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In Context #19 (Spring, 2008, p. 4); copyright 2008 by The Nature Institute

Toward a More Informed GMO Debate
Stephen L. Talbott

Is genetic engineering good for you? Is it good for the planet? And what about the organisms themselves — the ones we are so enthusiastically engineering? Do they have anything to say about the matter?

Actually, they have a great deal to say, and have been saying it with increasing clarity for some time now. Their testimony is recorded in research reports in technical journals — reports that have scarcely yet reached the public consciousness. Much of the debate concerning genetically modified organisms (GMOs), their widespread use in animal and human food, and their impact upon the environment could be raised to an entirely new and more productive level if the undisputed facts in these reports were more widely known.

The facts boil down to this: if you manipulate one or more genes in an organism using the techniques of biotechnology, the so-called side-effects — which are not side-effects at all, but include direct responses by the organism to the invasive actions of the engineer — can occur anywhere and everywhere in the organism, are not predictable, are little understood, have mostly unknown consequences for health and the environment, and are finally commandeering the concerned attention of many researchers. The intended result of a genetic manipulation may or may not be achieved in any given case, but the one almost sure thing is that unintended results — nontarget effects — will be achieved.

The facts of the case have been, and are being, widely reported in the scientific literature. While they are correcting our understanding in important ways, they are not particularly controversial. And they bear directly upon the wisdom of virtually all the current genetic engineering practices. If there has been limited reportage of nontarget effects in the popular press, it may be because the facts are often buried in highly technical scientific articles. And within genetic (transgenic) research itself, scientists have been mainly concerned with achieving targeted effects and not with reporting unexpected effects or investigating beyond the range of their own intentions. But when they do investigate — and they are now doing so with increasing intensity — they find that there is plenty to see.

The Nature Institute's "Nontarget Effects of Genetic Manipulation" project (http://nontarget.org) aims to bring a world of uncontested fact to the attention not only of the general public, but also of policymakers and the broader world of science. The idea is to gather information about the results of particular genetic experiments and make it readily accessible. We have collected our examples from the scientific literature — primarily from peer-reviewed journals — and written short reports on each example. These are ordered according to different categories and include effects on the manipulated organisms themselves as well as broader environmental ripple effects. Currently we have included only studies related to nontarget effects associated with genetically modified plants. Our compilation of reports is only a beginning and will be expanded over time. The technical literature we have not yet touched remains extensive.

It is not our primary intention to comment here on the social, economic, political, or ethical implications of genetic engineering. We have done that elsewhere. (See http://natureinstitute.org/gene.) Moreover, we believe that a great deal of the discussion of genetic engineering practices can become calmer and more focused once the basic facts revealed by the extensive research to date are more widely known. One can hardly fail to acknowledge a certain need for caution given the radically unpredictable consequences of transgenic experiments for both organisms and their environments. We have been striving simply to bring forward the evident facts of the matter.

Steve Talbott :: Toward a More Informed GMO Debate

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