Thursday, April 14, 2011

Union's Winter Environmental Speaker Series!

So you knew about Union’s Environmental Science, Policy and Engineering Winter 2011 Seminar Series, right?

Michael Hansen of Consumer Union continued the series “Inside the Controversy on Genetically Modified Food” with a talk on “Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals: Answers to Questions They Don’t Want Asked (Science, Regulation, Environmental and Human Health Impacts)”.

Here Shabana Hoosein '11, gives us a nice summary of the talk. 

“Genetically Engineered Plants and Animals: Answers to Questions They Don’t Want Asked (Science, Regulation, Environmental and Human Health Impacts).”

            Michael Hansen is a Senior Staff Scientist with Consumer’s Union and his educational background is in the field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. His post-graduate work was on the impacts of biotechnology on agricultural research. Hansen’s talk was a great mixture of politics and science. In the first part of his talk, Hansen spoke about genetics from an ecological perspective. He said that the more complicated work you do with DNA, the more unstable it is. Most things in nature work in a similar way. For example, if you alter things in the environment, the environment will not be able to recover and exist naturally.
Hansen brought along another valid point from the science perspective. He said that in other DNA modification studies, there is usually some sort of “selective marker” to show if the modified gene is being expressed. Genetically modified crops use antibiotic resistance as a selective marker. Therefore, to test if the genetically modified gene will show, they link it to the antibiotic gene and test if the antibiotic gene shows. When ingesting the antibiotic marker, there is a risk that the antibiotic resistance is transferred to E. coli bacteria present in the guts of humans. This would make E. coli bacteria resistant to antibiotics. E.coli is the leading agent responsible for food poisoning. If we create antibiotic resistant E.coli, it would be more difficult to treat food poisoning cases.  The antibiotic marker is currently not used anymore to make new GE plants. However, what Hansen said is that the crops currently out there still have the antibiotic marker in them.
Hansen continued his talk on the FDA’s involvement with GM crops in our markets. In 1992 the FDA claimed that, “new technologies are extensions at the molecular level of traditional methods used to achieve some goals as traditional plant breeding.” However, the FDA does not hold their own experiments, require pre-market assessments or make any conclusions on their own. Many people in the public may believe that the FDA is on the consumer’s side, but that is not the case. I thought this was a strong argument to show that the FDA does not have much of a say behind the science that they agree with (or disagree with). Hansen also points out that in 2001, the FDA admitted that biotechnology and traditional breeding are indeed different because of external pressure from political riots in Seattle. This goes to show that government organizations like the FDA rely on private companies or public upheaval to determine the organization’s opinion. The second half of the argument really tied it all together and made me realize that the government does not work alone.
            Everything that Hansen was saying was very strong until things got technical. His argument on gene transformation was not explained very well. He said in 2003, insertional mutagenesis was used on male children who were born without an immune system. The male children were doing well until 3 out of the 11 children were diagnosed with leukemia. Firstly, mutagenesis is very different from gene modification. Secondly, were there any other environmental factors that could have had an impact on these children developing leukemia? Most likely, the leukemia was developed through this mutagenesis gene transformation. There is some evidence that RNA can actually change the DNA and therefore cause mutations in your genome, which can lead to cancer. Conventionally, it is believed that DNA makes RNA and RNA makes proteins. During gene therapy, RNA is usually injected to heal a patient. On the other hand, some evidence suggests that this injected RNA alters the DNA of the patient.  As a member of the audience, it seemed like Hansen was persuading us to believe that mutagenesis on human genes is just as bad as genetic modification on plant genes. However, mutagenesis IS different gene splicing and the human body is much more complex than plant structures.
I feel like Hansen wanted explain many things with great scientific detail and evidence, but he did not have the time. He went through a bunch of scientific papers just to give the audience an idea of the data that we have on genetically modified foods. So far, Hansen has been my favorite speaker. Even though he kind of leaves the audience hanging (and only giving them main points), he encourages everyone to do more research and look into these studies on our own.  Not only that, Hansen gave a lot of raw data and data from around the globe. Therefore, he did not only look at the opinions of developing or poor countries.
At the end of his talk, he made two conclusions about genetically modified crops. The first conclusion is that there is insufficient data. We need to have studies that have a solid design, large sample sizes and are observed over an extended period of time. The second conclusion was that the US policy on GE plants is inadequate. There are many unanswered health questions, no safety assessments (or labeling) required and increased use of pesticides. I liked the end of his talk because he was able to sum up his views clearly, while not being overly repetitive. Then again, I didn’t enjoy the tension during the question and answer section. Hansen’s passion and confidence in science makes me believe his strong arguments the most out of the 3 speakers we have seen so far.

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