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An Interview With Scientist


By Catherine Taylor

From Radiance Winter 2001.


s a consumer and a mother, Peggy Lemaux is not afraid of genetically modified foods. As a scientist specializing in biotechnology, Dr. Lemaux says with confidence, that “Foods in the U.S. are the safest, most rigorously tested in the world.” In fact, she believes that, if used properly, genetic engineering practices can be part of the “toolbox” that farmers can use to produce more food on less land, and at a lower environmental cost.

As a leery consumer and a sympathizer with the anti-GM stance, I was nonetheless determined to hear the other side of the story and felt that Radiance readers should also. Lemaux was just the right person to talk to. The position she fills at University of California, Berkeley, was created in the late 1980s in response to public concerns when the first GM organisms were tested at the University of California. Since 1997, Lemaux has been responsible for keeping on top of all the latest biotech news and for providing information to the press, governmental agencies, and even local PTAs. She is pro–genetic research and applications in agriculture. But she is also concerned that those involved in its development and application tread carefully, and that the public be informed and free to choose what foods they bring into their kitchens.

What I like about Lemaux is that she wants to hear everybody’s opinions, including those of activists, whose arguments she must consider every day. Lemaux feels that activists play a major role as critics in the process of considering when genetically enhanced foods are safe and when they are not: “Activists often bring to the public and corporate eye controversies that raise everyone’s sensitivities about how we monitor this technology. As with any technology, used improperly, it can lead to problems We’ve seen misuses of the Internet and prescriptions drugs, both of which were intended for good. It’s up to us, as citizens and scientists, to stay involved in developing regulations to ensure GM safety and responsible use.”

Of course, the market has driven the GM movement from the get-go. Both the corporate desire to make money and the U.S. demand for more and cheaper, especially processed, foods have encouraged food industry support for genetic engineering. Using our market influence, says Lemaux, is how consumers can demand such basic and essential reforms as food ingredient labeling and the strict separation of GM from non-GM crops. In other words, we as consumers will vote with our dollars to keep an organic market in the United States.

s Lemaux describes it, the GM process isn’t that scary: basically, it just speeds up the crossbreeding that farmers—and nature itself—have practiced for centuries, with the difference being that now genetic material can come from sources less closely related than in classical breeding. Corn is one of the most often cited examples. At one time, before people began domesticating it about nine thousand years ago, corn was a relatively inedible, stubby wild grass-like stalk. Today, most foods we eat have already been modified by classical breeding.

Because it’s Lemaux’s job to answer questions such as mine, I ask away.

What about the pollution (discovered in September 2000) of Taco Bell tortilla shells with GM corn intended only for cattle consumption? Lemaux agrees that such incidents can shake our confidence that safe GM practices are guaranteed. She believes that the FDA was not at fault: it is the responsibility of the company who sells the seed, the growers, and the processors to make sure that safeguards are in place to keep the grain segregated. “Anyone who knows anything about how a large-acreage crop like corn grows and is transported knows that it is nearly impossible to keep GM corn for animals separate from other corn.”

Okay, but if cattle are eating animal-grade GM grains, and we eat cattle products, aren’t we indirectly eating an unsafe product? Quick answer: No. “Genes present in GM foods do not become a heritable part for the person who eats it.” A bit of further reassurance: the Taco Bell corn wasn’t icky. “It was designated for animals because the evidence was not there to prove it was or was not a human allergen.”

Next question: What about concerns that GM fruits and vegetables will take on a tasteless, generic quality? Answer: “Research with this focus should allow us to harvest GM produce at later stages, when there’s more flavor.”

But what genetic material might we be taking into our bodies when we eat a GM tomato, for example? Answer: “DNA is the universal ‘language’ shared by all living things. In the case of tomatoes, we share 40 to 60 percent[!] of the same genes. Eating a GM-enhanced tomato will never cause us to take on tomato characteristics, any more than it will cause tomatoes to grow arms and legs.”

nother serious matter: Is there a threat to biodiversity? When I “Asked Jeeves” via the Internet about Mexico’s situation, one concern was that “20 million Mexicans live off the land, and the peasant custom of saving the best seeds for the following season has ensured the richness of Mexico’s biodiversity in corn and other plants. . . . It is feared that commercialized transgenic seeds will force farmers to change habits that have endured for centuries” (Jeeves quotes from a U.K. Financial Times article).

Lemaux believes that, if we keep our priorities straight and our fields separate, “we will be able to use GM crops and support agriculture’s traditional ways. From an ecological perspective,” she says, “GM crops can play an important part in sustainable agriculture.”

Because “sustainable agriculture” is a key goal of anti–GM agriculturalists, I question Lemaux further. She points out, “If we had to feed ourselves using the plant and animal species of even a hundred years ago, we would need much more land and resources than we do today. For example, in the 1930s, U.S. farmers needed 379 million acres to feed roughly 100 million people. By 1984, just 312 million acres produced enough to feed 2.5 times the 1930 population.” And, with GM agriculture’s lower use of land and water, and less need for pesticides (for decades, farmers have bred crops for pest-resistance), “farmers can produce more food at lower environmental cost.” One article Lemaux sent me (see source for all information below) even discusses research on crops whose use of CO2 could reduce global warming!

The most seductive pro-GM argument is that it can help countries that have large populations to feed, have to survive droughts and other hostile environments, or have many people with diseases and malnutrition. As she considers that “of the three billion people who will be added to the world in the next fifty years, 90 percent will be born in developing and underdeveloped countries where poor soil and drought keep their people hungry,” it is clear that humanitarian uses of GM technology are an ethical imperative for Lemaux. She also expresses concern that biotechnology be used in ways that don’t allow the better-off West to decide other countries’ agricultural futures or make poor farmers dependent on products they will not later be able to afford. All of those activists and watchdogs are right: the issues of modern agriculture are complicated, their consequences serious.

It does seem unrealistic that we could help save many lives just by sending in Peace Corps workers (if we could find and train enough of them) to teach alternative natural farming techniques in regions ravaged by drought. Or that in a place such as Kenya, where thousands of people still succumb to Vitamin-A-deficiency blindness, any number of Doctors for Humanity could reverse that tragedy. Likewise, children are dying now, today, from diseases almost unheard of in the United States. If the seeds their people planted (and according to Lemaux, 90 percent of the food eaten in developing and underdeveloped countries is grown at home) contained built-in resistance to pests or the ability to grow with little water, maybe that would be a good thing for humanity and for the environment. And more of those children might live to grow up if they could take in Vitamin A and receive standard immunizations through their food.

It makes you think. If biotechnology can possibly provide one way to help people escape disease or starvation, then how can we not let it do so? Is this the question that’s bothering the staff at Chez Panisse (restaurant-leader of the organic foods movement), one of whom told me that they were not speaking to the press, but “reformulating our position” on GM foods? (We chose to reprint Alice Waters’s words from a book on organic farming in “Quotes from People Who Make Food Their Business.” Because she is a major voice for making food available and healthful as well as aesthetically wonderful, I did not want to leave Waters out of our discussion, as I am sure, and hope, that she will continue to influence how Americans view their food and how it is grown and labeled. I just can’t help wondering if Waters is having to “take a moment”: maybe those starving people in Africa just don’t care if their baby lettuce is organically cultivated with heirloom seeds.)

he challenge, as Lemaux and others see it, is to stay conscious and concerned about using technology for good. “Ethically, it seems that we must evaluate and use whatever tools are at our disposal to help people,” she says. “Nothing in this life is without risks,” she reminds us. “What is important is that we evaluate tools for their appropriateness and use them responsibly.”

Lemaux’s position remains that the cultivation and availability of both GM crops and organic foods is possible, and that with GM tools, a larger segment of less fortunate humanity can be helped to help themselves. And, yes, Lemaux argues, we as consumers must have a choice. As I see it, it will be our own demand, our own choice of organic veggies, our boycotts of companies that fill grocery store shelves with GM-laden food, that will force better legislation, regulation, and labeling of all our foods.

I’ll fight for that. And, despite Lemaux’s expert reassurance, I will continue to feed my little nieces only organically grown strawberries (their favorite treat), and I will buy organic for myself. I agree with everything I’ve ever heard Alice Waters say about the value of our connection to our food, its growers, and its place in our homes. But investigating the GM controversy has forced me to reevaluate my formerly rigid position. All of this is scary. Lots of questions remain. Neither profit-making companies nor government oversight agencies have my complete trust. But I am willing to see what this new technology can offer to those who need it—but only because I do trust that so many of us will be watching, and working, to keep safe and organic food-making and biodiversity alive. ©

For more information on topics (and sources) touched upon here and to explore your own questions, go to http://plantbio.berkeley.edu/~outreach and see the other resources listed in this issue.


CATHERINE TAYLOR is senior editor at Radiance and a freelance writer and editor in Berkeley, California.




Sculpture by Jeong Soo Koh.

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