Designer Genes or Genocide?
By 
Ron Hoggan  

In early March, I had the good fortune to attend  the first two days of
the Citizens’ Conference on Food Biotechnology, entitled: "Designer Genes
at the Dinner Table".  It was hosted by the University of  Calgary. The
conference explored a number of ethical issues as well as safety concerns
related to manipulations of  genetic traits of  plants which contribute to
our food supply. This is an especially serious concern to people with
dermatitis herpetiformis and/or celiac disease, which was my primary reason
for attending two of the three days of this event. My bias, as a person
with celiac disease, certainly shaped my perspective.  I see wheat, rye,
oats, and barley as problematic foods because for me and people like me,
they are quite hazardous. I have tried to be fair in forming my views of
the conference, but cannot honestly claim any measure of objectivity.
Neither, I think, can any of the other conference participants I heard or
encountered. 

Despite some recent dialogue between the national office of the Canadian
Celiac Association and Health Canada, along  with some industrialists
working on genetic engineering of food-plants, regarding   implications of
such manipulations for celiac patients, I did not hear celiac disease or
gluten intolerance mentioned a single time during my two days at this
conference. Perhaps the topic mentioned on the first day, but it was
clearly not an issue that got a lot of anyone’s attention at this
conference.  

Current  reports of serological screening are indicating that celiac
disease may be a very common life-long disorder.  That would suggest that
such an august group of experts should be voicing  at least a few concerns
about the possible implications of genetic manipulations of the food supply
for such a significant sector of the population.   

The seventeen member expert panel included a biochemist, a molecular
biologist, a crop researcher, a nutritionist, several biotechnology
consultants, an agrologist, a farmer, a plant scientist, a bioethics
expert, and  several bureaucrats employed by the Canadian Food Inspection
agency and other branches of the government involved in international
trade. Most of these experts are paid, in one way or another, for their
involvement in the growing field of genetic manipulation of the food
supply.  Each expert appears to have a vested interest in the continuation
of this work.  I left the conference disturbed by this, and several other
issues:

1.  The 15 members of the Citizens’ Panel, were ostensibly there to
represent the general public. It became clear that some members of the
expert panel had participated in the selection of the citizen panel. This
appears to pervert one of the stated objectives of this conference: to
compose the citizen panel with "…..people who are expected to enjoy the
benefits and bear the risks…."of genetic alterations of food plants. These
people were allegedly chosen to participate in the conference to serve as
society’s watch dogs,  monitoring this new technology.  But the members of
the citizen panel were chosen by the very folks they  were supposed to be
monitoring. Further, although members of the citizen panel are likely to
enjoy the benefits of this technology, the citizen panel did not seem to
include people who would  bear the greatest  risks arising out of such work. 
  
2.  The heavy bias of the expert panel,  in favor of cereal grains, was
abundantly clear. The experts included the President of the National
Farmers Union, Cory Ollikka, and the Executive Director and CEO of Canada
Grains Council.  Two other members of the expert panel, Dr. Margaret Gadsby
and Corinne Eisler, repeatedly voiced their unfortunate bias that eating
whole grains has an anti-carcinogenic effect.   
 
3.  Paul Mayers, Acting Director of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Health
Canada, indicated that transgenic manipulations which included soy and
brazil nut protein had been identified by one manufacturer as allergenic,
and that work was therefore halted. Mr. Mayers indicated that the
manufacturers in question had identified and corrected the problem.  His
perspective appears to support industry self-regulation arising out of
self-interest.
 
4.  Mr. Mayers also contended that if there is no known health hazard,
there is some question as to whether a food product may be rejected for
importation under current legislation. 
 
5.  Further, Mr. Mayers stated that if there is "substantial equivalence"
with a food that has a safe history in the food supply, such foods will be
accepted for import.  This statement appeared to include those products
which derive from genetically altered plants. He appeared very confident
that such a safe history is easily determined. This, of course, is less
clear to those of us who suffer from diseases which are caused or
exacerbated by proteins found in one of the oldest "safe" foods; wheat.   
 
6.  Several members of the expert panel agreed that current legislation
does not require any warning on the labels of food, indicating that the
constituents have been derived from genetically altered plants. Douglas
Mutch argued that the Canadian public does not want to be bothered with the
"junk mail" of full disclosure labeling. He voiced a notion that is
ludicrous to people with food intolerance,  sensitivity, or allergy:  the
Canadian public, Mutch indicated, trusts its government and scientists to
protect the public’s interests, thus eliminating the need for extensive
labeling.   
 
7.  Mr. Mutch seemed to suffer some confusion as he complained about the
unfairness of holding the food biotechnology industry to a higher standard
than other companies such as computer manufacturers.  I will not belabor
this point by explaining the distinctions between the health hazards posed
by computers, and those posed by genetically altered food. I was, however
surprised by Mr. Mutch’s inability to distinguish the two.  

While there were other disturbing factors, the above list forms the bulk of
my concerns.  Because the lay-panel had been selected, in part, by some
members of the expert panel, the selection process is suspect, and the
citizens’ report is thereby impugned.  We were not told what the selection
criteria were, but as the conference progressed, I became increasingly
convinced that these interesting, intelligent, people did not represent the
perspective of  people with food protein intolerance or food sensitivities.
 It is difficult for me to see them as people who will bear the risks of
genetic alterations of food plants. It is people with allergies and food
sensitivities who are at greatest  risk, yet such "special interest" groups
appear to have been excluded from the entire process. Margaret Gadsby
indicated that exclusion of special interest groups was an important,
positive feature of a citizen panel.

The topic of allergies was touched on very briefly, and it appears that
such matters will be left with the manufacturers to self-regulate.  Perhaps
that is all we can expect from a group of experts with such a strong
pro-cereal bias, and their appointees on the citizen panel, all of whom
seem to be unconcerned about food  intolerance, sensitivities and allergies
and those who suffer from them. 

The one-sided perspective that whole grains in the diet are
anti-carcinogenic ignores a good deal of  peer reviewed literature
suggesting that the cereals  that are of concern to celiac patients, have
quite the opposite effect on at least one segment of the population. The
size of that segment may be limited to the ~ ½ % of the population now
suspected to have celiac disease, or it may include 20% to 30% of the
population with the genetically coded immune system features commonly found
in celiac disease.  The increased risk of cancer for people with untreated
celiac disease, and their relatives, is well documented in the medical and
scientific literature. The cancers for which they are at an increased risk
include intestinal adenocarcinomas,  non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and a number
of other malignant conditions.  


The expert panel unabashedly included representatives of special interest
groups, from farmers to industrialists, all of whom stand to profit from
transgenic manipulation of our food supply.  Yet there were no members of
the expert panel whose expertise is in the realm of  immune responses to
dietary proteins.  

The venue  of food intolerance disease is not well understood, yet our
elected representatives and the bureaucrats who implement their wishes,
are allowing, even promoting, manufacturers to  forge ahead with genetic
alterations to our  food supply without even requiring  that such
alterations be listed on food labels. We are, it seems, expected to place
our trust in bureaucrats, scientists,  and businessmen, while we are denied
information which could seriously impact on our health and survival.  

Since many researchers working with celiac disease believe that this
illness is grossly under-diagnosed, Mr. Mayers’ assurances that a known
health hazard could lead to rejection of a food for importation is  of
little value.  Further, given the clear perception that wheat, rye, barley,
and oats have a "safe history" among the expert panel,  Mr. Mayers’  notion
of  "substantial equivalence" is more frightening than reassuring.  We may
soon have to guard against the infusion of some of the hardy traits of
Canadian wheat into other, previously unrelated foods.

I heartily agree with Mr. Mutch that junk mail can be an intrusion, but
flyers advertising a sale on tomatoes should not be equated with a warning
label that those tomatoes have genetically altered traits drawn from
unrelated species. It is difficult to imagine a rational defense of  his
attempt to equate these very different types of information. 

 We celiacs have to be vigilant readers of food labels. Despite my best
efforts, driven by self-interest, I continue to make  the occasional
mistake. Sometimes the mistake is my own, but often it is the fault of
inaccurate of incomplete labeling of products.  I doubt that any
manufacturer is as concerned or vigilant about the safety of my food as I
am.  If these scientists start adding wheat, rye, barley or oats-derived
genetic traits to "safe" food, the food supply of all celiacs will be
compromised.  I want legislation that will require warning us about foods
that are the product of genetic manipulations.  I  think that is a
reasonable request. 

Mr. Mutch complained that the biotech industry is held to a higher standard
than computer companies.  I was heartened to hear Carol Parks, a member of
the citizen panel, say that a higher standard should be applied to food
manufacturers. She went on to express a sentiment that I share: what we eat
is a very important, personal issue.  The higher standard, she said, is
perfectly appropriate. 

There were other moments when the citizen panel gave little indication that
they had been selected by some of the experts, especially in the "concerns"
section of their written report, but overall, this conference had the air
of a love-in. Despite claims to the contrary, there weren’t any tough
questions. No participant offered a serious challenge to the status quo. We
have biotechnology. According to a conference hand-out, "Food safety
approval has been received by Health Canada on 36 plants with novel traits
including canola, corn, tomato, potato, soybean, cottonseed and squash."
The same document goes on to say that some current research is aimed at
increasing the lysine content of  rice, and  "Increasing tolerance of
plants to extreme dry or cold climates." 

I can not say that the hardiness of  Canadian wheat, in cold and dry
climates, such as the Canadian prairies, will make it an excellent
candidate for contributing genetically coded traits to other food plants.
But I can say that it is possible. And I can say that cereal grain
interests were very well represented on this panel of experts, while the
interests of those with food sensitivities did not appear to be represented
at all.  I’m not sure what all this means for those of us with celiac
disease, but I am sure that I want labeling to reflect genetic alterations.
Further, I want assurance that the approval process involves investigation
of all levels of antibody testing. I want assurance that allergenic foods,
from gluten, to legumes, to strawberries, will be excluded as genetic
donors to avoid the risk of transmission of the allergenic trait,
especially when such traits, because of the very advantages they confer,
can spread, out of control, very rapidly supplanting the original species.
Let’s not take irreversible action until we have a clearer sense of the
costs to the people who are being told they will benefit.  

Transgenic manipulations of the food  supply provide yet one more venue in
which  the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s conflicting mandates pose some
very serious threats to the well-being of Canadians.