Genetic Engineering and Public Policy

We normally deal with networking issues here, but today I’m going to cover a different corner of tech policy that’s been in the news recently, genetic engineering. First, some background: GE is the process of re-arranging or modifying genes in plants and animals to produce desirable traits in the offspring. There are three main varieties: cisgenic, transgenic, and mutagenic.

  • Cisgenic means genes are transferred between closely related organisms in the same way that they are with selective breeding. If you want a pink flower on a rose that has big flowers, you can copy and paste in the pink flower gene from another rose that has small pink flowers. This is no different in effect from selective breeding, but it’s faster. Because it mimics the artificial breeding practices that farmers have used for 10,000 years, people are comfortable with it. It’s not exactly “natural”, but the traits in cisgenic plants and animals could occur spontaneously given enough time.
  • Mutagenic is when seeds are treated with strong chemicals or radiation to increase their rate of mutation in order to get a particular trait. Mutagenesis has been used for nearly 100 years and food scientists are comfortable with it. Spontaneous mutations are the driving force behind evolution – diversity by random mutation and natural selection – so we really don’t have much choice than to be comfortable with them; that’s why we’re hairless apes instead of amoebas, after all. Agribusiness uses mutagenesis to do some interesting things. BASF, a large European chemical company, wanted a variety of corn that would be immune from its Clearfield weed killer, the active ingredient of which is imazamox, an enzyme production inhibitor. So they exposed millions of corn seeds to chemicals until they got a mutation for imazamox immunity. This wasn’t too hard since something like 130 weeds have managed to pull it off the old-fashioned way.
  • Transgenic is when genes from a distantly-related organism are transferred in order to express a desirable trait that’s not found in the species of the desired plant. Farmers like corn and similar crops with immunities to specific herbicides because you get more crop and fewer weeds when you can nuke the weeds without hurting the crop, as in the case of Clearfield seed and herbicide. Another seed company, Monsanto, developed varieties of corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, soybeans, and sugarbeets that are resistant to its Roundup herbicide; they’re labeled “Roundup Ready”.  Roundup’s action is similar to Clearfield’s, in that it disrupts the production of an enzyme that’s vital to plant life but not present in mammals, birds, and fish.

According to Monsanto, these seeds were made “using particle acceleration technology with a linear DNA fragment of a plasmid carrying the mEPSPS gene.” This is much more targeted action than mutagenisis, but the effects are similar to Clearfield seed.  Monsanto found the Roundup-resistant gene in a bacterium close to their office and developed a clever way to transmit it inside soybeans using a particle accelerator (or “gene gun”). So the modified seed has a low affinity for glyphosate (the active ingredient of Roundup) compared to the wild EPSPS enzyme and is therefore immune to the herbicide because it simply doesn’t take it up. Thus, the food seeds that Monsanto (and other seed companies, such as DuPont’s Frontier company) sell aren’t affected by Roundup. About 18 weeds have evolved Roundup resistance on their own, so this modification is something evolution can do by itself. As a consequence, Monsanto doesn’t have any new varieties of Roundup Ready seeds in the (ten year long) regulatory pipeline. As weeds adapt to herbicides, new chemicals need to be developed to stay ahead of evolution. This is a never ending game.

Transgenic modification  has also been used to add nutrients like Vitamin A to rice, and to insert proteins that protect plants from common insect pests; ironically, the latter most commonly builds-in a bacterial protein (Bacillus thuringiensis) that organic farmers and gardeners have been spraying on their crops for decades. I’ve got a bottle of Thuricide in the garden shed that came from the “organics” aisle at a local garden store; Bt is its active ingredient. Currently, researchers are developing drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant modifications to increase production under the circumstances when it’s most important. DNA is a protein-making machine, and there are vast horizons for the improvements that can be made to the food we eat by redirecting food stuffs down evolutionary paths that serve our interests.

So what would your prediction be about the regulatory treatment of these three methods of developing seed? It’s fairly easy to see why cisgenic is unregulated; it’s been used for very long time, and even though there are miscues – some potatoes have been bred that had levels of the potato’s self-produced pesticide, solanine, that were harmful to humans. This potato made fine chips, but that whole “killing your customer” thing made it a non-starter for commercial production. And that’s the problem with leaving random mutation to do all the breeding work: you’re just as likely to get an undesirable trait as a desirable one, so you have to do a lot of culling. Potatoes are members of the (deadly) nightshade family, along with tomatoes and eggplants, so you don’t ever want to eat their leaves or even potatoes that have turned slightly green. Gene guns can transfer unwanted proteins, so they’ve been replaced by more precise transgenic methods that use bacteria or viruses to transfer the DNA snippets found in plasmids. The process of “lateral gene transfer” happens in nature as well; the sweet potato is the result of some “foreign” DNA entering a plant genome on the back of a bacterium that picked it up somewhere else. But it’s rare in nature.

It’s counter-intuitive, but the two unnatural breeding techniques, mutagenic and transgenic, are treated completely differently by regulatory policy. Both are laboratory processes that produce mutations that could occur in nature on a vastly accelerated timeline. While mutagenic is a crapshoot that brings good and bad mutations into the product, transgenic can be as simple as cutting a gene out of one plant or animal and inserting it into a another without altering the rest of the target organism’s genome. This is opposite of a crapshoot; it’s like knowing who’s going to win the Super Bowl and merely having to decide how much to bet. Transgenic may have unanticipated consequences if the food scientist doesn’t fully understand the function of the gene, but that’s a different banana than not knowing what additional genes got modified by your x-rays in order for you to get the one you wanted.

But mutagenic doesn’t need regulatory approval, while transgenic does. In the particular European states that permit the importation of transgenic foods but not its cultivation, such as France, Germany, and the UK, mutagenic is fine for growing. Hence, the leading mutagenic seed producers are based in Europe and the leading transgenic firms are in the US. In many countries, transgenic research is carried out in government-sponsored research centers, but their products don’t always go over well with politicians. India developed an eggplant that’s resistant to common pests, using the Bt protein. India hasn’t approved the Bt eggplant for cultivation, but its neighbor Bangla Desh has, much to the delight of Bangla Deshi farmers.

Last Thursday the House passed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 , an interstate commerce measure that prevents states from affecting food labeling in the US. The vote on final passage was 275 – 150, so there was some opposition but not really serious opposition. Opponents did something interesting and tried to change the bill’s title after passage;  Representative Jared Polis (Democrat from Boulder, Colorado, the next county over from where I live) tried to change the name to the “Denying Americans the Right to Know Act”, or the DARK Act. That didn’t go over well at all, only garnering 87 votes. Colorado rejected a ballot initiative to require labeling of transgenic foods last year by a 2:1 margin, so labeling isn’t popular in the state as a whole, but it’s the kind of thing that goes with Boulder’s fear of vaccination, fascination with organic food, and fulsome embrace of music piracy.

The SAFL Act addresses the fact that Vermont’s legislature passed a law requiring transgenic foods to be labeled and giving mutagenics a pass; the Vermont law also has a “Ben & Jerry’s exception” that gives meat and milk from cows fed transgenic grains a pass. The thinking seems to be that the cows filter out genetic modifications in ways that food processing doesn’t. There’s no DNA in milk, so this makes some sense. But it’s also peculiar because the sugar from Roundup Ready sugar beets is chemically identical to any other kind of sugar because there’s no DNA in sugar either. That’s an example of junk science at work.

The movement to label transgenic foods has a lot of followers; despite the fact that all four statewide initiatives to label transgenics have failed (Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington), polling indicates strong support for warning labels because people think genetic manipulation is new and freaky. In the floor debate, there were a lot of references on the losing side to “Frankenfoods” that put fish genes in tomatoes and even a reference to Agent Orange (which has exactly nothing to do with gene manipulation, thanks for asking). The fallacy here is that there’s really no such thing as a fish gene or a tomato gene since most genes are widely distributed across the plant and animal kingdoms; we share 60 percent of our DNA with bananas, after all.

So why does public policy regard targeted seed modifications with suspicion while giving mass mutated seeds a pass? Partly because of the bias humans have against change, but largely because of junk science around agricultural technology, 21st century animosity to intellectual property rights, and because the organic industry is big and powerful while Monsanto is still small potatoes. The Organic Trade Association says that the US organic business rakes in $39.1B a year (it’s probably $100B globally), while Monsanto’s revenues are about $16B. Organic can use mutagenic processes, but not transgenic ones, so a “GMO Warning Label” is good for the organic business.

So the conflict is between two methods of food production, genetic engineering with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on the one side and organic production with mutant seed, animal manure, and “natural” chemicals like copper sulphate, mineral oil, and vinegar on the other. The underlying questions are whether organic is healthier and better for the planet as Big Organic claims, or whether engineered foods are at least as good to eat, less expensive, and better for the environment as Big Ag Tech maintains. Herbicide resistant seed reduces the need for tilling to regulate weeds, which means more carbon stays sequestered in the soil and fewer fossil fuels are burned by tractors.

These are questions we can answer with science, and I’ll delve into them in a followup post in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out 10 Questions for Anti-GMO Activists at the Skeptical Beard for more background.

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