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January 20, 2004


National Research Council Panel Urges More Work to Protect
Against Contamination of Food Supply

By Justin Gillis

Techniques for confining genetically engineered salmon, corn and other
organisms are still in their infancy, and far more work needs to be
done to make sure the new products do not taint the food supply or
wipe out important species, a National Research Council panel said

To date, most attempts to control potentially hazardous, gene-altered
species that are grown outdoors have involved establishing physical
barriers, like rows of trees, or altering planting times to make sure
crops cannot cross-breed with related plants nearby. But those
techniques have proven susceptible to human error, and researchers
have long recognized that physical methods are likely to become even
less useful as gene-altered insects and other animals begin to emerge
from the nation's laboratories.

Scores of altered organisms are under development, offering numerous
potential benefits -- and many theoretical perils. While eager to reap
the benefits, many scientists are worried that gene-altered crops
might breed with wild relatives to produce super-weeds, for instance,
or that genetically engineered salmon or honeybees might kill off
their wild relatives by out-competing them for food.

Scientists have been studying newer technologies that might impose
biological limits on the movement of genetically engineered species or
the spread of their genes. But the most promising methods of
"bioconfinement" are still in the early research stages, and no
available method offers complete assurance that new products deemed
especially hazardous can be kept under control, the panel said in a
219-page report commissioned by the Agriculture Department, which is
charged with regulating many aspects of genetic engineering.

"What they seem to suggest is the science for creating risky organisms
exists, but we don't have the methods for safely confining them yet,"
said Gregory Jaffe, director of biotechnology programs at the Center
for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "The sad conclusion
from the report is that there really aren't any viable bioconfinement
methods that could be adopted commercially without significant
additional research and testing." Jaffe's organization is a consumer
group that supports genetic engineering in principle but has often
criticized federal oversight of it.

The National Research Council panel emphasized that many types of
gene-altered organisms pose little or no theoretical risk, and control
techniques won't be needed. For the minority of organisms that do pose
risks, the panel recommended that companies and laboratories adopt an
"integrated confinement system" that includes at least two distinct
techniques. The plans should be overseen by regulators in Washington
and should factor in the likelihood of human error, the panel said,
adding that confinement had sometimes seemed to be an "afterthought"
in genetic-engineering research.

If widely adopted, the recommendations would impose new costs and
burdens on the U.S. biotechnology industry. While emphasizing its
commitment to safety, the industry has generally opposed elaborate
control methods for gene-altered organisms, saying the risks have been
exaggerated and the potential benefits under-appreciated.

Val Giddings, vice president of agriculture at the Biotechnology
Industry Organization, a Washington trade group, noted that gene-
altered organisms have been used inside laboratories for decades with
an excellent safety record, and altered crops have been widely planted
since the mid-1990s. "We have hundreds of millions of tons of this
stuff being grown around the world for years, and eaten by millions of
people, with literally not a headache or a sniffle yet," he said.

Anne R. Kapuscinski, a member of the panel and a fish biologist at the
University of Minnesota, said at a briefing in Washington today that
the techniques of genetic engineering offer "enormous potential for
modern agriculture" and for solving other problems. But as scientists
design ever-more-exotic organisms -- ranging from corn that produces
pharmaceuticals in its kernels to fish that grow 10 or 20 times faster
than normal -- the risk will rise that altered genes could spread to
new species or unwanted locales, threatening the ecology or the food
supply, the report said.

That nearly happened in 2002, when human error allowed corn designed
to produce a pig vaccine to spread too widely in fields in Iowa and
Nebraska. Expensive, last-minute intervention by the Agriculture
Department kept the product out of food, and the department has since
been tightening its regulations. Some advocates of genetic engineering
have charged that regulation has already become excessive and
threatens to choke off one of the nation's most promising new
industries, while environmental and some consumer groups assert that
the government hasn't cracked down enough.

The new report was commissioned before the corn incident, but has
taken on added importance in light of that near-miss. The National
Research Council is the research arm of the National Academy of
Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of
Medicine, the nation's three most prestigious scientific advisory
bodies, and its reports generally carry weight with all political
factions in Washington.

Many scientists have said that confinement, or lack thereof, is
proving to be the Achilles' heel of genetic engineering. The gene-
altered food crops commercialized to date -- the most important are
soybeans, corn and canola -- have turned up repeatedly in unexpected
places, including overseas shipments meant for markets that won't
accept gene-altered ingredients.

Some newer organisms under development promise to be even harder to
control. Plants, after all, are stuck in place with roots in the
ground, but gene-altered animals will be capable of moving on their

The various bioconfinement techniques available today all suffer from
problems that undermine their reliability, the report said. It noted
that scientists are working on potentially better techniques. For
instance, a plant could be engineered so that its flowers always die
before spreading pollen, or an animal could be made dependent on some
man-made substance so that it would die if it escaped. But research on
these methods is just beginning and long years of work lie ahead, the
report said.

As a case study of the difficulties, the report offered the example of
a fast-growing salmon under development by Aqua Bounty Technologies
Inc. of Waltham, Mass. The gene-altered salmon reaches market size in
half the usual time, requiring less feed. Aqua Bounty wants to sell
the fish for use in ocean pens along the East Coast, where other farm-
raised salmon are grown. The company has acknowledged that some fish
will inevitably escape, but has said they will be so dependent on food
supplied by humans that they are likely to die in the open ocean.

Environmentalists are worried that the fish, which they have dubbed
"Frankensalmon," would not die, but instead would wipe out dwindling
stocks of wild Atlantic salmon by competing with them for food and,
among males, competing for access to wild females. To meet these
concerns, Aqua Bounty plans to sell only sterile, female fish. But the
new report said the methods for sterilizing the fish are not entirely
reliable, and it urged that the Aqua Bounty fish be tested
individually for sterility or grown only in tanks on land -- expensive
methods that most fish-farming companies are likely to resist.

Joseph McGonigle, a vice president at Aqua Bounty Technologies, said
his company was still evaluating its production techniques and the
report was premature in drawing conclusions about how reliable they
would be.

"All of this is really just sound and fury," McGonigle said. "Nobody
has any evidence, and it's not going to be there until we put it on
the table. We're certainly aware of the risks."

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