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Ethics Matters

Seeds of Discontent: Plant Biotech and World Trade

November 29, 1999
Web posted at: 12:48 p.m. EST (1748 GMT)

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

(CNN) -- The World Trade Organization (WTO) is meeting this week in Seattle, and reports are that groups will be protesting everything from workers' rights to the blurring lines between big government and big business. One of the hot areas is biotechnology, in particular questions over how genetic advances in agriculture should be allowed to proceed. What genetic modifications should be made to crops? What will be the impact of genetically modified crops on farmers and consumers around the world? How will international trade deal with genetically modified crops and the foods that come from them?

for Bioethics

What's your opinion?
Engineering super seeds

Seed companies like Monsanto, Pioneer and Novartis have been refining corn, soybean and others seeds for a long time, mostly through the fairly slow process of hybridization that yielded such commonplaces as the nectarine.

But genetic technologies allow the process to be sped up and offer the possibility of changing the genetic makeup of plants in much more interesting ways. Genes can be inserted into plants to create pest resistance, or better flavor and longer shelf life for crops. For instance, a genetically modified variety of corn produces its own toxin that kills a common corn pest when it tries to feed on the plant. Another variety of corn and soybeans is resistant to the herbicide Roundup so that it can be sprayed directly on the crops to kill any unwanted weeds, and the crop still thrives. These advances allow greater productivity from crops, and therefore more plentiful and potentially cheaper food. But are there short- or long-term effects from eating them?

We are just beginning to foresee some of the environmental and ecological effects of plant biotechnology. The U.S. government recently approved the use of the first genetically modified crop plant that can hybridize with plants in the wild. This new squash variety has a gene inserted into it that makes it immune from infection by two viruses that often attack squash crops. But unlike other genetically modified crops, which in theory won't cross-breed with plants in the wild, it is known that this squash will create hybrids with related plants in its vicinity. The concern is that the virus resistance gene will become part of a wild plant and threaten to turn it into a super-weed, following the course of other out-of-control weeds such as kudzu.

High-yield crops with no market

International public sentiment against genetically modified crops is growing. No doubt some part of the upcoming WTO meetings will focus on the European Union's refusal to purchase genetically modified crops, and the serious economic impact it has created. The market will eventually determine the future of "super seeds," and their benefits may win out over public concerns, especially in developing countries and as their novelty wears off.

Are you what you eat?

Once accepted, genetically modified foods still face numerous questions. What should be labeled "genetically modified" -- hybridized fruits and vegetables? Plants with a gene from another species? A product made up of more than half genetically modified ingredients?

How far should genetic modification of plants be allowed to go? A recent scientific paper reported successfully creating a potato that can immunize against disease when eaten -- providing another example of the old adage, "You are what you eat." So can the day be far off when we're asked whether we want plain or immunizing french fries?

In all seriousness, the WTO meeting isn't likely to address these issues, but trade discussions about biotechnology and agriculture will affect what kinds of plants are developed, how much information we have about the food we eat, and the general future of biotechnology. These are issues that the world's policymakers are only beginning to address but that will be with us as we enter what soon may be called the biotech century.

One of the hot areas of world trade is biotechnology, in particular questions over how genetic advances in agriculture should be allowed to proceed. Genes can be inserted in plants to create pest resistance, or better flavor and longer shelf life for crops. These advances allow more and cheaper food. But can we afford them without knowing the short- or long-term effects from eating them? What should be labeled "genetically modified" food -- hybridized fruits and vegetables, plants with a gene from another species, or products made up of more than half genetically modified ingredients?

Post your opinion here.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.

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