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Canada's Most Famous Scientist Warns of Hazards of GE

Food for Life - Summer 2000
Experimenting with Life
by David Suzuki

I am a geneticist by training. At one time, I had one of the largest
research grants and genetics labs in Canada. The time I spent in this lab
was one of the happiest periods of my life and I am proud of the
contribution we made to science. My introductory book is still the most
widely used genetics text in the world.

When I graduated as a geneticist in 1961, I was full of enthusiasm and
determined to make a mark. Back then we knew about DNA, genes, chromosomes,
and genetic regulation. But today when I tell students what our hot ideas
were in 1961, they choke with laughter. Viewed in 2000, ideas from 1961 seem
hilarious. But when those students become professors years from now and
tell their students what was hot in 2000, their students will be just as
amused.

At the cutting edge of scientific research, most of our ideas are far from
the mark or wrong, in need of revision, or irrelevant. That's not a
derogation of science; it's the way science advances. We take a set of
observations or data, set up a hypothesis that makes sense of them, and
then we test the hypothesis. The new insights and techniques we gain from
this process are interpreted tentatively and liable to change, so any rush
to apply them strikes me as downright dangerous.

No group of experts should be more aware of the hazards of unwarranted
claims than geneticists. After all, it was the exuberance of geneticists
early in this century that led to the creation of a discipline called
eugenics, which aimed to improve the quality of human genes. These
scientists were every bit as clever, competent, and well-meaning as todayís
genetic engineers; they just got carried away with their discoveries.
Outlandish claims were made by eminent geneticists about the hereditary
nature of traits such as drunkenness, nomadism, and criminality, as well as
those judged "inferior" or "superior." Those claims provided scientific
respectability to legislation in the US prohibiting interracial marriage
and immigration from countries judged inferior, and allowed sterilization
of inmates of mental institutions on genetic grounds. In Nazi Germany,
geneticist Josef Mengele held peer-reviewed research grants for his work at
Auschwitz. The grand claims of geneticists led to ìrace purificationî laws
and the Holocaust.

Today, the leading-edge of genetics is in the field of biotechnology. The
basis of this new area is the ability to take DNA (genetic material) from
one organism and insert it into a different species. This is truly
revolutionary. Human beings canít normally exchange genes with a carrot or
a mouse, but with DNA technology it can happen.

However, history informs us that though we love technology, there are
always costs, and since our knowledge of how nature works is so limited, we
can't anticipate how those costs will manifest. We only have to reflect on
DDT, nuclear power, and CFCs, which were hailed as wonderful creations but
whose long-term detrimental effects were only found decades after their
widespread use.

Now, with a more wise and balanced perspective, we are cutting back on the
use of these technologies. But with genetically modified (GM) foods, this
option may not be available. The difference with GM food is that once the
genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult or impossible to stuff it
back. If we stop using DDT and CFCs, nature may be able to undo most of the
damage or even nuclear waste decays over time. But GM plants are living
organisms. Once these new life forms have become established in our
surroundings, they can replicate, change, and spread; there may be no
turning back. Many ecologists are concerned about what this means to the
balance of life on Earth that has evolved over millions of years through
the natural reproduction of species.

Genomes are selected in the entirety of their expression. In ways we barely
comprehend, the genes within a species are interconnected and interact as
an integrated whole. When a gene from an unrelated species is introduced,
the context within which it finds itself is completely changed. If a taiko
drum is plunked in the middle of a symphony orchestra and plays along, it
is highly probable the resultant music will be pretty discordant. Yet based
on studies of gene behavior derived from studies within a species,
biotechnologists assume that those rules will also apply to genes
transferred between species. This is totally unwarranted.

As we learned from experience with DDT, nuclear power and CFCs, we only
discover the costs of new technologies after they are extensively used. We
should apply the Precautionary Principle with any new technology, asking
whether it is needed and then demanding proof that it is not harmful.
Nowhere is this more important than in biotechnology because it enables us
to tamper with the very blueprint of life.

Since GM foods are now in our diet, we have become experimental subjects
without any choice. (Europeans say if they want to know whether GMOs are
hazardous, they should just study North Americans.) I would have preferred
far more experimentation with GMOs under controlled lab conditions before
their release into the open, but itís too late.

We have learned from painful experience that anyone entering an experiment
should give informed consent. That means at the very least food should be
labeled if it contains GMOs so we each can make that choice.

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David T Suzuki PhD is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and
broadcaster. Web: www.davidsuzuki.org

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