November 17, 2000
The Real Risk of Genetically
Engineered Foods - Optimism
Despite fears of "frankenfoods,"
mutant vegetables and tainted taco shells, the biggest danger
posed by genetically engineered foods may be "irrational
exuberance" on the part of its supporters, says California
State University, Sacramento philosophy professor Stanislaus
Dundon, a veteran educator on ethical issues in agriculture, worries the unbridled push toward genetic engineering is drowning out any discussion of potential risks. After extensive interviews with researchers on both sides of the issue as well as industry representatives, he published his findings this summer in Inquiry in Action, the journal of the Consortium for Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education. The article was based on
testimony he gave to the California Legislature about
genetically engineered foods. He was also interviewed by
National Public Radio on the topic.
"The enthusiasm has
gotten to the point you can only say positive things to avoid
looking hostile," he says. "There is a tendency to not want to
be seen as an activist." For example, even though he is not
"anti" genetic engineering, he says his calls for caution
often lead people to label him that way.
it's not that the risks are a deep secret. "Everybody knows
about them and can justify them. The concern is that if that
attitude is in place, and something bad happens with the
bioengineered food, what happens next? What is the
responsibility?" he says. "If we have publicly-funded
universities in favor of genetic engineering without critical
voices, we will be in major trouble."
Dundon says part
of the problem lies in with the federal government. Since the
late '80s, the FDA has promoted the principle of 'substantial
equivalence,' which says genetic engineering is essentially
the same as standard breeding. "Even though," Dundon says,
"it's easy to imagine a scenario where the manipulation of the
genes may make the product hazardous to humans."
even more disturbing problem, he says, is the outcry from
genetic engineering researchers that they are being held to a
higher standard than standard breeders. "It's astonishing that
they ask 'Is this fair?'," Dundon says. "They're talking about
something they are trying to feed us."
In fact, Dundon
points out, the genetically engineered food industry claims
theirs are the most thoroughly tested foods. Yet there are no
required tests for standard crops. "Conducting only one test
makes it the most tested - because its one more than had been
done before," he says.
His solution is for
universities to have independent institutes conduct
risk/benefit analysis. "Risk/benefit analysis is such a
subjective mental exercise, it is inappropriate to have people
who are enthusiastic about genetic engineering doing it
alone," he says.
"Nothing is science until the
scientific community says it is. They have to look at the
studies and critique and repeat the experiments," he says.
"Modern science has come as far as it has because
research groups have pursued both sides of a scientific
paradigm by conducting experiments. If they were on the wrong
track it would be obvious because the experiments would break
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