Genetic Engineering in New Zealand
Barriers to Informed Debate
Copyright 2003 Russell McMahonruval@paradise.net.nz
Click here for notes on reading & navigating this document, presentation style, what it does & doesn't tell you etc. Recommended to be looked at before reading paper, but can be skipped.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Genetic Engineering -
Risk & Danger
What you expect may not be what you get
The case of the non- exploding chalk
"Low risk" versus "Safe"
Disenfranchising the Stakeholders
Staying in control
Can it really happen?
An entirely new area
A Dangerous Illusion
Familiarity breeds contempt
Nature "gets it wrong"
Notes & Appendices:
"Real World" Risks & Dangers to date:
>> How to read this paper
>> Navigation- finding your way around the document
>> Nature & Anthropomorphism - does nature "design", "build", "protect" etc
>> Origin of life - assumptions
>> "Philosophy" & miscellaneous
It is hoped that this paper will assist in increasing the level of informed discussion of matters relating to Genetic Engineering in New Zealand. It raises issues pertinent to both the average New Zealander and to NZ politicians.
The paper deals mainly with issues of safety & risk, and the problems which arise because of the unique nature of GE amongst all scientific disciplines. It is not intended to be alarmist or to improperly hinder informed acceptance of GE in NZ.
While it recognises both GE's great potential for good and its significant potential dangers it seeks to distance itself from both the simplistic "Frankenfood" image on the one hand and the equally dangerous "Just catching up with nature" on the other.
As a professional engineer, the writer is "pro Genetic Engineering" and "pro Science" but conscious of the irrevocable harm which could occur if the introduction of Genetic Engineering (GE) is mishandled.
Readers are warned against rejecting claims without further consideration just because they "sound ridiculous". The differences between GE and all other human endeavours are of such a nature as to be far from intuitive. The sceptical are invited to further investigate statements which seem implausible. The writer is happy to direct inquirers to available resources. In most cases an internet search will provide copious information on all aspects of a subject.
Read this for a quick summary of the paper
Genetic Engineering has the capability to substantially improve our world.
There is also concern world wide that it involves considerable dangers.
GE has to date caused little clearly proven damage to human health or loss of human life. However, the nature of GE is such that its worst case dangers are extremely high and damaging outcomes are an ongoing possibility. The impact of the very worst case dangers are similar in magnitude to those of nuclear war. Researchers believe that the probability of such worst case dangers occurring is very low, but it is not possible to guarantee that this will always be true. Accidental production of extremely dangerous results by single gene insertion has been demonstrated in the laboratory.
Despite the large amount of information available, and discussion about both potential benefits and dangers, the New Zealand public and senior politicians are largely uninformed about key aspects necessary for fully informed discussion.
1. Lack of a readily available and easily understandable explanation of the concept and implications of risk have greatly reduced the public's ability to participate in informed debate. Assurances given by advisers are widely misunderstood by government and the public alike. The facts that assurances of "low risk" are not assurances of safety and that GE can never be said with certainty to be "safe" are discussed.
2. The unique nature of GE and the effect that this has on decision processes has not been well addressed and is not widely appreciated. The consequent fact that almost any GE work has the (hopefully) small but finite capability to produce catastrophic results has not been made clear. The inability to properly establish levels of risk due to GE's unique nature is also not generally appreciated.
The public have the right to enough information to allow informed debate on whether there is any upper level of danger above which an activity is unacceptable, regardless of how improbable these dangers may be. This has not happened.
Unrealistic and scientifically unsupportable assurances are being given to the public. The possibility that even quite conceivable disasters could occur is being denied. This approach disenfranchises the public in their role as major stakeholder in the GE debate. While such an approach may increase the acceptance and rate of GE introduction in the short term, it risks major political and societal repercussions should even moderate loss of life or damage to health occur.
Examples are given to demonstrate that worst case GE hazards are a real possibility.
Risk minimisation and containment issues are discussed and examples are given from prior human experience to demonstrate the potential shortcomings of seeking to minimise dangers by using these techniques.
Genetic Engineering - Prospects for good:
Genetic Engineering promises to transform life as we know it and to benefit mankind in previously inconceivable ways. We have already achieved some major successes. One of the earliest and so far arguably the greatest success of Genetic Engineering (GE) is the production of high quality "human" insulin from genetically modified yeast. This insulin has saved or improved the lives of millions of diabetics worldwide. Other current or imminent applications include providing selected crops with resistance to weed killers and insect pests, increased crop yields, addition of nutrients to basic food crops (eg "Golden Rice"), and targeting bigger/tastier/longer lasting/more disease resistant food products. A wide range of other applications are being investigated. But this is just the a beginning. There is little doubt that, given the time required to master the intricacies of life, we will be able to not only develop cures for many diseases but to significantly increase human lifespans.
In such a future we can expect to eliminate or tightly control diseases as diverse as Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, Heart Disease, Cancer, Parkinson's disease, HIV, inherited diseases of all kinds, the childhood trio of Measles Mumps & Chickenpox, the 'Flu and common cold, sexually transmitted diseases, Malaria and Whooping Cough.
In time we can reasonably expect to be able to engineer existing plants to have virtually any characteristics desired, or to create essentially new plants. Features might include increased crop productivity, improved disease and pest resistance, the ability to produce fruit all year round or to grow anywhere on earth, or the ability to 'grow' medicines. Animals will also be able to be engineered to order; cows that produce more milk, heavier cattle with less fat, super laying poultry, bigger and meatier turkeys, faster race horses or, should we wish, giraffes with longer legs - or necks. Almost any characteristic has the potential to be altered or controlled.
In such a future, just as we will be able to engineer plants and animals we will be able, if we wish, to alter the basic blueprint of the human race. Super athletes (or soldiers), the ability to breathe underwater, run a 3 minute mile, with improved hearts, stronger muscles, better vision and faster, stronger, longer life bodies. And possibly even improved mental capabilities. If we can develop GE's full potential, life as we know it could be transformed beyond recognition.
Involvement with GE necessarily raises issues of ethics, morality, culture & spirituality. All these are outside the scope of this paper, except as they impact on the right of the majority to be properly informed of the nature and fundamental implications of the proposed technology.
Genetic Engineering - Potential for harm:
In order to realise GE's undoubted promise we must avoid some of its more dangerous possibilities. While some of these may sound like the fabrications of a group of science fiction writers, conspiracy theorists and greenie activists, they are in fact demonstrably real. Any neutral GE experts will acknowledge this fact. Finding a neutral expert is another matter.
This statement is not meant to reflect adversely on the character of GE experts, but to recognise the fact that vested interests of all types can considerably influence an experts judgement. Just as in many court cases, where expert witnesses can be found to support both sides of an argument, in GE there are well qualified people who will argue from either perspective.
Ultimately, with an issue that intimately affects the whole country, it is the duty of the experts to inform the public in the clearest and most open way possible, using unambiguous language, and for the public as "jury" to decide from the information that the experts have provided. Regrettably, this is not what has happened.
On the one side we have protestors chanting Frankenfood slogans and putting up posters of Genetically Modified Women, and on the other we have scientifically unsupported assurances of safety and "just catching up with nature".
Both sides are talking past each other, while public and politicians alike appear uninformed.
Politicians operate, understandably, from a position of enlightened self interest. While they may put their philosophical goals and the good of the public ahead of personal ambition, they are only able to continue to serve if they survive the next election.
In matters such as GE the government must seek results which return them to office. In the debate between "clean green" & "eco-friendly" and "keeping up with the world" & "balance of payments" a balance must be struck. The factors are complex but economic bottom line is a major component. The government must heed the probable short to medium term trade performance implications of major decisions.
In the case of GE the economic balance is seen to currently favour keeping up with the world while trying to avoid any of the more obvious bad consequences. As will be shown, the nature and magnitude of potential bad consequences is not generally properly appreciated.
The organic farming / clean green argument has not, so far, been effective. Whether this is the correct decision will depend on the as yet unknowable success, failures and consequences of GE. Due to the perceived complexity of the issues, expert opinion is of greater than normal value here. And
it is reasonable to expect expert opinion to err on the side of "let's do it".
GE researchers are largely there to try to do GE research, not to find reasons for its prevention. Industry groups who employ GE experts do so due to the potential for greater profits, and understandably are quicker to see the positives than the potential pitfalls. And even the most eminent of experts will be inclined towards the expectation of doing at least some science rather than no science at all. None of this is meant to criticise people for doing what people do. Only to note that the community of experts will have a natural bias towards favouring at least some progress in GE. Those who are against will be liable to be less well represented by those with formal expertise but my have a more rounded approach to broader issues. They will have many people who can think - but their formal qualifications may lie more in other disciplines. Expertise in other disciplines can also be a distinct advantage as it brings ability to deal with complex problems while not being as likely to be fettered by vested interests.
This is not to suggest that anything unusually underhand has occurred - this is just the normal situation to be expected and is a hurdle that those opposed in any way must overcome.
Those concerned about the introduction of GE need to either show superior economic benefit or, on the balance of probabilities, some other factors that outweigh the present perception of long term economic benefit. The present level of under-informed debate makes such a task difficult.
RISK & DANGER- a crucial difference
A vital requirement to informed debate about Genetic Engineering is an understanding of the terminology used. However, the word "risk", which is of key importance in dealing with GE, is used quite differently in GE discussions than by members of the public. To most people the words "risk" and "hazard" (or "danger") are interchangeable. But in the language of science and engineering these terms mean two quite different things. All GE activities that the public are exposed to will be, by design, low risk. A highly hazardous GE event may be rendered "low risk" by attempting to ensure that it is unlikely to occur. In the event that a highly unlikely event does occur, the danger could be extreme.
To use a common example, the risk of being hit by a car while crossing a quiet country road in daylight with good visibility is quite low. The risk of being hit by a car while trying to cross a busy motorway on foot at night is quite high. The danger once hit by a car is about the same in both cases. It would be ridiculous to think that an adult would be confused about the danger from a car when told that the risk was low. But just this confusion exists regarding GE.
Definition of "low risk"
In the language of engineering and science, and especially as applied to GE, the term "low risk" usually means
i "Will be relatively safe most of the time
ii BUT it may be incredibly dangerous if the worst case happens
iii BUT we don't think it likely that the worst case will ever happen
iv BUT if the worst does happen we can stop it from getting away or doing significant harm."
While the components i to iv above are present when assessing risk for anything, in many traditional areas the likely probabilities of worst case dangers are so low that steps ii to iv above do not really come into consideration. In such cases the actual danger is the main factor. eg see "exploding chalk" below.
Risk & Danger Summary: Very important
Danger or Hazard relates to the effect if a particular outcome does occur. Eg being hit by a car travelling at 100 kph is very dangerous.
Probability or chance is the likelihood that a particular outcome will occur. Usually expressed in terms of likelihood of occurrence in a given time period and for a specified target group. Eg Each New Zealander has about a one in 4 million chance per year of being hit by lightning.
Risk is the combination of hazard (or danger) and probability (or chemise) to determine the overall threat. A highly dangerous outcome maybe rendered low risk by ensuring it is unlikely to happen. Eg the risk from (or of) being hit by a motor vehicle travelling at 100 kph while standing on the top of Mt Tongariro is so low as to be essentially non-existent. The risk from being hit by a car while crossing an Auckland motorway on foot at night is very high. Note that it may be possible to encounter a car on the top of Tongariro if it had, for example, been airlifted there for an advertisement, but the rarity of this and the fact that it is in a national park make this prospect minimal.
Estimated and actual Risk can be very different. This is often only established after an accident has occurred. For example, the risk of flying to Antarctica onAir NZ flight 901 on 28 November 1979 was seen as being relatively low risk - "safer" than transporting the same number of people an equivalent distance by car. In retrospect it was established that the flight was an extremely high risk activity, not only because all on board died, but because the several inquiries that were held subsequently discovered evidence that indicated that the accident was much more likely to have happened than had been appreciated in advance.
One might expect that discovering information which increases risk (eg my tyres have less tread than I thought they had) would cause risk assessments to be adjusted accordingly. This is not always what happen. An alternative response is to adjust safety limits to make the possible danger appear less likely to occur and to thereby decrease the perceived risk. (eg "It's not going to rain so my tyres will be safe.") Such actions may in fact increase the risk even beyond that established by the new information, as it can blind or reassure those who are responsible for managing safety aspects.
Adjusting safety limits to accommodate new information was one of the factors in the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Scientists and engineers, who should have known better, and indeed did know better, continually set new safety limits when certain critical operational parameters exceeded older limits. This, as much as anything else, lead to the destruction of the shuttle.
Human nature is such that risk assessments will often be adjusted to favour the preferred option of the assessor. Sometimes this is a conscious act of dishonesty, but often enough rationalisation for any number of "good reasons" is the cause. Prospective fame and wealth are powerful drivers.
GE VERSUS NORMAL RISK- The case of the non- exploding chalk
Consider a trivial and somewhat ludicrous example to make the point. If we consider a piece of (nowadays increasingly rare) blackboard chalk and ask "Is it safe?" we can be confident that it will not under any sensible circumstances explode, catch fire, poison us or corrode our fingers. We don't expect it to spread out of control, grow baby chalks which are the same as or different from itself, or to one day suddenly exhibit crayon like drawing qualities. It won't drip ink (or oil). If we were asked about the chances (probability) of it doing any of these things we would say that they were essentially zero. We may think it unwise to eat it, but would probably not be too worried if a child did eat some. We would probably be more worried about them choking on it than about the risk of poisoning. We would know that if left on the floor we might slip on it and we could make up various amusing and impossible scenarios in which it would be dangerous. (Stick one piece up each nostril. Then ... ) Such certainties about safety are founded not only on "common sense" but also on the laws of Physics as they relate to inanimate objects.
However, with Genetic Engineering, while explosions and catching fire are also incredibly unlikely, equivalent or far greater dangers are a possibility. They may be very unlikely to occur, but the degree of unlikeliness is much harder to assess with certainty than is the risk when dealing with objects such as chalk.
With GE we are dealing with living objects - very largely unknown biological machines, with a degree of complexity and interaction between the component parts which are totally unparalleled elsewhere in human experience. (See US National Academy of Engineering Physiome Project paper by Professor James Bassingthwaighte for a discussion of the degree of complexity involved.)
. They have the ability to reproduce using complex internal specifications, and to change their operation and even their very nature. More detail on the extent of the differences is provided later. Here it is enough to say that GE deals with living things which are radically different in nature to non-living things. We will come back to consider the issues of
- how great a danger can be expected from a given GE activity? and
- how likely is it that a given danger will eventuate?
after a discussion of risk and danger. But for now the following guidelines are offered, largely without supporting explanation at this stage.
HOW SAFE IS GE?- working guidelines
There appears to be no solidly documented proof that, to date, GE has produced "uncontained" results which are exceptionally dangerous to human life. There continue to be numerous claims to the contrary. It is well known that dangerous results can be and have been produced.
The fact that GE deals with living, self reproducing, self organising organisms of immense pre-existing complexity means that GE has a very special set of attributes that set it uniquely apart from all other engineering or scientific activities. This also means that, with our present knowledge and abilities, we can never be certain that an extremely unusual and unfavourable result may not occur. While experience to date (and a degree of wishful thinking) suggests that the chance of anything extremely bad happening is extremely low we also cannot be sure in any case how probable it is that a dangerous event will occur.
We are aware of the sort of worst case dangers that can conceivably be produced - and they are very bad indeed. We have no certain way of ensuring that such dangers will not in fact occur. Our continuing process of discovery, and the manner in which we immediately seek to apply what we learn, means that we are always working in the relative unknown. Some of the worst case dangers are so extreme (eg species destruction) that we may wish to establish guidelines that prohibit investigations in some areas, no matter how unlikely it is that the dangers will eventuate. Such guidelines would be able to be adapted as our knowledge increased.
Nature has produced human affecting trans-species diseases. These include diseases such as SARS, Ebola, AIDS and NVCJD. These examples have all became known as human diseases only within the last 100 years. There is a real danger, but of unknown probability, that GE development will produce a similar new disease or a variant of an existing one. Such a disease could well have much greater impact than any of the naturally occurring interspecies diseases. While examples of this sort of result occurring experimentally are relatively few, we have "been served notice" - researchers quite by accident demonstrated the ability to turn a mild disease into a lethal killer by inserting a single gene. This disease affected mice but there is every reason to believe this potential ability to easily alter the impact of a disease also applies to diseases affecting men.
GE food products produce proteins which are not only part of the food product itself but are an intimate part of the plant's development process. The ability to make new proteins or modified versions of existing ones is usually a part of what we are trying to achieve. However, this may also occur in an unexpected or uncontrolled manner, and a part of the development process for new crops is "trying it out" often enough to see what really happens in practice. Trial and error is an essential part of our development system due to our as yet far from complete mastery of the "systems" that we are working with.
Production of new or modified proteins only when subject to an unusual set of growing or environmental conditions is a common natural capability. With GE products, the new protein may not be seen during development due to the conditions required for its production. While it is hoped that extremely dangerous examples of this occurring will be rare, our level of knowledge does not allow us to be certain how rare or how dangerous they will be.
If we are going to carry out GE development, our most certain defence against the inherent dangers is to proceed with apparently excessive caution. Minimisation of probable dangers is indicated. We invite disaster by relying on systems that seek to reduce probability of occurrence or contain dangerous situations, rather than minimising the danger involved. (The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.)
"IS IT SAFE FOR ME AND MY FAMILY?""Low risk" versus "Safe"
The fundamental question asked by the public about GE is none of
"will it produce more trade?"
"will it make food cheaper or more nutritious or taste better or last longer?"
"will it feed the starving millions?"
" will it harm the environment?" (getting closer)
"will it hurt the Spotted Kiwi or (insert_favourite_rare_animal_here)?"
The first question is, "Is it safe for me and my family?" The desired answer is of the form "yes" or "no" or "almost" or "not really". The public may not believe such answers, but they know what they are being told. Instead science, quite reasonably, answers to the effect that "All GE trials in New Zealand will be designed to be low risk". Some hear this as an assurance of absolute safety (whether they believe it or not).But many are confused about what they are told and can not easily rephrase the statement in a meaningful manner. Those acquainted with the concept of engineering risk, understand the concept although they too may not believe the assurances. However, the majority lie in the first two classes. Most people do not understand that they are not being told that GE is safe, but that "we don't think that the worst that could happen will happen".
Politicians and government officials who make public statements about GE also seem to have been misled in one of two ways. A number of statements have been made, by the Prime Minister and others, where the word "safe" or "safety" is explicitly used.
Helen Clark has several times said words to the effect that
"Scientists will not permit GE trials if they are not safe".
Scientists will never say that something is 'safe', especially GE where there is almost always apossibility of a very dangerous outcome. Any scientist "signing up" to such a commitment places themselves in an impossible situation.
The September 26th 2003 television evening news carried an item about farmers being concerned that live GE bacteria in cow faeces may contaminate their farms and make then unsaleable. Concern was also expressed that, due to the fact that GE risks could not be insured, they would not be liable for compensation in such a situation. A government spokesman was quoted as saying that
"Genetically engineered products will only be released if authorities
are sure that there will be no adverse environmental effects"
This statement is equally unsupportable scientifically and any scientist agreeing to the release of a genetically engineered product under such a proviso would need to question their subsequent financial and moral liability. The question asked actually related to the insurance and monetary aspects should resistance to farms perceived as GE contaminated be unable to be sold in future. Interestingly but not surprisingly, no attempt was made to answer this question.
This use of the word "safe" or " ... sure that there will be no adverse environmental effect" or other clear implication of safety by politicians and government officials suggests one of two things.
That the politicians also do not understand the concepts of risk and safety and have translated one into the other without being aware of the implications.
They understand that the advice that they have received is stated in terms of risk, but they have decided to rephrase it in terms of safety, as they are aware that their hearers would be confused by the terminology. In doing so this removes crucial information about what is being said.
Either option is disturbing and shows a fundamental failure to communicate an important truth. In the first case the politicians advisers have spoken in terms of risk and have not been aware that their advice has been misconstrued. Further, as statements using the word safety have been made on an ongoing basis, the advisers do not seem to be correcting the error.
In the second case the politicians have decided to make an assurance of safety when science explicitly does not do so. In both the examples above, where 'risk' can been re-translated as 'safety', the onus has still been placed on "the scientists" to ensure the result is safe or will not have adverse environmental effects.
In either case the key issue which has been overlooked is that the public are not hearing that there may be some very bad potential outcomes but that the scientists do not think that they are liable to occur, or, if they do then they expect to be able to "contain" them. "Low risk: is not "No risk".
If, in due course, one or more of the very extreme potential outcomes of GE does arise, people will quite reasonably ask why they were not informed that such an outcome was possible. In the case of loss of life or major health impact, a statement after the event that the message had been simplified so that people could understand it, would be very inadequate.
Recap - many New Zealanders understand "low risk" to mean safe. It doesn't.
As noted above, the effective answer given to the implicit question "Is it safe?" is, "All GE activities carried out in New Zealand will be designed to be low risk". A key factor in the blinding of the public is the use of the term "risk".
To most people the words "risk" and "hazard" (or "danger") are interchangeable. But in the language of Science and GE these terms mean quite different things.
Understanding the large difference between 'risk' and 'danger' is pivotal to the inability to have a truly informed debate. An extremely hazardous event may be rendered "low risk" by attempting to ensure that it is unlikely to occur.The degree of hazard of the worst case GE outcomes is so vast and so different in nature from those from other sources that the publicly accepted standards for "acceptable risk" need re-examining. Such an examination cannot occur while the public are unaware that such fundamental differences even exist. If we were told that "this new grain is 50% more productive, but there is a 1 in a billion chance per year that all our children will be sterilised by it" there would, presumably, be concern as to whether even such a "low risk" was acceptable under any circumstances. Such an example is contrived, but is less severe than the worst case potential outcomes from GE. Even now people are making such decisions on our behalf.
To dismiss such concerns as mere tautology, or playing with words, is to disenfranchise those who are most liable to be affected by any adverse outcomes. GE is a complex subject and its proponents argue that experts should be trusted to provide advice. Those responsible for providing such advice have a duty of care to ensure that they are properly understood. To date this has not happened.
Risk Reduction & Containment
Risk reduction is action to make it "less probable" that a danger will occur.
Containment is action taken to try to ensure that, should a danger actually occur , it will be limited to a controlled area. The actual controlled area will vary with the application.
Containment is an inexact technical term and can be adapted to suit individual arguments. In the NZ Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, containment is explicitly defined as including field trials. Marian Hobbs, in arguments in support of the lifting of the GE field trial moratorium, states that "... the vaccine needs to be trialled outside containment, and this can only be done if there is no moratorium". She is correct in implying that field trials cannot proceed until the Moratorium is lifted. It is disturbing that she feels that lifting the moratorium will, or should, allow testing outside containment either in fact or as defined by the HSNO act.
The major issues in containment are:
- Correct assessment of the true risk involved
- Correct design of system to properly counter the risk
- Correct application and ongoing maintenance of the desired containment
- Researcher attitude.
If any of these aspects are lacking, containment fails.
If the actual risk exceeds the containment capability, the necessary level of reduction in probability fails to be achieved in practice on an ongoing basis. or researchers simply "go through the motions" rather than believing in the precautions that they are taking, then containment fails.
If containment is inadequate to neutralise such danger as does eventuate then a disaster occurs.
It is vitally important to note the apparently obvious fact that the calculated risk can be lowered either by ensuring that the event is contained or has a low probability of occurring or by TRYING to ensure that this is so.
Risk reduction is a common practice in many scientific and engineering disciplines. When permission is sought for eg field trials which may have excessively hazardous outcomes, means are devised to reduce their impact. Every effort may be made to propose realistic containment and control scenarios. Continuing to maintain low hazard (as opposed to low risk) over time depends on what actually happens in practice. Many such control strategies rely on human factors. Typical examples might include - appropriate protective clothing should be worn, all green matter should be contained within a site, no animals may ever be taken from a site once they have entered, no crops of a similar nature may be grown within a certain distance, crops are grown in a different part of the growing season to similar nearby crops, care is taken to ensure that local weeds are not biologically similar to the target crop, animal effluent is collected in secure collection tanks and sterilised etc. The actual risk reduction and containment methods used will depend on the specific circumstances.
Such reductions in risk usually depend on putting in place systems which are critically dependent on people continuing to act as they are expected to. Systems which critically depend on people frequently produce greater risks than intended.
Marian Hobbs states that the successful management of human affected GE risk "will be an important factor in ensuring that GM and non-GM agriculture including organic agriculture can coexist in New Zealand". The corollary or "flip side" of this is, if risk mitigation systems which depend on people performing as expected fail, then GM agriculture is liable to damage non-GM agriculture including (especially) organic agriculture. Few would doubt that this was true. Especially not the organic farmers.
Professor Roger Morris, a GE advocate, notes "The lessons of history are that the real risks often come from unexpected directions." One of the most common source of unexpected results is human performance.
Human nature is such that with the best will in the world the actual probability of failure is often higher than estimated. Frequently advantages are inflated and fatal flaws in one's per project are quite genuinely overlooked. A look at a wide range of human disciplines reveals countless cases where major failures have been caused by dependence on human failures or weaknesses. Examples abound, but a few commonly known ones are:
Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Worlds largest accidental radiation release.
Stupidity, not following rules
3 Mile Island reactor accident Inexplicable operator error. Also possibly falsification of construction records.
Space Shuttle Challenger Need to save face and launch in out of specification conditions. Covering up known faulty engineering. Resetting safety limits to fit growing problems.
Space Shuttle Columbia Lessons from the loss of Challenger didn't stay learnt. Management over-rode staff wanting to investigate obvious damage. Never checked a known and retrospectively obviously dangerous situation. Safety levels knowingly reduced to save money.
Air NZ Erebus disaster Opinions vary, human failings predominate. Detail: The Air NZ Mt Erebus disaster provides a sad but compelling example of how a long series of human errors or shortcomings can take a low risk high danger situation and turn it into one where the danger is realised, despite the apparently low risk. Only subsequent analysis indicates that the risk was actually extreme. Above link outlines the string of human errors that lead to the tragedy.
Enron - collapse of a firm in USA's top 10 Enron is included here even though it may at first seem like a strange example. The company collapsed due to rampant fraudulent behaviour and a corporate attitude of greed and larceny. It is obvious in retrospect that this could not have gone on indefinitely, and yet a large number of people in a very visible business all agreed to engage in manifestly criminal activity. Obvious factors are human self interest, greed & blindness to obvious ultimate consequences.
Human pride, ambition & frailty has always been a major cause of people bringing disaster on themselves and others, even though it was absolutely clear with hindsight that they were doomed to failure. The reasons are many. Some of the drivers to both success and disaster are conjured up by terms such as
World leader in their field
Keeping up with other countries
First to market
and many more. All these are powerful spurs, not only to success, but also to "jumping the gun".
The great danger is that we will place our faith in ongoing human risk reduction performance in order to justify accepting very real danger. As is well known, people will not stringently maintain and operate a system that they do not believe in the necessity of. This is as true in GE isolation labs as in corn fields.
If imposed conditions are considered unnecessarily restrictive then no amount of regulatory requirements will stop workers or even management cutting corners.
Even when the human factor is not involved, assessment of what will not or cannot happen in GE introduction have often proved optimistic. For example, cross pollination between non-GE and GE crops is found to have occurred tens of times further away than was once thought possible, GE DNA has been found in bacteria in the human gut despite previous belief that DNA could not survive the human digestive process and GE sugar-beet and GE sunflowers are found to have transferred genes to related weeds. In these examples, risk assessments based on prior assumptions would have proved significantly optimistic. (Whether any of these results produced a dangerous outcome is not the issue.)
In such cases the true risk approaches the uncontrolled danger level. And the actual danger level can never be known with certainty. The fact that insurance companies will not insure GE risk suggests that they at least, as experts in risk management, agree with this assessment.
Every one of us who lives in the "real world" will be aware that people at all levels put the "spin" on events that they wish them to have.
Almost all politicians would be aghast if anyone suggested that they were untruthful, but all non-politicians know that their protestations of truthfulness count for very little with the electorate, no matter how many reports and piles of paper can be trotted out in defence. This is not a reflection on the integrity of politicians, for many honest people become politicians. Despite this there would be few people outside the "party faithful" who would unhesitatingly trust a politician's pronouncement.
This environment is the one that people who wish to achieve political influence have to work within. While there is a penalty for publicly discovered untruthfulness, those who succeed are those who can best 'gild the lily', sell the advantages, smooth over the disadvantages and subtly or not so subtly shift the balance in favour of one's pet project or proposal.
Those who for some reason feel that human weaknesses will not be a factor in assisting possible GE hazards to become reality may die while still having learned nothing from history.
HOW REALISTIC ARE CONCERNS ABOUT "WORST CASE" GE DANGERS?
At first glance both the risk and danger from GE may appear low.
In most cases the GE research community consider the risk factors to be relatively well known. GE has about a 20 year field history in which to establish risk levels.
In all other disciplines a 20 + year history would allow a good statistical basis for risk prediction to be established. Add this to an escalating body of knowledge and capabilities as the subject was learnt "from the bottom up" and risk estimates could be made with relative confidence.
The problem is that, for reasons discussed later, regardless of a relatively low record of dangers to date, GE always has the potential for extreme danger in almost every case.
The very few instances to date of such dangers having been observed encourage researchers to assign them a low risk even though the fundamental characteristics of GE mean the risk can never be certain to remain low. Familiarity, as always, tends to breed contempt. While there are numerous examples of GMOs not doing what was intended, having side effects or being unstable with time,
it took about 20 years for GE researchers to accidentally discover a really bad GE side effect by mistake.
However, as knowledge, capability and availability of genetic capabilities increase, researchers are able to attempt more complex tasks at an increasing rate.
The human genome has only been 'sequenced' quite recently and sequences for a number of animals are now becoming available. While we are unaware of the functionality of most human or animal genes, or even of the location of all genes, we are applying what information we discover as soon as it becomes available.
The increased breadth and depth of knowledge increases the opportunities for "interesting" things to happen
In the case mentioned (Australian mice infected with modified mousepox) the effect was obvious, highly lethal and immediate. A great danger is that an equally hazardous virus with a more subtle initial effect could be produced and go unnoticed. HIV was not discovered until researchers studied AIDS - the time lag between these can be more than 10 years. A disease as lethal as the Australian mouse-pox disease but with an HIV like incubation period could wipe out all mice on earth starting some 10 years after the first infection. This would greatly depend on the method of transmission. Mousepox, unlike AIDS is easily spread and widespread. Possibly the only saving factor in such a situation would be total containment of all the products of experimentation.
For GE to be "safe" is, as all impartial GE experts will agree, impossible.
We are playing with the very structure of life and we are far from knowing what we are doing.
The best we can hope for is "safe enough".
We need to be able to assess the worst case dangers.
We need to be able to assess the probability of those dangers occurring.
We have to decide how acceptable the public would feel the occurrence of the worst case to be.
There will come a point where the worst case potential danger is so great that no amount of risk reduction can make it acceptable. At some point the best containment methods and safety precautions are not enough to offset the sheer magnitude of the danger should it ever occur.
What is the acceptable probability factor of the worst case occurring when the worst case is the destruction of 1/4 of all human life on earth? An example of the characteristics of a candidate for such a role is discussed later on.
While such an outcome is within GE's capability, consider something more reasonable. Imagine that the risk is that immune response in people eating a product over the next 5 years will be reduced by 0.01% on average.
Say the product was a new form of rice. Now 0.01% is quite small - 1 part in 10,000. Surely such an effect on immune response would hardly be noticeable statistically. And maybe it won't be. But maybe such a reduction in immune response will cause lifespans, on average, to drop by 1 part in 50,000. That is also rather an apparently trivially small number. In NZ that corresponds to about 1 extra death per year. Worldwide about 1500 extra deaths per year. On a world-wide scale 1500 extra deaths a year is a minor amount. Unless you are one of the 1500. (Not really a fair measure as the 1500 deaths will probably largely be due to very many people each living very slightly less long). If the gain from this is that rice crops would be greatly increased, or that insect resistance was far higher, or that rice kept for far longer, or similar, then the possible 1500 annual deaths may well be offset by many more lives saved. Even a product where the danger of extremely slight immune system depression was a near certainty may be assessed to be worth introducing.
Consider: Would you eat it? Would a refusal to eat it be rational? Would you be upset if you were sold it without knowing about the trivial reduction in immune response? Would it bother you more if one of your children had a vastly reduced immune system response already? (As one of mine has). Would it bother you more if you weren't told about the risk and the main gain made was that the company that controlled the market made a greater profit?
Now replace "immune response" above with "fertility" and ask the same questions.
Knowing human nature, what do you think the prospects are that either product might be introduced with the aim of making a profit, with the risk being hidden from everyone if possible and being strenuously denied if necessary? Knowing human nature, how high a reduction in immune response or fertility would you think it likely that a developer might seek to hide if the product would make them a substantial profit? The history of the tobacco industry may provide some clues to this.
Regrettably, attempting to highlight plausible if unlikely GE dangers is more liable to result in derision and disbelief than rational discussion. It is important not to become alarmist and not to become fixated on highly dangerous but unlikely outcomes. But, equally, it is foolish and potentially unethical to introduce a technology when those exposed to its effects are unaware of the scientifically acknowledged worst case dangers.
It is no exaggeration to say that GE has potential disasters greater than those from anything the world has ever seen, equalling or even exceeding even the worst case hazards from nuclear weapons. An example, hopefully a most unlikely one, would be the creation of a virus similar to HIV but with infectiousness and modes of transmission similar to the common cold. HIV was not detected until AIDS started to appear. A modified virus that was highly infectious may well infect the majority of people on earth before being detected.
Researchers discovered that insertion of a single gene into mousepox transformed it into a lethal mouse disease. We do not know if minor changes to HIV would affect key characteristics such as infectiousness. We do know this may be the case based on the Australian Mousepox experience, the fact that HIV is believed to have been a cross species disease. Modern viruses with infection methods similar to the common cold spread internationally at just below the speed of sound (the cruising speed of a Boeing 747). If such a virus was essentially symptomless for many years and could be transferred by aerosol spray, saliva and surface transfer then world wide distribution would be almost guaranteed long before the first symptoms appeared. The time that it has taken to reach a partial solution to AIDS suggests that we may well fail to address an equally difficult virus that had already infected the whole human population when it was discovered.
The chances of such dangers actually occurring are believed by researchers to be small in most cases, but in many cases the nature of GE makes it impossible to guarantee this. Even apparently innocuous GE procedures have the potential to result in almost unlimited dangers. For reasons discussed in more detail below, it is not possible to quantify risk for GE products with anything like the accuracy that we can in all other sciences.
The existence of such potential dangers does not mean that we should not continue to investigate and exploit GE. But if we fail to publicly acknowledge the reality of worst case possibilities, however unlikely, we cannot have informed discussion or make genuinely appropriate decisions. If the nature and magnitude of such worst case dangers are not made known, no matter how unlikely they seem to be, then those who are most liable to be affected are disenfranchised by what can easily become intellectual elitism and dishonesty. In the event that some known possible but unlikely and previously unpublicised danger eventuated the scientific and political impact would be immense.
Failure to disclose and discuss such prospects is a failure of the duty of care and an attempt to disenfranchise the principal stakeholders.
Frank and open public discussion of improbable but entirely possible worst case GE outcomes would very possibly lead to a far more cautious approach to GE development in this country than is presently planned. However, even a minor GE catastrophe, perhaps involving the death or damaged health of only a few people, could lead to a far greater long term impact. If people have been utterly reassured of the safety of GE, as they are being at present, then a sea change in the country's political landscape and a vast and ongoing distrust of "science" would be entirely probable outcomes.
Below the worst case risks are a vast range of lesser but more probable hazards which could result in loss of life, destruction of immune response in very substantial numbers of people or the production of new and terrible diseases. Due to the unique nature of GE, the resources required to produce such results can be far less than for other areas of development. Advanced nuclear weaponry requires vast technical resources and a highly directed development program to implement. It is conceivable that equal or more dangerous products may be unwittingly developed in a lightly funded GE development environment.
If the NZ public, or indeed our political leaders, were properly aware of the true worst case hazards of GE, as opposed to the "risks", it is hard to imagine that that we would be countenancing allowing field trials of GE products at this stage.
GE - The Fundamental Difference.
An obvious question is "What is so fundamentally different about GE that makes it unable to be treated like any other scientific procedure?" Two basic differences set GE apart.
The first is the nature of life itself. The structure of DNA was discovered by Crick & Watson 50 years ago this year. This lead to the subsequent discovery that life is controlled by thousands of types of what have been found to be literally miniature chemical "machines". All other fields of science and engineering work by understanding and combining the building blocks of nature, usually with knowledge acquired over centuries. GE alone starts with complete and utterly complex working machinery and attempts to understand, manipulate and utilise the operating machinery. This difference is so fundamental that even many scientists have not grasped its magnitude and implications.
The second difference that sets GE apart is the path that life has followed to reach its present state. Life has a vast array of inbuilt protection and control mechanisms.
The genetic code in DNA controls every aspect of life -
Every characteristic colour of eyes, curl of hair
Every step in the organisms development length of pregnancy, rate of growth
What part grows where fingers on hands on arms on bodies.
and far more. The manner in which this "blueprint" is interpreted by the cellular structures is "well enough" understood even though there are still many mysteries. What constitutes "well enough" grows by the year. State of art knowledge from 5 years ago is very dated and from 10 years ago is primitive. Last years Nobel prize winning discovery may well be this years common place. The more we learn, the more we find that we did not know previously.
Even as we grow to know more about how to control and manipulate the cellular machinery we discover that the whole system is more complex than we previously knew. "Junk DNA" proves to be very significant, although as yet we are not fully sure how. "One function per gene" gives way to "often two and could be more functions per gene".
A significant role of genesis to provide a "program" that specifies the details of a protein to be manufactured, This protein is essentially a miniature chemical machine that interacts with other machinery, often resulting in a specific end product or capability. The discovery that each gene can map multiple proteins indicates afar greater complexity and elegance than previously understood. It is believed that in humans some genes may be involved in the production of 6 or more proteins. (Wired magazine - some discoveries from the human genome project. http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,41869,00.html)
It is widely understood that life has developed over billions of generations and billions of years. Over time many developmental paths have been rejected. The "survival of the fittest" implies the death of the unfit. The process of natural selection has optimised suitability for life. It does this by removing developmental dead ends and unwanted or harmful functionality which would otherwise increase the prospect of death and disaster for each organism. However,
each cell retains substantial information relating to the "machinery" that was rejected by nature thousands or even millions of years ago.
Some of this is complete but "turned off" while some is allowed to decay over time. Manipulation of a cell, by inserting or modifying genetic material, can reactivate old material with completely unknown consequences.
Nature has developed mechanisms (which we do not yet completely understand) for limiting the extent to which organisms can react to their environment. Over billions of generations nature has effectively developed a "wall" around the permissible and achievable interactions and variations of functionality which can be achieved naturally. One very visible example of this is what we term "species". We are well aware that, for example, cats and dogs cannot interbreed and produce offspring. We do not expect to ever see oranges or acorns growing on rye grass or zebras growing trunks. Species are nature's way of saying "No!" to certain outcomes. In GE it is often the specific intention to violate the barriers that nature has placed in position by transferring genetic material in ways which nature no longer allows or never allowed for the organism concerned.
A key discovery was that many individual attributes of organisms (be they microbes, men or mice) were controlled by well defined DNA code sequences termed "genes". Each gene causes the cellular machinery to perform part of the overall 'life task'. In many cases, transferring a gene which controlled a particular attribute in one organism also transfers that attribute or some aspect of the attribute to the other organism. (For example, transfer of a fluorescence causing gene from jellyfish to mice has produced mice which glow greenly when illuminated with ultraviolet light. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/343929.stm).
Some means used to transfer genetic material between organisms are much more controlled than others, but even the very best ones available are subject to uncertainties.
The destinations of transferred material, what is actually being transferred, and the effects that the material will have are always less than 100% certain. Many methods also transfer "extra" material either incidentally or to make the process controllable. This material may itself interact in unexpected ways. Worse, the degree of uncertainty varies and we "cannot be certain how certain we are" of what was achieved after the event.
However, many factors such as precision of selection and insertion, multiple effects from a single gene and interactions with other portions of the target DNA mean that the magnitude, precise nature and stability of the results are uncertain. Extensive experiments are usually required to demonstrate that the target objective has been achieved and that no unacceptable secondary results have occurred.
Despite rapid gains in the ability to accurately remove genetic material from a desired location in one cell and insert it accurately in another there are still very substantial uncertainties involved. Errors of what is removed, where it is removed from and where it is inserted still occur. The result of placing even known genetic material in known locations is still not certain due to complex factors which are not fully understood. Ongoing experience has allowed many of the "position effects" to be understood far better than previously, but certainty is never possible. The presence of old material from past generations is an additional wild card. With our present far from complete knowledge it can never be guaranteed that this old material will not interact in wholly unexpected ways. Outcomes which nature deselected a million years ago, or results which have never occurred before, are potentially possible on every occasion. Potential interaction mechanisms are complex and an apparently successful transfer may produce entirely unexpected results at a later date. Unforeseen environmental factors such as unusually prolonged rainfall or unusual temperature history or a combination of such factors may trigger developments which have not been seen during even extensive testing.
Genetic material which has been transferred in a manner which nature did not allow may subsequently find it easier to transfer to other species. Inter-species transfer of genetic material is most likely between close family members. In some cases presence of wild or weed members of a target plant family may increase the prospect of transfer (eg potatoes or egg plants to wild nightshades (all members of the solanaceae genus)).
However, once ge has achieved a transfer which nature has barred, there is no certainty that it will not transfer to some other unrelated species quite unexpectedly. The barrier which nature erected and which man "leaped over" may not exist or may not be as strong in the target plant. Eg Entirely hypothetically, nature may have made the path from corn to carrot and corn to lettuce hard for a particular gene which is found only in corn. But the path from carrot to lettuce may be easily achieved in nature as the gene does not occur there naturally. If the gene is transferred from corn to carrot with ge techniques it may subsequently transfer to lettuce with ease.
As well as the potential for transfer of genetic material (DNA) there is also the prospect that "non living" material such as proteins may occur in the final product or be left in the environment (soil after plants grown, faeces or milk from cows etc) and interact subsequently either with their intended consumers or with other organisms. Such effects are most likely in close family members (eg potatoes to nightshade) but cannot be ruled out with certainty in any case.
Even the possibility of previously unrecognised means of transfer or new disease mechanisms cannot be rejected. While Prion diseases have been known for centuries their mechanism of transfer was not known prior to the 1990's. The fact that anything as small as a Prion could be biologically active, and their consequently extreme infectiousness was completely undreamed of prior to that. ("Undreamed of" is hardly scientific language, but the discoverer of Prions faced personal attacks and extremely bitter opposition to his claims for several years. Even now some scientists do not believe that Prions are the cause of these diseases.) http://www.ucsf.edu/daybreak/1997/10/1006_nob1.htm While the prospect of whole new unknown mechanisms may be considered ludicrous, the same would have applied to Prions only 5 years ago. It is entirely conceivable that some mechanism similar to Prion disease may be possible in circumstances that do not involve neural infection. The introduction of such a mechanism could be catastrophic.
JUST CATCHING UP WITH NATUREA Dangerous Illusion.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the GE discussion is to hear eminent scientists, who are experts in traditional scientific fields, act as champions for GE by making reassuring but essentially unsupportable statements. One such statement is that GE is "just catching up with nature." This trite and convenient expression blinds the observer to the very real and significant difference between the nature of GE and the methods of nature. In fact, while GE uses what nature has produced, it also sets itself radically against the methods of nature to achieve its results.
Selective breeding is a well known and well understood discipline that has been practised for thousands of years. Using simple processes of interbreeding and selection, mankind has produced results as diverse as creating Chihuahua's, Dachshunds and Great Danes from Wolves and luscious yellow NZ "Zespris" <ref> from a small almost inedible fruit originally grown in China. Many people, including some eminent experts in traditional biological disciplines, have seen Genetic Engineering as a simple extension of the process of selective breeding. Professor Roger Morris, an internationally respected disease control expert based at Massey University has on a number of occasions described GE as "just catching up with nature". By providing such public advice Professor Morris has helped to assure both the public and top politicians alike that GE does not represent a fundamental change in methodology. Unfortunately, while this statement is perhaps correct at a populist and unexplained level, it obscures the fact that one of GE's main aims is to purposefully do things that nature 'refuses' to do.
The crucial and obvious difference is that traditional selective breeding necessarily obeys nature's 'rules' which reflect the current state of the organism after an extensive period of evolution. But GE generally sets out to purposefully break the rules and inserts material which can potentially interact with all the genetic material in a cell. This includes currently unused material which may have been selected out thousands or millions of years ago. The placement of transferred material and the nature of the material transferred are nowadays usually relatively accurate and the effects of inserting given material at a given location are relatively well known. However, the combination of uncertainties implied by three sets of "usually relatively accurate" and "relatively well known" is such that we can never be certain that an unexpected result will not occur. The complex nature of the currently active material and of all other material in the cell is such that not only may an unexpected result occur, its effect will often be largely unknowable. While we may reasonably expect that results will usually be similar, there is potential for extremely unexpected results. For instance, insertion of a new gene may, under some circumstances, cause a protein to be expressed that has not occurred in either the source or target organism within living memory. This may occur on all occasions or perhaps only under unusual environmental circumstances.
That such transfers will often be stable and achieve the desired aim is not in question. That such actions may well produce entirely safe products, even if unexpected results do occur, is also not in question. That our present state of knowledge and the many uncertainties involved will occasionally produce undesirable or even catastrophic results is also not in question - at least not by anyone of intelligence and intellectual honesty. A valid question is "how bad a result will we experience in the next few decades while our knowledge and expertise is still incomplete?" Will we kill or damage hundreds (near certain), thousands (entirely likely) or millions or even tens of millions (a definite possibility).
While we may in time indeed master nature, our knowledge is presently incomplete. When we manipulate the machinery of life with an incomplete knowledge of what we are doing we necessarily risk outcomes that we did not expect. The possible nature of worst case GE outcomes is not only known theoretically but has been accidentally demonstrated experimentally. While such results are believed to have been contained within the laboratories concerned, it is impossible to guarantee that this will always be the case.
Diminishing precautions In the early days of GE extensive precautions were taken to avoid the release of potentially dangerous organisms. Initial experiments with bacteria used specially weakened strains that theoretically could not survive in nature, and stringent containment methods were used. (Special laboratories, negative pressure isolation hoods, protective hermetically sealed clothing etc.) In time it became apparent that none of the feared worse case outcomes were occurring. While the desired results were often not achieved, undesired results were not found to be excessively dangerous. Over about twenty five years confidence grew that radically dangerous outcomes were unlikely to occur. Then, in 2000, Australian researchers inserted a single human gene into a relatively mild mouse virus.* Totally unexpectedly they found that the new form of the virus was extremely lethal to mice, infecting even those mice which were immune to it in its original form and killing its victims in about a week. Given that the lethality of the new virus was unknown to the researchers in advance, it stands to reason that they were initially unaware of its infectiousness, incubation period and other related factors. Had this virus escaped containment and been suitably infectious and of long incubation period we might now all live in a rather different and mouse free world.
The transferred gene is involved in human production of Interleukin-4 which is active against agents causing asthma. It is interesting that a gene with such a benign effect in humans would have such an unexpected and dangerous effect when transferred into a virus that infects another species. It is probably reasonable to wonder whether gene transfers from other species to humans or to human viruses may have a similar effect on humans.
We have been as successful as we have been in GE because we have to some extent learned to control the machines that we have found. While we have learnt much in the 50 years since the structure of DNA was "discovered", our knowledge is still very far from complete. Our desires to be first, for a whole range of reasons, mean that we constantly seek to put the knowledge we have to work, sometimes without due concern for or acknowledgement of the incompleteness of our knowledge.
Interspecies DiseasesMembers of separate species are (by definition) organisms that cannot interbreed. Diseases that affect one species will usually not infect others although this is not invariably true. Some diseases are 'carried' by one some species without ill effects but infect some other species. (A notable example is the many variants of the influenza virus which are carried by ducks and chickens and infect humans.) shown that some of these outcomes can be extremely dangerous.
When dealing with interspecies genetic transfer we need to know why things are as they are, with very great certainty, before we start to play in earnest. Even nature sometimes "gets it wrong" and allows inter species transfer of diseases despite its protection mechanisms. Some such transfers seem to occur at only one or a few occasions while others may occur more frequently.
HIV/AIDS, SARS, NVCJD and Ebola are good examples of highly dangerous inter-species diseases which are all believed to have originated in animals and transferred to humans. All these were first reported within the last 100 years, although they could be much older.
The difficult, costly, decades long and as yet not fully successful pursuit of an adequate response to HIV demonstrates our lack of mastery of the art. If we were to inadvertently unleash another virus of similar effect but with a shorter infection cycle and an infectiousness more like that of the common cold, then it would quite probably spread world wide before the first symptoms appeared. It is quite possible that we could only respond fast enough to save an elite remnant of the human race, living in perpetual confinement. Given our still incomplete understanding of HIV's action, and it's apparent spontaneous creation from a cross species transfer from Monkeys it is in no way clear why anyone could possibly suggest that a GE triggered virus of a similar nature could not be created accidentally. Let alone on purpose.
The subject of "germ warfare" and the purposeful production of dangerous organisms is outside the scope of this discussion. However, it is worth noting in passing that Pentagon funded US researchers successfully produced a version of the Polio virus starting from scratch and using commercially available GE tools and publicly available information. (The object was a "proof of concept" exercise to show what threats may need to be faced in future.) While this result has no direct implications regarding the ability of new forms of viruses to be produced accidentally, it does indicate the state of the available tools and how far nature can be emulated or exceeded. The Polio virus is a relatively simple one. It would be extremely difficult at this stage to synthesise something like HIV purposefully. Modification of existing HIV is another matter and is within advanced current capabilities.
Mysterious Machinery / Conclusion
We seek to bypass billions of generations of carefully learned protection while still being unaware of much of the machinery's more intricate details and functionality. We have learned much but, so far, only a small part of what is available to be learnt. To use a mechanical machinery analogy - we have removed the guards and bypassed the over-ride switches and are now playing with the still mysterious mechanisms. Utter disaster for the whole human race is possible, no matter how much some may wish otherwise. If anyone tells you this is not true, ask why and listen very carefully to the answer. The future of the world may depend on it.
Might all this be wrong?
Is there really any cause for concern?
Is it possible that all the warnings in this paper are rubbish?
Is it possible that there are no really dangerous hazards from GE?
Is it possible that containment will be properly designed and applied and prove adequate in every case to protect us?
Is it possible that there are major errors in the simplified science in this paper and that, in reality, scientists are adequately "on top of" GE and know enough to control it?
The writer's answers would be yes, almost certainly not, demonstrably no, look at history and demonstrably no. (!) Hopefully the material in this paper and subsequent internet and other research would lead the majority of readers to draw the same conclusions. Each point is addressed briefly below. It would be most pleasing if there were no major GE disasters while we were "learning the ropes". It is possible that we will be that lucky. But it seems more likely that we will have to relearn the lessons of history in a new and possibly terrible way.
Is there really any cause for concern?
Is it possible that all the warnings in this paper are rubbish?
Is it possible that there are no really dangerous hazards from GE?
Really all the same question. The ability for GE to produce dangerous results has been clearly demonstrated. Even example of the Australian Mousepox experiment taken alone illustrates what can occur when a single human gene is transferred into a virus that affects another species. The minor disease was converted to an extremely dangerous one which killed essentially 100% of all mice infected within a week. As GE largely focuses on the interspecies transfer of genes, the prospect for similar unexpected results is evident. The high degree ofcomplexity of the genetic machinery, and our inability to analyse it with our present state of knowledge, is well established. The purposeful production of weakened Polio and strengthened HIV has been reported. The ability of plants to produce new and unexpected proteins is unquestioned. Many will be harmless, but some will not. Our ability to detect and control them is the only sure safeguard.
Is it possible that containment will be properly designed and applied and prove adequate in every case to protect us?
The last known fatality from Smallpox occurred when it escaped by means unknown from a purpose-built containment facility in the UK. The inability to "contain" undesirable consequences in all areas of human endeavour is both personally well known to all and a matter of historical record. Murphy's law "If some thing can go wrong, it will go wrong" is all too well appreciated by all. All too often, even if it technically can't go wrong. It will go wrong as well. Containment, if designed with sincerity, will often work. But not always. And the longer we guard against non-occurring dangers, the less wary we become. People generally don't BELIEVE that GE poses a real threat, They see containment measures as a necessary evil to meet regulatory requirements. It is a near certainty that some containment measures will fail. Whether this matters cannot be determined in advance.
Is it possible that there are major errors in the simplified science in this paper and that, in reality, scientists are adequately "on top of" GE and know enough to control it?
There are certainly areas that have been missed or described poorly in the simplified science. Despite this, the answer is "No!" Unfortunately. While our knowledge increases exponentially, the art is still in its infancy. While we may "get lucky" and miss out on anything really dangerous, we may not.
Professor James B. Bassingthwaighte
Here is a list of questions without supplied answers.
It is suggested that the reader considers what the probable answer is to each of these. They may care to put some of them to people who are keen GE promoters in order to get a balanced point of view. Some questions may be of importance to you. Others may not. Consider investigating the reasons for the answers you receive to those which are most important to you.
Some of these are obviously leading questions. This does not make them less valid. Those who answer may wish to provide an explanation of why the question is unimportant or irrelevant. Listen to such answers with care.
Can a gene have more than one effect?
Is this common?
May a gene have an obvious effect plus one or more inobvious effects?
Is it possible to say with confidence what the effect will be of transferring a chosen gene to another organism?
Can a transferred gene have more than one effect?
Is this common?
May a transferred gene have an obvious effect plus one or more inobvious effects?
Is the effect of a transferred gene predictable in advance?
Is the effect of a transferred gene always consistent?
Might unintended genetic material be transferred by processes intended to transfer some other material?
Do some genetic transfer techniques intentionally transfer other genetic material as well?
Is this commonly done?
Can the extra material have unintended or unknown effects?
Can the location where genetic material is transferred to in a target organism always be specified with accuracy?
Are we always aware when inaccuracies may occur?
What are the potential worst case outcomes of
- unintended transfers?
- intended transfers to intended locations?
- intended transfers to unintended locations?
AIDS precursor HIV was extremely difficult to detect when its existence was unknown.
While the origin of AIDS is not certain and there are conflicting theories it is largely believed to have been a transgenic disease from African Monkeys.
Might it be possible to purposefully create something potentially as dangerous as the AIDS virus by GE techniques?
Might it be possible to accidentally create something potentially as dangerous as the AIDS virus by GE techniques?
Might it be possible for something potentially as dangerous as the AIDS virus to be created by GE techniques without its creation being noticed?
Prions are very small products of genetic processes which are extremely infectious. Infection sometimes occurs between species. Prion infection is extremely difficult to diagnose / detect (often only by Post Mortem) and no known cure exists for Prion infection Prions are extremely difficult to destroy. Known Prion infections largely affect brain and spinal cells. All aspects of Prions are the subject of extensive scientific investigation but many things about them are largely unknown including infection mechanisms, means of attack, means of interspecies transfer.
Might prions or something equivalently infectious to prions be created accidentally by GE techniques?
Can we say with confidence that artificially created prions or their equivalent could be easily contained by current isolation techniques.
Might prions or equivalent be created using GE which affect tissues other than brain or spinal tissue?
Given the fact that prions were unknown before the 1990s and that their existence was hotly debated for years, and that the mechanisms involved are still poorly understood: Why can we have confidence of any sort in matters involving Prion diseases?
** PRESENTATION STYLE
This paper IS intended to inform as accurately as possible and to be understandable by a large proportion of the population. It's style is meant to be "accessible".
This is not intended to be a scientific paper.
This paper is intended to inform accurately but is not intended to provide in depth or terminologically correct information about the processes of life or Genetic Engineering. It is appreciated that erring on the side of simplicity and generalisation may mean that descriptions may be seen as inexact from a genetic engineering point of view. There is no intention to mislead. If any point is shown to be incorrect or not factual the writer will seek to modify or remove it in subsequent revisions. Points which are under debate by various experts are unlikely to be altered until the experts come to an agreement amongst themselves.
** MANY ARE CONFUSED.
The assertion that many people are confused by the distinction between "low risk" and "safe" is a contentious one. The writer has carried out informal polls of a cross section of society and has established to his satisfaction that this is indeed true. The polls had a small sample size, were not formally constructed and lacked formal respondent randomisation. Even then, the results were clearly statistically significant. No proof is offered of the results obtained. I am confident of the results that would be obtained either by a more formal survey - or by a reporter stopping people on the street. Anyone who is interested could try asking a dozen semi randomly chosen people a non-leading question that they felt was liable to test this assertion. Even with such a small sample size (margin of error of about 30%) the result is liable to be convincing.
For interest only: In a normally distributed population with random selection and unbiased questions the margin of error is in the order of 100/(sqrt(N))% where N is the sample size.
"Real World" Risks & Dangers to date:
** "... scientists will never say that something is 'safe', especially GE, where there is almost always a possibility of a very dangerous outcome."
The subject of how great a danger may be posed by various GE products and how unlikely or likely it is that worst case dangers will occur is discussed later. However, if you clicked this link you probably want reassurance now.
A major aim is to avoid being alarmist while still trying to identify reasonable probabilities of what may happen. In twenty years of GE development, no major disaster definitely associated with GE is publicly known to have occurred. There has been one very significant disaster which was probably not a true GE accident
In 1989, an outbreak of previously rare eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) occurred among L-tryptophan users. This incident is cited by GE opponents as a proof of GE danger but is quite probably not a true GE disaster. Dozens of people died and several thousand had their health badly affected. The Japanese manufacturers paid around $US1bllion in out of court settlements. The cause is generally considered to have been the result of poor purification of a GE product but not a GE incident as such. Showa Denko, the manufacturer, has never released enough details to allow true cause to be known publicly. The case is not as cut and dried as pro-GE supporters claim - some analyses (by, of course, anti-GE campaigners) point to the possibility of it having in fact been a true GE incident
There have been accidental laboratory discoveries which, if they had escaped, could have been very dangerous to non human species. A number of human damaging GE organisms are known to have been developed under tightly controlled laboratory conditions (including far more resistant HIV and a strain of Polio built "from scratch" and it is certain that others have been developed but not publicised.
Significant GE development has been being carried out for over two decades. Major disasters involving human death are very rare.
Numerous results have been obtained where varying degrees of environmental damage has been done. When the lives of eg moths rather than men are at stake, the occasional piece of "collateral damage" seems to be more easily accommodated.
This shows the low level of danger actually generated to date by the levels of Genetic Engineering carried out to date. This low level, while desirable, also increases the future dangers substantially. This is because -
- Real dangers have been demonstrated experimentally and are known to exist theoretically.
- Despite this the lack of incidents gives a sense that the danger level is low.
- Risk assessments and user attitudes based on the "no deaths so far" scenario increase the true risk level when a highly dangerous result does occur.
Having said the above - this does not diminish the facts that GE is by its very nature unpredictable and has been demonstrated to be able to produce the sort of worst case results that were initially feared possible. That such results have not caused major problems to date may be considered "lucky". Hopefully our luck will continue until our knowledge catches up with our abilities.
Australian Mousepox experiment.
Accidental production of lethal Mouse Virus
The paper referenced below is the original one. It is written in highly technical language and its meaning would be unclear to most people. Google searching for "mouse mousepox virus interleukin" or "mouse smallpox virus interleukin" will produce many more references. (Even "mouse killer virus" produces relevant results eg http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/GEessays/killervirus.html from New Scientist)
Expression of Mouse Interleukin 4 by a Recombinant Extromelia Virus
Suppresses Cytolytic Lymphocyte Responses and
Overcomes Genetic Resistance to Mousepox *
Ronald J Jackson et al
Journal of Virology Feb 2001. p1205 - 1210
AIR NEW ZEALAND MT EREBUS TRAGEDY
The loss of the Air NZ DC10 on Mt Erebus in Antarctica should be instructive to New Zealanders as it touched the lives of every New Zealander. The fine details of various events will never be known with certainty but it is certain that a long chain of human errors, weaknesses, and inadequate training or preparation combined to create a tragedy. A modern airliner with precision inertial navigation equipment flew into the side of the 3700 metre Mt Erebus volcano. Numerous successful flights had taken the same route. When the flights were first planned an initial calculation error slightly changed the intended course. At the same time an accidental transposition of two digits in a course setting greatly changed the course. Numerous flights flew this course. Nobody noted that it didn't go quite where it was meant to. After a number of successful flights had bee made, a routine recheck of the figures disclosed the error and the figures were corrected. This would not have made a significant difference to the course. The transposed figures were also corrected without the effect or its implications being noted. This correction of the transposition error place the course across the volcano, as had been originally intended. The pilot was not given adequate maps and used a tourist level map to inform himself. This would have been entirely adequate under normal conditions. Controllers at the Macmurdo airbase whose airspace the plane was flying in did not notice the abnormal course. (There were unsubstantiated suggestions that the air control staff were using recreational drugs). The pilot did not see the 3700 metre volcano due to whiteout conditions and the crews expectations, making it look like part of the ice sheet. The pilot had not been trained for these conditions or even, apparently, informed of them even though they represented standard Antarctic conditions. The airline had set a minimum altitude that would have cleared the volcano but it was a sightseeing flight and all flights regularly flew at low altitude. This information was public knowledge..
SOME EXISTING TRANS-SPECIES HUMAN DISEASES
None of the following are associated with or caused by GE. Each of the diseases * listed has transferred from animals to humans on one or numerous occasions. All diseases * has only been reported in the last 100 years, but may be much older. Each disease shows what can happen when genetic material** is transferred between species. There is no present certainty that any of these diseases might be accidentally made worse by anything that is being done with GE or that equivalent or worse diseases may be able to be created accidentally via GE activities. But, there is also no certainty that this will not happen. A single trans-species gene insertion has been shown to totally transform the morbidity of an animal disease. There is every reason to suspect that an indefinite number of similar results are possible.
* New Variant CJD (NVCJD) is believed to have first occurred in humans in the 1990's after the UK "mad cow" epidemic. Classical CJD appears to occur spontaneously in humans.
** Prions are technically not genetic material as they are too small to be alive - far smaller than even viruses. Actual material transferred during human infection from BSE infected cows would have been genetic material containing prions.
In 1957 the drug Thalidomide was introduced as an effective treatment for nausea and insomnia in pregnant women. What was not then known was that, when it is taken in the first three months of pregnancy, it prevents the normal development and proper growth of the foetus. Before Thalidomide was withdrawn from the market in the early 1960’s over 8,000 grossly deformed babies had been born. In layman's terms, the deformity typically results in grossly shortened or absent arms and legs with hands and feet appearing to be attached directly to the body.
The mechanisms that Thalidomide targeted are of the sort that could be targeted by a GE produced product in a basic foodstuff. While this is believed to be of low prospect, if it occurred it could cause literally tens of thousands of birth defects before being detected.
HIV / AIDSHIV was not discovered until the onset of AIDS, probably between 10 and 20 years before the first infection occurred. While the origin of HIV is not certain it is believed to have resulted from a cross species transfer from African green monkeys. HIV can have an incubation time in excess of 10 years. Until AIDS appears the infected person has no symptoms but is infectious. HIV's one saving grace is that infection can only be passed on by sexual activity or blood transfer. Had it been able to be transferred by more normal means (aerosol, saliva etc) its impact worldwide would have been far more severe. HIV usually ultimately results in death via AIDS except in a very small percentage of cases. Over 40 million people have died from AIDS and over 20 million are currently infected with HIV.
AIDS timeline http://www.amsa.org/global/aidstimeline.cfm
Prion Diseases: Mad Cow Disease (BSE) / CJD / Scrapie"Mad Cow Disease" (more properly BSE or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis) which occurs in cows, is an incurable disease of the brain believed to be caused by malformed protein fragments termed ‘Prions" Prions, which are much smaller than either living cells or than viruses, are not alive but are extremely infectious and can cause cross-species infection. Extreme care must be taken when dealing with prion infections: Due to their small size prions can penetrate normal barriers to infection. In addition, standard disinfection techniques do not work and high temperature incineration is the preferred method of "treatment". BSE was introduced to UK cattle herds by feeding cows infected meal made from another species of animals with a prion disease. (Originally thought to have been Scrapie infected sheep but now believed to have been a deceased antelope sent after death to an animal feed works). BSE in turn infected a number of beef eaters, causing the equivalent human disease "NVCJD". (NVCJD = new variant CJD. A similar form, CJD, occurs in humans, apparently spontaneously, in small numbers annually.) Due to the difficulty in diagnosing the disease prior to death, and the long incubation times, it is uncertain how widespread the infections are. Despite substantial ongoing research, the mechanisms of Prion disease infection are poorly understood. The scientist who first proposed "Prions" as a disease causing mechanism was roundly criticised by his colleagues over an extended period but, in due course, received the Nobel prize for his work. http://www.nobel.se/medicine/laureates/1997/prusiner-autobio.html
Infectious components of prion diseases are believed to transit the body and nervous system but only become active in the brain. The Prion protein has a normal form which occurs in all animals known to have been be infected with Prion diseases. Cross species transfer between a number of animals is known to occur.
Ebola: Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF) is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and non-human primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees) that has appeared sporadically since its initial recognition in 1976. The virus is one of two members of a family of RNA viruses called the Filoviridae. There are four identified subtypes of Ebola virus. Three of the four have caused disease in humans. The source of any of Ebola’s periodic outbreaks has never been found but it is believed that in each case infection has arisen from an unidentified animal. Ebola is highly infectious via all body fluids and has an incubation period of 2 to 20 days and a rapid progression of the disease thereafter.
SARSSARS is a recently identified infectious form of acute Pneumonia, technically a Corona virus. Incubation is typically 2 to 7 days. Infection is usually by respiratory droplets or direct contact with body fluids. SARS is believed to have occurred from cross species transfer in China although the source host is uncertain but may be the Civet (type of wild cat) which is a local delicacy. Fatality level varies with patients condition but is typically 4% to 14%. SARS high infectiousness increases its risk. There is some suggestion that reinfection may occur in some cases.
REFERENCES & INFORMATION SOURCES
Only a limited number of references are provided. It is expected that the typical reader will not desire extensive references to scientific literature. Claims made can generally be easily followed up by internet search. The writer recommends theGoogle search engine.
In most cases internet links rather than paper references have been provided. While these are less formal than specifying "chapter and verse" they are liable to be more useful to the typical reader as they will be "live" as you read. Links provided are to web pages that are liable to be useful and easy to read. These will often not be the most complex source available. An internet search will usually turn up many other sources.
NZ Royal Commission on Genetic Modification - background papers.
Excellent overview. What the commission was told by experts in each field.
current aspects legal aspects ethical issues
public perceptions Maori aspects environmental
economics human health international aspects.
Pioneer pays fine in biotech corn mix-up; USDA begins new investigation
25 April 2003
By Emily Gersema, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - A biotechnology company has paid a $72,000 fine for failing to promptly tell the government that it found a genetically engineered corn mixed with another crop. Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. was fined for its delay in telling the Environmental Protection Agency about the mix-up, said Amy Miller, an enforcement officer for the agency. The Iowa-based company has found that 12 corn plants at a site in Kauai, Hawaii, had traces of a crop it had genetically designed to resist rootworm, a pest. Miller said the contaminated plants have been destroyed and did not go into the food chain.
The Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph provides research, commentary, policy evaluation and public information on food safety issues from farm-to-fork.
Agnet Index page
The Physiome Project: The Macroethics of Engineering toward Health.
Author:James B. Bassingthwaighte.
About the AuthorJames B. Bassingthwaighte is a member of NAE and professor of bioengineering, biomathematics, and radiology at the University of Washington.
This is a paper from an eminent US organisation working at the leading edge of medical development.
It provides a discussion of the ethics and difficulties of developing new conventional and GE based health care treatments. It also provides an excellent overview of the complexity of the task of determining genetic functionality and interactions, and the degree to which our present knowledge and capabilities are up to the task.
A National Acadamy of Engineering Publication
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>> How to read this paper
>> Navigation - finding your way around the document
>> Nature & Anthropomorphism - does nature "design", "build", "protect" etc
>> Origin of life - assumptions
>> "Philosophy", notes on author etc
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This paper is a companion to and shares its title with the shorter newspaper article, "Genetic Engineering in New Zealand - Barriers to Informed Debate", but is complete in itself. This paper gives greater detail and covers a wider subject area.
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Nature & Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism is the act of attributing human qualities to an inanimate object.
Throughout this text "nature" is occasionally referred to as though it is alive. Nature may be said to 'allow', 'design', 'build', 'get it wrong' , 'protect' etc.
The working assumption (whether correct or not) is that natural processes are based on evolution via a process of random variation natural selection.
There is no intention to suggest that nature has any conscious capability when it eg builds mechanisms to protect an organism from transfer of genetic material.
Important: See also Origin of life assumptions below
Origin of life assumptions
As this paper is intended to address the subject of GE in the current NZ situation it uses the currently popular assumption that life on earth occurred by a process of natural selection and evolution over a period of billions of years. While this is the currently prevailing scientific theory it is not the sole challenger for explaining the origin of life.
The points made in this paper do not depend on this assumption and are mostly equally valid for other origin of life perspectives.
The wide range of views on this subject can be well illustrated by observing that some eminent scientists, including James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, believe that life, in the form we find it, is too complex to have evolved on earth and that life was probably started by directed "Panspermia" - that is, life on earth was seeded by aliens. If one of the inspirers of modern biology consider that life is too complex to have evolved "from scratch" it seems reasonable to not take any other competing naturalistic theory as certain fact without careful consideration. Other people believe that life was created out of nothing by divine creation. This concept, while entirely unpalatable to many people with other theories, contrasts interestingly with the currently prevailing scientific theory that the whole universe was created out of nothing by nothing.
Most theories of the origin of life seem ridiculous to those who are firmly committed to a single one.
Philosophy / Author Notes / General Ramblings
Writer: Russell McMahon RuVal@paradise.net.nz
Click here if you wish to leave a message: Leave a message
I am a committed Christian. I am not in any way ashamed of this but realise that describing myself in this manner immediately provides some people with a "label" with which to reject my arguments. I would rather that people come to grips with the arguments first without having them coloured by their preconceptions about my beliefs. Being a Christian informs my sense of responsibility to all New Zealanders but does not, as far as I can tell, affect the logic of any of my arguments. Some Christians will be unhappy with my use of the assumption that life on earth is about 4 billion years old and has grown by a process of evolution through countless generations. I am well aware of the various life origin beliefs held by Christians and my use of this assumption does not mean that it is (or isn't) my own belief. However, as this is the most commonly prevailing scientific theory and the one used for decision making processes in the NZ GE area, I am entirely happy to use it. It is worth noting that James Watson, one of the two discoverers of the structure of DNA, is violently opposed to the concept of a creating God but sincerely believes that life on earth was placed here by aliens ("directed panspermia"). I understand that he bases this belief on the conclusion that life on earth is far too complex to have evolved in the time available. It is interesting that those who reject such beliefs as ludicrous, usually do so because of their limited imagination rather than because they have analysed the available information and find Watson's (or, fore that matter, Christians') beliefs wanting.
I do find it interesting that people who cannot conceive of a God who could create the universe out of nothing, can more readily conceive of a universe that could create itself out of nothing.
Who are you and why do you consider yourself qualified to speak on this subject?
I am a 52 year old Professional Engineer with a Master of Engineering (electrical) degree. I am a self employed electronic design engineer. I have no formal biotechnology qualifications but have extensively researched the subject and consequently have a good working knowledge of genetic engineering. During much of my research I have had ongoing advice from a top class genetic researcher actively involved in leading edge GE investigation. While GE is a complex subject, a very good understanding of the principles is within reach of any reasonably intelligent person who is willing to spend the time required.
I am politically centrist and do not have a strong interest in politics per se.
I live with my wife and one of my two children in a small Jungle in Te Atatu South in Auckland (along with 2 Burmese cats and a variable number of wild ducks.
GE versus GM:
The term "GE" is in no way intended to have more negative connotations than "GM", which is preferred by some people. The term "Genetic Engineering" or GE is used throughout except where Genetic Modification (GM) or Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is technically more appropriate. GM is sometimes preferred by GE promoters as having less negative connotations. I use GE solely because I feel that it better describes the processes involved (arguably because I am an engineer).
www.tinyurl.com is a site that allows a long web address to be shortened to a 4 digit code.
The actual site address is http://www.homepages.paradise.net.nz/rusl/GE.htm
While obtaining a short address recently I found that NZxx codes were being provided. I generated a few for various page addresses and GE happened to generate nz4u. The memorableness of the name made it an obvious choice for this purpose.