Dr. Charles Benbrook is the Chief Scientist of The Organic Center. He was formerly an agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at The White House at the end of the Carter Administration, Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, and Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Benbrook was interviewed by Arty Mangan of Bioneers.
AM: The biotech industry talks about the precision of genetic engineering. How precise
is the technology?
Charles Benbrook: Anyone that’s been involved in the discussion about genetically engineered crops has heard proponents claim that this is the most precise technology ever developed for the transformation of crops. For the most part, this claim is made and not challenged. It is true that the molecular biologists that create a trans-gene do know precisely what that trans-gene is composed of, because they make it. They pieced it together. In the regulatory submissions, for example, there will be a diagram of the trans-gene, exactly what genetic material is in different places, how they put it together, and what the function of the different parts of the trans-gene are. So that’s the front end of the process. They do have precise control over that. Whereas in conventional breeding, when a plant breeder crosses two plants, they really don’t have precise control or knowledge of how those genes combine in the next generation of a plant.
So it’s true that in terms of knowing exactly what gene you’re trying to move into the plant, it is more precise, but it’s not more precise. In fact it’s fundamentally more imprecise, in that the techniques that are used to move the trans-gene into the crop are no more precise than a shotgun. They shoot into the cells thousands of particles that have the trans-gene coating and hope that one penetrates into the inside of the cell and gets picked up and stably expressed. They hope that it’s only one, and that it gets expressed properly. But they have no way of knowing whether it does, and in fact they do know that it’s likely that more than one of those particles actually leads to some expression, and some may lead to some partial expression.
So they have no control over where in that cell or where in that plant’s genome the new genetic material gets lodged and expressed. Because they don’t have control over that, they have absolutely no basis to predict how that trans-gene, the new genetic material, is going to behave in the future as that plant deals with stresses in its environment, whether it’s drought, too much water, pest pressures, imbalances in the soil, or any other source of stress. They just don’t know how it’s going to behave. They don’t know how stable that expression is going to be, or whether the third generation of the plant is going to behave just like other generations. They don’t know whether the promoter gene, which has been moved into the plant to turn on the new piece of genetic material, will influence some other biosynthetic pathway that’s in the plant, turning on some natural process of the plant when it shouldn’t be turned on, or turning it off too soon. There are all sorts of things that they don’t know.
Is this new part of the genome that the biotechnologist has moved in, exempt from the laws of evolution from then on? It’s kind of ridiculous to think that it would be. But that’s really what the industry and the die-hard proponents of biotechnology are asking us to believe, that somehow once they move these transgenes in, despite the fact that they don’t understand how many copies there are, they don’t understand how stable they’ll be. They don’t understand how stresses are going to affect them. They don’t know that they’re not going to be influenced by the laws of evolution. It’s an irresponsible leap of faith that has been underwritten by our universities, our government, by the companies and by people that know better.
This is what drives a lot of people crazy. The scope of the fraud, if you will—I know that’s a harsh word—the scope of the fraud that’s being sold to the American public about this technology is almost unprecedented.
The biotechnology industry says, “Well, if one of these genetically engineered plants kind of goes crazy, it’s probably not going to be fit and it won’t survive. It won’t last in the environment. Nature will select out against it.” For somebody that works for a public institution to make that point, it really borders on libelous. It’s such a violation of the public trust for scientists who understand this stuff to be so divorced from fairness in talking about the technical issues to an audience of non-scientists. It’s really scandalous, in my opinion.
AM. The comparisons that the biotech industry makes to promote genetic engineering for the most part are within the context of industrial agriculture. Shouldn’t the comparisons be between the potential of sustainable agriculture and genetic engineering? If they compare the promise of biotech to the worst of the industrial agricultural system—that’s an easier case to make.
Charles Benbrook: I think you’re right. If conventional agriculture and the problems of
conventional agriculture are the benchmark against which biotechnology is judged, it will be easier to sell biotech because biotech can solve some of the problems created by conventional agriculture, but what about just avoiding the problems altogether by really simple things, like management and cultural practices? You hear these people say that we’ve got a big problem with vitamin A. We’ve got to use genetic engineering to create golden rice that has elevated vitamin A content. There are millions and millions of people in the world that don’t get enough vitamin A. But what about growing some squash? Growing some crops that are already high in vitamin A? What about diversifying diets a little bit?
We’re worried about how we are going to feed nine billion people, ten billion people in a world that’s going to continue to develop economically. If everybody just ate a little bit less meat, we’ll be fine. We don’t have to give up meat. If North America and Europe would eat a third less meat, and all of that farmland devoted today to growing livestock feed that’s converted at about six pounds of plant biomass to one pound of animal product, if that land were redirected to rice and wheat and tomatoes and peas and nutritionally dense foods, we could eliminate world hunger.
There are so many presumptions that go unchallenged with the way these people frame the dialogue that it’s no wonder the public is confused and really doesn’t know what to believe. It’s very difficult for the public to cut through all the conflicting messages to find what’s important, but that’s unfortunately the state of the debate.
What finally attracted me to work in the area of organic agriculture is that it’s the only thing that’s got some integrity left. It’s a viable and promising alternative. Even though probably not all farmers are going to be using fully organic systems, the more people that are farming organically, the more we’re going to learn about the biology of farming, and the better conventional agriculture is going to get. I think that the success now of really good large-scale organic farmers is starting to change the practices of a lot of conventional farmers. That may be where the really big environmental consumer benefits are. If ten percent of agriculture becomes organic, that could influence sixty percent of conventional agriculture to change pretty dramatically, and that’s a much bigger part of the food supply; it’s a much bigger part of the land base. I think that it’s important for the organic community to highlight more in these public discussions the fact that organic farmers are pioneers in understanding the biology of farming systems, and how to grow healthy plants and healthy animals without a lot of chemicals and drugs and things that raise risks. That’s important. Even though we don’t have enough organic apples to feed all the kids in schools in America, it’s still important that we try to expand that, because I think it’ll change conventional agriculture as well.