as to think that re-engineering what we didn't create would be an OK thing to do - what harm can we do?
We don't know *why* things are like they are, we are intelligent enough to take them apart and look at the constituent parts, but we don't have the design brief stating why living things are designed like they are and what the dependencies are. We haven't come anywhere near understanding the whys, just the whats.
posted by Markb at 7:45 AM on September 1, 2000


I happen to think that, as with anything new, GM food should be looked at very closely.

But I don't see that the kinds of effects mentioned here are really any different from the kinds of effects obtained through other means. We changed the North American environment when we introduced horses and corn. We changed corn when we started detasseling. We've eliminated whole ecosystems without even realizing it. GM food didn't invent these problems, and can't be separately blamed for them.

I think there's a ridiculous amount of broad-brushing going on here: "GM food" is bad? All of it? Every genetic modification is inherently bad? Should I never try a new food, then? Should I never grow a hybrid, never cross-breed? These introduce the exact same kinds of risks, but because they aren't tainted with the cast of "evil science". That markb uses the word "arrogant" shows the personalization going on here.

We are intelligent beings. We re-engineer the Earth just walking around in it. We've been un-balancing ecosystems for millennia for food production and habitation and energy production. Yes, some of this is bad, and we should act as better custodians of the planet, if only for our own survival and future comfort. But I think simply saying that "GM food is bad" is nonsensical.

Individual GM varieties may prove to be just as bad for an individual ecosystem as, say, zebra mussels have been in N American freshwater lakes. But zebra mussels being bad for lakes isn't the same as all mussels everywhere are bad. Why should all GM food be bad?
posted by dhartung at 10:08 AM on September 1, 2000


I have high hopes for genetic engineering. My concerns have been that those who have made modifications have made irresonsible choices. To modify a mosquito so that it cannot pass on disease is one thing. To program a plant to produce sterile fruit after one generation is another. Old fashion cross breeding happens naturally, and genetic drift is a scary concern. Engineering a plant to be able to survive being drenched in poison is not getting me excited, nor would a freeze resistant fish tomato. The science must be known before we set this stuff free. We can alter genes, but how do we undo the damage once it enters the wild. I think we are smart enough to handle this science, but we have to treat it with deadly seriousness. I don't think Monsanto is at all careful, and any conversation about the company gets me a rabid as any of the hippies who post to metafilter. Monsanto isn't offering anything, anybody should want. They offer a defoliant, an altered seed that can withstand that defoliant, and the next season nutrients for the soil, because the defoliant ensures nothing will grow there without it. This is not the good clean science that makes you proud of humanity, it is the science that turns green fields into slaughterhouses.
posted by thirteen at 11:07 AM on September 1, 2000


But I don't see that the kinds of effects mentioned here are really any different from the kinds of effects obtained through other means. We changed the North American environment when we introduced horses and corn. We changed corn when we started detasseling. We've eliminated whole ecosystems without even realizing it. GM food didn't invent these problems, and can't be separately blamed for them.

I don't see your point. Nuclear weapons didn't "invent war", but they dramatically increase the human ability to destroy other humans. Likewise for the unthoughtful _application_ of GM technology. It dramatically increases the human power to introduce toxins into the food supply, the power to reduce biodiversity, the power to impoverish small farmers in the third world, and so on. The alleged advantages clearly don't outweigh the costs at this point.

I think there's a ridiculous amount of broad-brushing going on here: "GM food" is bad? All of it? Every genetic modification is inherently bad? Should I never try a new food, then?

Nobody here is making those claims, and you know it. So why do you feel the need to set up strawmen in order to communicate your point of view? Because you have no real arguments?

Look, genetic modification clearly is not inherently bad. Technology, in itself, is always neutral. What we should be concerned about is the careless application of GM technology by private enterprise. Why? Because _every_ commericial application thus far has had a disasterous impact on the environment, on human health, and/or on the alleviation of poverty in the third world. Reasoning by induction, this suggests that we should hold off on further commercial applications until we have greater control over the technology and a better understanding of the consequences in the real world. Short of that, we need LABELING, and we need legislation that holds agribusiness companies LEGALLY LIABLE for their "mistakes" (including genetic drift etc).

Should I never grow a hybrid, never cross-breed? These introduce the exact same kinds of risks,

That's just false. GM is *much* more powerful, and the effects of abusing it are orders of magnitude greater.

but because they aren't tainted with the cast of "evil science".

Nobody is talking about "evil science" -- except you. The science itself is fascinating, and worth pursuing just because the truth is always worth pursuing. Be that as it may, this philosophical point obviously has no bearing on (say) the ACTUAL health problems associated with rBGH milk. And that's what were talking about: the current and forthcoming commercial applications. Do you really have trouble distinguishing the science from the commerce?

That markb uses the word "arrogant" shows the personalization going on here.

Huh? MarkB wasn't "personalizing" anything. His point was that the Earth's ecosystems are too complicated for us to understand in sufficient detail at this point in human history, and that it is presumptuous for us to pretend otherwise. When you mess with ecosystems on the large scale that GM technology makes possible, the consequences are unpredictable. This point about present epistemic limitations is obviously not equivalent to calling particular scientists "evil" or "arrogant".

We are intelligent beings. We re-engineer the Earth just walking around in it.

That's just false. (unless by "re-engineer" you mean something vague like "move matter").

We've been un-balancing ecosystems for millennia for food production and habitation and energy production. Yes, some of this is bad, and we should act as better custodians of the planet, if only for our own survival and future comfort. But I think simply saying that "GM food is bad" is nonsensical.

Again, nobody is impugning the science of GM. What we're challenging is the safety of current commercial applications -- the evidence suggests they are harmful and should be banned immediately.

Individual GM varieties may prove to be just as bad for an individual ecosystem as, say, zebra mussels have been in N American freshwater lakes. But zebra mussels being bad for lakes isn't the same as all mussels everywhere are bad. Why should all GM food be bad?

You can beat up strawmen all you like, but it does not lend support to your argument.

posted by johnb at 12:20 PM on September 1, 2000


Thirteen,

Regarding your second post: well said. (I'm definitely not a hippy, btw ;)

Regarding the human health consequences of Bt corn: across almost all GM crops, there is preliminary evidence of carcinogenicity (arising from CaMv), allergenic properties, and nutritional degradation. But you're right: Bt corn is a better example of an "environmental danger", with longer term health consequences. By creating Bt-resistent "superbugs", Bt corn has the potential to wipe out organic agriculture as we know it. Bt is a natural pest control substance, used in very low doses as a last resort by organic growers. The Bt built into Bt corn is 20 times more toxic, and furthermore doesn't decompose. Hence the massive Feb '99 lawsuit on behalf of the organic farmers, worried for good reason about their future livelihood. There is also the monarch butterfly issue, as well as soil damage etc.
posted by johnb at 12:47 PM on September 1, 2000


But what can you do? It's going to happen whether you like it or not.

Are you joking? If commercial applications of GM are banned, which agribusiness companies are going to fund development of them??? If there's no market for these products, they will disappear. Isn't that obvious?

By the way, that's always the first thing the public relations firms say when they are about to screw the public: "There Is No Alternative" (or "TINA", made popular by Lady Thatcher). If any of this stuff were "inevitable" then corporations wouldn't be spending hundreds of billions of dollars to "mold the public mind" into submission.

Don't believe the hype; resistance is fertile!

To steal a cliche, if you outlaw Genetic Modification, only outlaws will practice it. And maybe that's even more dangerous?

That would be far, far, far less dangerous. I mean, what could possibly happen? Let's say a band of outlaws inexplicably spends billions of their own money to develop, say, GM fish. Now what? There's no market for it, so they can't sell it. If they want, they can eat it themselves (and maybe give themselves cancer), I suppose. That's supposed to be worse than impairing _everyone's_ health??
posted by johnb at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2000


*applauds johnb & markb*
posted by wiremommy at 1:42 PM on September 1, 2000


When the stock market says that there's money to be made out of biotech, I get nervous. When I hear of the weight behind Novartis and Monsanto's media campaigns, I get worried. When I get told that GM marketers want to "combat Third World hunger" by destroying the ability of farmers to gather seed from their crops, I get angry.

The ethics of genetic modification are one thing; the ethics of GM-driven commerce are another, much dirtier thing.

But anyway: caffeine is nice and easy to isolate. That's why we have Penguin mints.
posted by holgate at 5:55 PM on September 1, 2000


(1) The Bt protein is just a protein. The fact that it was expressed in corn makes it no more toxic. It is also easily biodegradable, like all proteins.
(2) There have been concerns raised that transgenic foods might have previously unidentified allergens in them, but nobody's actually turned up any evidence for that sort of thing yet, AFAIK.
(3) The point of having the plant produce its own insecticide is so that you don't have to use other pesticides on your crops, so you lessen the possibility of creating "superbugs." I think you're confusing this with the issue of the test crops which are also antibiotic-resistant. The ampicillin-resist genes are an artifact of the genetic engineering process, and are generally (but not always) removed before the crops hit the fields. There's a concern that these genes can cross over into bacteria, but again--no evidence yet.
(4) Monsanto is also working on a wheat plant that expresses vitamin A, with the aim of wiping out nutrition-related blindness in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also working on crops that require less water, and plants that produce pharmaceuticals that are otherwise expensive to synthesize or harvest. Granted, herbicide-resistant crops were the first transgenic produce to be developed, but the sad truth is that that's where the funding is for the research.

Also, I'd be interested to hear more about this cancer thing. This is the first time I've heard of it.
posted by shylock at 6:13 PM on September 1, 2000


Shylock: In regard to number 3. The bugs need to eat something. These Bt modified plants will either make the neighoring organic farm an insect salad bar, or they will get used to it, and a non-toxic deterent will be lost. I do not use Bt myself, I do not know that much about it. Is it deadly to bugs, or does it just make the crop distasteful? I have a fairly large city garden that I protect with soap, and unfriendly plants (and some red pepper to keep the squirrels at bay). The most effective thing I do is go out at night with a flashlight and remove pests by hand. My lot is small by any farming standard, if it were even slightly larger I would have to use something or accept greater loss of fruit.
Monsanto's round-up plants that are invulnerable to their Round-up product is great for them. I would not use the stuff, and I wish there were not laws preventing my grocer from telling me which of his products were specificly created to survive a shower of liquid evil. What happens when the dandalions in the fallow field next to the monsanto crop adopt the round up resistance. Unkillable kudzu strangling America. There is evidence of genetic seepage among like crops, I know nothing of bacteria. Thus far these crops are not miracles, they produce less crop at a smaller size, their only benefit is the ability to remain standing after being sprayed with a world class plant killer. If they were enginerring these plants to pull nitrogen out of the air and deposit it into the soil I might be thinking differently.
Plants pulling vitamins out of the air sounds great. The fact that the copyrighted seeds must be purchased every year does not. How does it help poor people to make them completely dependent on a company? I agree that it is and should be legal, but it betrays their intentions are no good. The old way, they can cull their own seeds every year. It seems the money saved on buying seeds every year might buy a nice spread of vitamins. I know they spent money to create these products, but they spent that money to make plants that are comatible with their own toxins. It seems pretty basic that food should be an open source item, anybody who wants to use their crummy seeds will still need to buy their defoliant. I will not accept their lie about how they are trying to help me, when they are making money off me every step of the way. I have read Monsanto is working on ways to control access to water in areas thought to be at risk of drought 10-20 years down the line, that is what comes to my mind when one of their reps mentions the good they are trying to do.
posted by thirteen at 8:00 PM on September 1, 2000


johnb, I consider myself appropriately ripped -- I won't sit down comfortably for a week.

I still don't buy the arguments you made.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 PM on September 1, 2000


Bt targets moths, as I recall, and it does kill them.

There are a bunch of reasons the agro companies give for engineering infertile seed, copyright being one of the big ones. Another is the environmental issue. You do want to be able to control the spread of the engineered genome in the wild, and if you've got a big open field of crops, you're not going to be able to avoid spreading some of the seed into the environment. Rendering the plants infertile eliminates that problem.

In order for the weeds in your garden to pick up a genetic trait from a neighbor plant, there needs to be an interspecies cross-pollenation. So for plants as different as kudzu and corn, for example, Something Weird would have to happen.
posted by shylock at 10:14 PM on September 1, 2000


D'ya know how they "get the caffeine OUT of the beans" to make decaf coffee? They filter them, wash them, all that, with the exact same chemical that is...nail polish remover.

Anyone for a latte? ;-)
posted by justnobody at 2:28 AM on September 2, 2000


Shylock,

Regarding Bt crops, this is the issue:

"Transgenic plants which produce their own insecticides closely follow the pesticide paradigm, which is itself rapidly failing due to pest resistance to insecticides. Instead of the failed "one pest-one chemical" model, genetic engineering emphasizes a "one pest-one gene" approach, shown over and over again in laboratory trials to fail, as pest species rapidly adapt and develop resistance to the insecticide present in the plant (Alstad and Andow l995). Not only will the new varieties fail over the short-to-medium term, despite so-called voluntary resistance management schemes (Mallet and Porter l992), but in the process may render useless the natural pesticide "Bt," which is relied upon by organic farmers and others desiring to reduce chemical dependence. Bt crops violate the basic and widely accepted principle of "integrated pest management" (IPM), which is that reliance on any single pest management technology tends to trigger shifts in pest species or the evolution of resistance through one or more mechanisms (NRC l996). In general the greater the selection pressure across time and space, the quicker and more profound the pests evolutionary response. An obvious reason for adopting this principle is that it reduces pest exposure to pesticides, retarding the evolution of resistance. But when the product is engineered into the plant itself, pest exposure leaps from minimal and occasional to massive and continuous exposure, dramatically accelerating resistance (Gould l994). Bt will rapidly become useless, both as a feature of the new seeds and as an old standby sprayed when needed by farmers that want out of the pesticide treadmill (Pimentel et al l989)." (source)

On GM food allergies:

"Recent research substantiates concerns about genetic engineering rendering previously safe foods allergenic. A study by scientists at the University of Nebraska shows that soybeans genetically engineered to contain Brazil-nut proteins cause reactions in individuals allergic to Brazil nuts. Scientists have limited ability to predict whether a particular protein will be a food allergen, if consumed by humans. The only sure way to determine whether protein will be an allergen is through experience. Thus importing proteins, particularly from nonfood sources, is a gamble with respect to their allergenicity."
(source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

On cancer:
There is sufficient evidence that rGBH milk increases risks of prostate and breast cancer -- sufficient, that is, to justify a continued moratorium on rBGH dairy products by the EU Commission on Health and Consumer Protection. From Rachel's:

"When a cow is injected with rBGH, its milk production is stimulated, but not directly. The presence of rBGH in the cow's blood stimulates production of another hormone, called Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, or IGF-1 for short. It is IGF-1 that stimulates milk production. IGF-1 is a naturally-occurring hormone-protein in both cows and humans. [3] The IGF-1 in cows is chemically identical to the IGF-1 in humans. [4] The use of rBGH increases the levels of IGF-1 in the cow's milk, though the amount of the increase is disputed. Furthermore, IGF-1 in milk is not destroyed by pasteurization. Because IGF-1 is active in humans --causing cells to divide --any increase in IGF-1 in milk raises obvious questions: will it cause inappropriate cell division and growth, leading to growth of tumors?

Does IGF-1 promote cancer? In January of this year a Harvard study of 15,000 white men published in SCIENCE reported that those with elevated --but still normal --levels of IGF-1 in their blood are 4 times as likely as average men to get prostate cancer.[1] The SCIENCE report ends saying, "Finally, our results raise concern that administration of GH [growth hormone] or IGF-1 over long periods, as proposed for elderly men to delay the effects of aging, may increase risk of prostate cancer." By analogy, Monsanto's current efforts to increase the IGF-1 levels in America's milk supply raise the question: if little boys drink milk from rBGH-treated cows over long periods, will the elevated levels of IGF-1 increase their prostate cancer rates? This is not a question that should be answered by a wholesale experiment on the American people --but that is precisely what Monsanto is currently doing."
(source)

There's also potential cancer risk stemming from use of Cauliflower Mosaic Viral promoter. And in general, it is simply a lie to say that GM foods have been shown to be safe. In almost all cases, basic safety tests could have been performed quite easily, but of course negative results wouldn't be very profitable would they? For more info, see The Big Lie: GE Foods & Crops Are Safe by Robert Vint:

"Two months ago I began a survey to classify and evaluate the existing
independent published research on GM food safety. I was interested to find
the best research. I wanted to find out about long-term experiments to
detect possible effects that may take a few years to appear. I wanted to
find out about tests on human volunteers and tests to detect effects on
children, the elderly or those prone to allergies. I wanted to look at
research that had been published in respected academic publications, such as
the Journal of Nutrition, and that had then been peer-reviewed by other
scientists. I was to be sorely disappointed."

On Monsanto's "Golden Rice": it is an unsurprising PR move, and little more than that. Yes, many poor people in third world countries are deficient in vitamin A. But why is that? *Not* because the world lacks vitamin-enriched foods. The real reason is simply that the poor *can't afford* to buy the wide variety of foods once available to them. And this is largely a consequence of illegal/immoral transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich over the last few decades, driven by the investor-friendly policies of the World Bank/WTO/IMF. As Naomi Klein notes:

"During the so-called Green Revolution, small-scale peasant farmers, growing a wide variety of crops to feed their families and local communities, were pushed to shift to industrial, export-oriented agriculture. That meant single, high-yield crops, produced on a large scale.

Many peasants, now at the mercy of volatile commodity prices and deep in debt to the seed companies, lost their farms and headed for the cities. In the countryside, meanwhile, severe malnutrition exists alongside flourishing "cash crops" such as bananas, coffee, and rice. Why? Because in children's diets, as in the farm fields, diverse foods have been replaced with monotony. A bowl of white rice is lunch and dinner.

The solution being proposed by the agribusiness giants? Not to rethink mono-crop farming and fill that bowl with protein and vitamins. Like omnipotent illusionists, they propose to paint that bowl golden." (read the whole thing here; found via Dru Jay's ecology-oriented weblog BlueGreen)

Finally, for dessert, don't miss: a parody of Monsanto-esque "generosity" from the Onion
posted by johnb at 1:09 PM on September 2, 2000


johnb, I consider myself appropriately ripped -- I won't sit down comfortably for a week.

LOL...well, ok, I guess I should be satisfied in that case...

I still don't buy the arguments you made.

I know, I know -- you won't buy into any argument till you see it in the New Republic, right? (just a little joke, of course ;)
posted by johnb at 1:19 PM on September 2, 2000


It's pretty much agreed in the scientific community that transgenic produce needs more testing than it's currently getting. Granted. But your original claim that "there is convincing evidence that particular GM products -- including Bt corn and rBGH milk -- are hazardous to human health" is false. The problem is the lack of evidence. There's plenty of speculation, a lot of it by very good scientists, but very little actual research to back it up.

I've read the concerns about mosaic virus-induced cancers in transgenic food. In the interests of full disclosure, yes, it is concievable that cancer might possibly be caused as an artifact of the methods used to incorporate a transgene in the new genome. However, a lot of really unlikely things have to go exactly right in order for that to happen-- you have to incorporate too much of the virus genome, and THEN it has to somehow get turned on after being injested, and THEN cross species lines (not trivial) into the human host, and THEN crossover into the DNA of a host cell in, and THEN into a gene that controls cell replication, and it has to incorporate in such a way that it turns on unregulated cell growth, rather than shutting it down completely or killing the cell off. In addition, viral methods of gene splicing are only one of the methods used to create transgenic organisms; others lack the same problem. Does agrobusiness need to do more testing to make sure there is no cancer risk? Of course. Is there a likely cancer risk "across almost all GM crops"? No.

The problem with the milk protein is a problem with... well, with the fact that you drink milk, which I think is gross to begin with. But it sounds like your beef (hee hee) with hormone-treated milk is the fact that they're fed hormones at all, not in the fact that the hormone that gets fed to the cow is produced by a genetically engineered organism. So if there is an increased risk of cancer with rGBH milk, that's not a problem with genetic engineering as a technique. You'd have exactly the same symptoms presented if you dosed the cows with natural bovine growth hormones harvested from cows' blood.

Look. I hate being the apologist for the agro companies here, because I do think for sure that they're not being as rigorous in their testing as they need to be. But to say that genetically engineered agriculture has been shown already to be a disaster to health and environment is patently false, and amounts to scaremongering.
posted by shylock at 2:36 PM on September 2, 2000


Genetically Altered Foods: We Are Being Exposed To One Of The Largest Uncontrolled Experiments In History (from today's Chicago Tribune)

posted by johnb at 8:43 PM on September 3, 2000


Despite claims that these food products are based on "sound science," in truth, neither manufacturers nor the government has studied the effects of these genetically altered organisms or their new proteins on people--especially babies, the elderly, and the sick.

Which is what I've been saying. But there is a huge logical leap from an unsubstantiated speculation, however reasonable, to "indisputable" fact. So, yes, let's force the companies developing transgenic crops to address the issues that environmentalists and consumer-interest groups are raising. But let's do it in a responsible manner, and not contribute to the spread of misinformation.
posted by shylock at 11:38 PM on September 3, 2000


My position remains the same: given the facts cited above, a moratorium is warranted.

You speak of standards of evidence. I agree we should abide by high standards, but the required evidence is evidence of safety, not of unsafety. GM products should be off the market till such evidence is on hand.

So at the end of the day it's is a question of ethics, not epistemology.
posted by johnb at 12:32 AM on September 4, 2000


I'm still not sure that a moratorium is necessarily warranted. The standard should be the same for transgenic crops as it is for pharmaceuticals; that is, whether there is a reasonable possibility of health risks in humans. The mere existence of a remote possibility can't be sufficient grounds for a moratorium, or else nothing would ever hit the market. And the fact is, the concerns that have been raised (ignoring the environmental ones, since those are well outside my field of expertise) are fairly remote possibilites, since, as I said, a lot of things would have to go exactly wrong.
posted by shylock at 11:04 AM on September 4, 2000


Just to clarify my position:

1) the evidence of net environmental harm is indisputable;
2) the evidence of net socio-economic harm is indisputable;
3) the evidence of cancer risk from rBGH milk is substantial (although it's not completely nailed down, obviously). For GM foods generally, evidence of health risk may not be conclusive, but it doesn't have to be. I advocate doing *BASIC* studies of safety (w/ a few years duration), *before* bringing the product to market (and no, I'm *not* talking about a higher standard than the standard that applies to pharmaceuticals)

To my knowledge nothing I have said so far is "patently false", and if there's any "misinformation" going on, it's coming from Monsanto's PR dept.
posted by johnb at 12:08 PM on September 4, 2000


"First of all, GM technology has been a disaster for the environment (genetic pollution, new viruses, radical reduction in biodiversity etc). That's indisputable.
Secondly, there is convincing evidence that particular GM products -- including Bt corn and rBGH milk -- are hazardous to human health."


None of this is true. No new viri have been shown to have developed as a result of transgenic agriculture. No "genetic pollution" (by which I assume you mean leakage of the modified genome into the wild) has been demonstrated. I don't know what you mean by a radical reduction in biodiversity, so I won't touch that. Bt corn has not been demonstrated to have any impact on human health. The health problems associated with rBGH milk, which isn't directly a product of genetic modification, are the same concerns that have been raised for all hormone-treated milk. (rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, is just a cheaper form of the same hormone they've been treating cows with for a long time.)

I think you have raised a lot of valid concerns, but it's an overstatement to say that there's evidence of anything, other than that the government is being lax in demanding that these companies institute more rigorous tests on their genetically modified products.
posted by shylock at 1:56 PM on September 4, 2000


The health problems associated with rBGH milk, which isn't directly a product of genetic modification, are the same concerns that have been raised for all hormone-treated milk.

No, I'm referring specifically to the link between consumption of milk from rBGH-treated cows and raised levels of IGF-1. Monsanto initially claimed that rBGH milk didn't raise IGF-1 levels at all; now they admit to at least a doubling of IGF-1 levels (independent studies suggest a factor of 5 is more realistic). In any case, the Harvard study (published in Science) links raised IGF-1 levels to increased risk of prostate cancer. Whether or not certain other -- non-rBGH -- hormones also raise IGF-1 levels is a separate issue, requiring seperate tests.

Regarding your "none of this is true" claim, obviously I disagree. There is a ton of documentation out there on the environmental effects, which maybe we can discuss in more detail on the next GE thread. On the health effects, when I say "convincing", again, I mean "sufficiently convincing to justify a moratorium." That's an ethical claim, so our disagreement is not so much about the science, as about what we ought to do, given the science.
posted by johnb at 2:32 PM on September 4, 2000


I'm not saying that milk from cows treated with rGBH isn't bad for you. My point was that the hormone implicated in increased cancer risk (IGF-1) isn't directly the product of genetic manipulation--it's a naturally-occuring compound in cows (and humans, by the way). Therefore, the problem with rGBH milk is a particular problem of hormone-treated milk and isn't the kind of problem you'd expect to see in, say, Bt corn or enriched wheat. It's not data that tells you anything about the safety of genetically-modified foods. See?

I think you misunderstand the crux of our disagreement, then. If there were evidence for health problems related to the consumption of transgenic products, of course I would want them pulled from the shelves immediately. But that's not the point I'm making here. There is not such evidence--convincing, sufficient, or otherwise. There's plenty of speculation, but that's a far cry from sufficient evidence. Now, whether you think that the possibility of these health risks is enough of a concern to warrant a complete moratorium on genetic engineering in agriculture is a separate, valid question. And that is a question of the underlying science.

posted by shylock at 12:29 PM on September 5, 2000


From the Guardian:
"Genetically modified crops pose a greater threat to the environment than nuclear waste or chemical pollution, the executive director of Greenpeace told a court yesterday...."
posted by johnb at 1:15 AM on September 6, 2000


So..... you're submitting the opinion of an ecoterrorist -- stated in his own defense during a trial in which he stands accused of destroying property -- as documentation of a demonstrated ecological threat? I mean... um, yay Greenpeace, but it's hardly the unbiased opinion of a scientific authority.
posted by shylock at 2:39 PM on September 6, 2000


So..... you're submitting the opinion of an ecoterrorist -- stated in his own defense during a trial in which he stands accused of destroying property -- as documentation of a demonstrated ecological threat?

No, I'm not. Just thought you might be interested in a news item related to the issues discussed in this thread. Pardon me.

If you want to thrash out the scientific details, I suggest waiting till the next GM thread, when the audience size > 2
posted by johnb at 3:32 PM on September 6, 2000


I'm still reading, I just don't have anything more useful to add to the conversation. Very interesting thread.
posted by thirteen at 7:55 AM on September 7, 2000


« Older This Salon article on the state of web sites aimed...  |  AOL Buys Quack.com That Enable... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments