Guest article. This testimony was submitted by bioengineer Juanita Mathews on the Maui GMO Moratorium initiative which is being considered by the County Council prior to going on the ballot in November.
My name is Juanita Mathews and I have a PhD in molecular biosciences and bioengineering from the University of Hawaii Manoa. My graduate work was the genetic modification of bacteria for biofuel production. My postdoc work was the genetic modification of mouse and human cells for stem cell therapies.
I am very familiar with how genetic modification is done and what kind of risks the technology has. I find it very disturbing that this relatively new technology has been, in my expert opinion, irresponsibly applied to our food supply.
When genetically modifying cells in the lab, one of the number one concerns is to make sure that what we make in the lab does not get released into the environment. We sterilize everything prior to disposal and have numerous protocols in place to make sure that accidental release does not occur. It therefore greatly concerns me that agricultural companies are not only releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, but also releasing organisms that we consume and could potentially contaminate other parts of our food chain.
Genetic modification is not an evil technology, indeed it has the potential for great good, but as with anything that has great potential, it can also cause great harm. The companies that profit from releasing these genetically modified plants into the environment would have you believe that they are “safe.” However, the key to assessing the true safety of these organisms is how completely the tests cover the wide range of potential harm that could occur. This depends completely on how much we currently know about how genes interact in the environment, whether that environment is our body or our fields.
I can tell you without a doubt that we are in our infancy in understanding how genes interact with the environment. We are constantly finding new interactions that are changing the way that we view how genetic material is transferred and affects our health.
For instance, we now know that bacteria in our gut are capable of picking up genes from the food that we eat. We have just found that the genes in our food are not completely broken down in our stomach and that some of that genetic material finds its way into our bloodstream where it has effects on our cells.
We have also found that bacteria in the soil are capable of taking up genetic material from the plants that grow in that soil. Indeed what we are finding is that there are no boundaries to genetic flow. In fact, the entire genetic engineering revolution is based on exploiting the natural ways that organisms can exchange genetic material.
This has profound implications for how we assess safety. The current assessments are only done on a short term basis, and only on a few systems. A three month study on a rat does not tell you what the effects are over generations, or on long term soil health, bacterial gut populations, or over a human lifespan. True tests of safety that would take all of these things into consideration would be too costly and time consuming to ever get a product out profitably. So they are not done. Therefore, true safety is never assessed. The risk due to that lack of assessment could be profound. Why risk so much for a benefit that is negligible at best?
Genetic modification of our food has been touted as the answer to feeding to world. Proponents say that plants yield more and are more resistant to disease and pests. They would have you believe that this is fact. It is not. The facts are that:
The pests develop resistance to the pesticides that soak these plants.
The pesticides themselves have detrimental effects on soil community and on our health.
The plants that produce these foreign genes are not as healthy because they have the burden of making large amounts of something they have never made before.
The Bt toxin that the plants make is fundamentally different from the Bt produced by bacteria in the natural environment and can cause allergic reactions.
The “on” switch used to drive the production of the foreign gene comes from a plant virus and that plant virus “on” switch has been found to work in bacteria, yeast, and human cells. Increasing risk.
The containment of the foreign genes can never be assured.
In conclusion, I would just like to say that although we try and control for risk with testing and regulation, we can never predict what new data will show and we can never take into account all the things that we have no control over. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima showed us that new technology with great potential for good can also cause great harm and that no amount of testing can prepare us for what mother nature will do. Why take on the risks that GMOs have when there are other options? Why play with fire when we know that we will most likely get burned?