The Risks of Genetic Engineering 2.0: An Interview with Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth

Photo by Twinsfisch on Unsplash

Dana Perls, the Senior Food and Technology Campaigner for Friends of the Earth, leads the Food and Agriculture team’s international and national regulatory and market campaigns on biotechnology and genetic engineering. Perls was interviewed by Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director Arty Mangan at the Eco Farm Conference.

Arty: Since the DARK Act (Denying Americans the Right to Know) for GMO labeling was passed, not as much has been written about genetic engineering in the mainstream press. What’s the update?

Dana: The field of genetic engineering has evolved a lot. Genetic engineering has gone beyond GMO corn, soy and cotton. Now, rather than targeting commodity crops, there are genetically engineered flavors, fragrances, animals, insects, pesticide sprays, and soil microbes. The field has expanded to the point where genetic engineers are looking at engineering nature. It’s critical to know that we are at a point where we need to make a decision as to whether or not we want a food system and an ecosystem that are genetically engineered or we want to prioritize organic agriculture and agro-ecological farming practices, which are going to be healthy for people, healthy for the soil, and which protect biodiversity. 

There is a whole new generation of GMO techniques that include turning on and off genes to affect what genes are expressed. It includes gene silencing, creating unique DNA sequences that don’t exist anywhere in nature, genetic extinction technologies like gene drives, and gene editing techniques like CRISPR. Some of these techniques aren’t necessarily new, but the applications to insects, animals and soil are new. Other new applications are not yet on the market. They’re not yet in the environment, which is why it’s so important that we learn about these techniques and these applications, and that collectively as a society we decide what direction we want to move within our food system. 

Arty: What are some of the specific applications that are in trial and what is already in the market?

Dana: There are lots of applications already in the market. Scientists have genetically engineered a simple organism like yeast or algae, and, through a fermentation process, feed the yeast genetically engineered corn. The yeast is designed to produce things like vanilla or saffron, or the heme [the molecule that gives blood its red color] found in the Impossible Burger. Flavors, fragrances and compounds produced by genetically engineered yeast are entering into the market very quickly through food, beverages and supplements. 

There are also applications that are made using gene editing. Gene editing is a type of genetic engineering that has entered into the market in fewer places. There’s gene-edited corn and soy. There have been several applications for products that have been approved for the market like the GMO apple – designed for cosmetic purposes­ – that does not turn brown. There’s the GMO potato that uses the same gene silencing technique. There’s a gene-edited mushroom, but I’m not clear if it is on the market yet. 

Unfortunately, because of the USDA labeling laws, we won’t necessarily be able to know where these new GMOs are in the market. The USDA has developed very antiquated definitions of GMOs that exclude some of the new applications, like the genetically engineered yeast, or like CRISPR corn, CRISPR soy, and mushrooms. Those may not be labeled, which is why it’s really important for consumers to track the Non-GMO Project label or the USDA Certified Organic label, if people want to be sure they’re not eating genetically engineered foods. 

Arty: What distinction does the USDA make between the old style transgenic organisms where a gene from one species is inserted to another species and the new form of gene editing where they are cutting and changing the genetic sequence in one species?   

Dana: The USDA recognizes that gene editing is a type of genetic engineering, but, under the labeling law, they are splitting hairs and have made a distinction between GMOs and gene editing. They have decided that GMOs need to be labeled and gene-edited organisms don’t. But when it comes down to it, it’s all genetic engineering. With gene editing, we’re seeing the same risks and concerns. I would say that there are more risks and concerns with these gene-edited organisms than the transgenic GMOs. 

We need to be regulating, assessing and evaluating all genetically engineered organisms, whether they’re transgenic or gene-edited. Everything needs to be evaluated, assessed, regulated and labeled because the thing that we keep learning through science is how little we actually know about genetics. Every time there’s a study sharing that we’ve learned something, it’s only a matter of weeks or months before another study comes out saying that what we thought we knew was wrong. The thing that’s most consistent with gene-edited organisms is the surprise mutations, the unexpected consequences, both at the cellular level and at the organism level. We don’t understand how gene-edited organisms work, how they’re going to play out in the environment or on an agricultural field, let alone in a human body. 

Arty: What are some of the specific risks?

Dana: The unintended effects of genetic engineering can be pretty severe. One scientific study found the potential for mice that have been gene-edited to be more susceptible to cancer, or cows genetically engineered to be born without horns carried genes for antibiotic resistance. Plants that are being engineered to be herbicide tolerant are impacting insects that weren’t meant to be impacted. There are so many risks that science is finding, particularly at the cellular level. When scientists try to delete a certain number of genetic sequences in an organism, instead large segments and many different deletions that were not intended happened. Given how little we understand about gene expression and how genetics work, we need to hit the pause button and work with food in the way that’s proven safe by using organic techniques.

There’s been a lot of studies on gene editing showing major problems at the molecular level, but there have been few studies looking at the impacts on human health long-term, and there have been fewer studies done on what the impact is on the organism. For example, when you genetically engineer a pig to be resistant to a virus, first, it isn’t likely going to work because we’re putting that pig into a problematic CAFO system. We need to change the system, not the pig. And second, we haven’t done the studies on what is the impact on the organism itself. We know that there’s a large amount of genetic havoc at the molecular level. How does that play out for the whole plant or for the whole animal or for the ecosystem in which they live?

Much of these gene-edited organisms may be irreversible. We don’t know how to undo genetic engineering. We don’t know how to recall organisms that spread through the environment, which puts us on a treadmill trying to fix one mistake with another genetically engineered organism. When there is a problem, the biotech answer is to keep genetically engineering our ecosystem until what’s around us is no longer nature.

Arty: Doesn’t the process actually interfere with evolution?

Dana: At the United Nations, we talk about that. We need our plants, animals and insects to have their full genomic genetic experience to be as resilient as possible to respond to climate conditions and environmental stressors. This is the wrong time to be crippling their natural ability to adapt.

For example, genetically engineering the GMO apple, which inhibits browning, affects the apple’s natural immune system. It affects the apple’s natural ability to fight pests and viruses, which means that you’re going to need to use more pesticides. Even the applications that are cosmetic end up putting us on the pesticide treadmill as one of the unintended consequences. 

With the GMO animals, there’s research suggesting that it messes with the animal’s protein production, which has an effect on the animal’s immune system; they may be sick more often. That results in the need to use more antibiotics in those animals. It perpetuates all the problems that people are trying to fight within the CAFO system. Genetically engineering cows to withstand more heat, or genetically engineering hornless cows so they don’t poke each other, or pigs that are resistant to disease, all of these are just trying to redesign an animal to better fit into the industrial system, to create something which allows us to continue our industrial food system as is. It just perpetuates all the problems that we’re trying to solve.

We really need to take a precautionary approach, and that is where the United States is failing. The United States doesn’t take a precautionary approach to genetically engineered organisms, whereas in Europe they do. In Europe, gene editing is going to be regulated as genetically engineered organisms, the same as GMOs, and they are going to assess, regulate and label new genetically engineered organisms.

The American regulators are viewing gene editing as a magical new type of genetic engineering that solves and accounts for all the problems that we had with the first round. In fact, we’re seeing all the same problems. The regulators are not looking at the science. The science is showing that gene editing is not precise, that there are significant problems with it, and there are still large gaps in the science. We need to look at the impact of gene editing on insects that aren’t being targeted, the impact on soil health, and the impact on other animal species that eat the plants, or humans that eat the gene-edited plants. There’s a dearth of information on some very critical areas. The areas that there is research on are raising all sorts of red flags. 

What the regulatory agencies need to be doing is hitting the stop button on these new technologies. We need to be focusing on the data which we have on what works, which is regenerative organic agriculture. 

Arty: There isn’t much solace in counting on the regulators. Haven’t they pretty much given GMOs a green light? Even if they required gene-edited organisms to go through the GMO regulatory process that really wouldn’t solve the problem.

Dana: Currently, our regulatory agencies are putting in place very dismal and inadequate regulations. At this point, the regulations are essentially voluntary self-assessment. It’s the fox guarding the henhouse. Which is why there’s been a lot of movement in the market space. The polls are very clear that consumers do not want genetically engineered food and beverages or GMOs in general. Consumers are very concerned about pesticides in their products. The organic industry is growing very quickly. The non-GMO industry is growing very quickly. Consumers have an opportunity to put pressure on companies to say that we don’t want to be eating genetically engineered ingredients in our food, and we want non-toxic food. 

At a time when we don’t have a lot of opportunity with our federal regulatory agencies, we do have the opportunity to put pressure on food companies and on the natural and organic product industry to make sure they’re giving people what they want. A lot of the work that I do is to share with companies that this new generation of GMOs 2.0 have a lot of risks and concerns, and people don’t want them. 

Arty: It seems like even the mainstream press is ignoring the science and promoting the talking points are of the biotech industry. 

Dana: Unfortunately, we’re seeing a significant trend attacking both organic and the non-GMO movement. We’ve seen a lot of excellent investigative journalists be attacked for exposing the influence of corporations and the agro-chemical companies like Monsanto on the EPA. The court victories by people who got cancer caused by their exposure to round up and the Monsanto papers showed very clearly that there is an unfortunate backdoor influence of big ag on our regulations. 

It’s unfortunate that the trend we’re seeing is for journalists to play down the merits of organic, or to attack organic. We’ve seen media make claims that GMOs are safe. The same trend of corporate influence in our government is playing out in mainstream media where people who choose to do a deeper exposure of the dirty politics involved in our food system and in genetic engineering and pesticides, those individuals are very quickly attacked, silenced and moved off their beat. It’s become a dangerous place in the United States to speak out against the agro-chemical industry. 

It becomes even more critical therefore for us as advocates for organic and non-GMO to make sure that we are getting information to people through as many places as possible, finding those journalists who aren’t afraid to speak out, using independent media, putting out shoppers’ guides in grocery stores, hosting talks. It’s becoming more and more challenging, and it’s becoming more anti-democratic. We need a democratic food system where people have the right to know what they’re eating, and have a right to know what the risks are for various ingredients. Our food system shouldn’t be determined by the profit of one company. We need to get back to a time where people prioritized personal health and the health of our environment rather than the profit of companies. 

It’s an incredible challenge to get balanced information into the media. If there’s an article about genetic engineering, oftentimes there will just be one sentence mentioning that there may be opposition, but never actually diving into what the risks and the concerns are. Mainstream media often portrays people concerned with the risks as hyper-fearful and ill-informed when that’s not true. People are demanding more science and more information and more exposure around genetic engineering. It’s the opposite of anti-science. It’s actually very pro-science that we want to understand what the environmental and health impacts of toxins are on our bodies and our planet.

Arty: One of the perverse legal logics with genetic engineering and patents is the corporate ownership of DNA. If a farmer’s field becomes contaminated with pollen from a patented crop, the corporate patent holder has a legal ownership claim on that farmer’s crop. 

Dana: The risks of contamination are becoming greater with some of the new applications of genetic engineering, particularly with gene editing. For example, there is a proposed application for a DNA spray. It would be a pesticide spray made up of many tiny strands of RNA with the goal of silencing certain gene expressions. What that means is if you apply this DNA spray on your field, whatever that DNA touches ultimately becomes protected by the patent of the company that owns that spray. So, when a farmer is using these new technologies, the seeds, plants and trees that are genetically engineered aren’t actually the farmer’s anymore. They become owned by the company. 

The question of corporate consolidation and the right to own and the right to farm are really called into question with this new wave of genetic engineering. 

It is really urgent that we make a decision together as to what direction we want to take our agricultural system. Either we can get on a treadmill of genetically engineering nature and our agricultural systems combined with the pesticide treadmill, or we can move in the direction of organic agriculture. With these new types of genetic engineering that are designed to spread into environments and have a higher likelihood of spreading into nearby farms, it begs the question of whether two different agricultural systems can coexist. I would argue that they can’t. As genetic engineering becomes riskier with higher rates of contamination, then organic farmers and farmers who are using regenerative farming practices are at risk of not being able to continue those practices.

We really need to stand up together to make it clear which direction we want to take our food system, particularly at a time of climate chaos and biodiversity loss. We need to be using agricultural farming techniques that are going to protect biodiversity and are going to be resilient in the face of climate change.

Learn more about the genetic engineering issues, campaigns and policies that Friends of the Earth is working on.

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