Wed, 03 Jan 2007 08:20 UTC
In her new book, Intervention, former NY Times technology columnist Denise Caruso talks about the risks of life on a genetically engineered planet.
Turn on the TV, open your Internet browser, or click on your inbox and chances are you'll find an alarming story alerting you to the possibility some new hazard: cancer-causing toxins in your deodorant, mold spores in your kitchen sponge, radiation from your cell phone -- the list goes on.
In an age of information overload, it's tempting to tune risks out entirely, especially when even the scientific community can't seem to come to a consensus on some things: One day eggs are good; the next, they're bad. One day hormone replacement therapy is healthy; the next, it causes cancer.
But, what if you knew that, instead of one product putting you at risk, an entire field of technology was? That's what former NY Times technology columnist Denise Caruso tackles in her new book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet.
Caruso doesn't use scare tactics -- she doesn't need to. Instead, she merely points out the risks of living in an age when scientists are recombining DNA from multiple species, experimenting with tissue regeneration by growing human ears on the backs of mice, and looking seriously at pigs for human heart transplants. Even more eye-opening, these innovations are occurring in the near-absence of oversight and with little attempt from government regulators or scientists to educate the public.
So what is life like on a biotech planet? AlterNet interviewed Caruso to find out.
AlterNet: Why did you write the book?
Denise Caruso: Well, for a lot of reasons. But mostly because I was shocked by this ongoing schism between the people who were against biotechnology and the people who were really in favor of biotechnology. And I thought, well, this is supposed to be science, right? It should be neutral. But these sides weren't neutral. They were so different and antagonistic -- what were they looking at? Then I realized they must looking at different factors -- or, rather, looking at the same thing in different ways. So, that's when I started to dig into the whole idea of risk --
By risk you mean --
Denise: -- the probability that a hazard will come to pass. Risk isn't a hard concept, but it's hard to measure, and that is where communication breaks down. For example, one day about five years ago I was talking with Roger Brent, who is one of the most macho molecular biologists on the face of the planet, and we got into this conversation about genetically modified food, which I refuse to eat. And Roger said, 'Why won't you eat it? Don't you know that you could eat 10 kilos of genetically modified potatoes and nothing would ever happen to you?" And I said, 'You don't know that. You don't actually know that. You guys don't know anything about the long-term effects of these things. You don't know what happens after it passes through my gut and goes back into the water -- you don't know any of this stuff. And I was actually really surprised that he said, 'OK, you're right, we don't. But how can we not stop progress at the same time?' And that's one of the core questions I try to address in Intervention.
So how do we walk that tightrope? How do we protect people without inhibiting progress?
We have to redefine risk and rethink how we evaluate it. Calculating risk is tricky with biotech because you have all of these new and very complex systems that we've created that are all coming into contact with each other, trying to interact, and you don't have any historical data to tell us what will happen when those systems come into contact. What ends up happening is that we are asking scientists to provide a statement of safety or risk about something related to biotech, but they don't have any data.
In your book you discuss other models of risk analysis -- models that assess chemical or toxic risks. Why can't those models be applied here? What is it about biotech and genetic engineering that calls for special attention and a new method?
Actually, there are a lot of different ways to parse that. So, I'll take the easiest example: If you look at why the EPA got started and the work they do now, they're looking at chemical toxins -- lab tasks where you could put one more drop, one more drop, one more drop into a tube, and you could figure out that at three parts per billion of this chemical, someone's going to get sick or they're going to get cancer or they're going to die. It's sort of a threshold thing: You find out how much of the substance will create some kind of effect -- some kind of negative effect. But that doesn't apply here. There's a big difference between manipulating chemicals and manipulating living organisms -- and I actually want to limit what I talk about here to transgenic organisms -- those that contain genes from another species.
What are your concerns about transgenic organisms?
Well, we're talking about a potential hazard that is reproducing. And it doesn't just reproduce within its own plant population or its own animal population. Genes move. The fact that we and mice share more than 90 percent of the same genes has gotta tell you something about how much we don't know about where all of these genes came from. A lot of evolutionary biologists are trying to figure out how all of that happened but the bottom line is that if I can get the flu from a bird then it's not a far stretch to think that some transgene that's in the corn or soy that I eat could also find its way into my body and do something harmful.
In one of your chapters you talk about pigs as potential organ donors for humans. What problems could that present and what potential is there for medical, economic or social disruption?
There's potential for disruption in all of those areas depending on the problem. The pig one is really interesting because it's really disruption in pretty much every dimension. So you have an incredible strain on the healthcare system, you know -- there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who need these transplants and so, healthcare trying to deal with a whole new problem -- huge economic impact on the country, huge ecological impact, and the social impact -- how are you going to look at somebody who's got a pig heart? Are you a freak?
And then there's the safety of it. If you rub a pig cell up against a human cell, what's the probability that a retrovirus is going to jump and I would just get a pig virus? Most virologists would probably say pretty low, but no human immune system's ever seen that before. You can't calculate the probability of it because it's never happened before.
Can you foresee any kind of future where genetic engineering could be used as a weapon?
Oh, sure. I'm sure it's being used as a weapon now. You know weaponized anthrax is genetically engineered.
What about benefits or potential benefits in terms of helping to eliminate hunger or poverty? Transgenes allow us to grow giant potatoes and chickens with really large breasts. Is that something we should still be talking about or should that conversation be tabled entirely?
Well, one of the things that I talk about in the book is that I reject the saving the world from hunger as an argument because everybody in the hunger community knows that the issue with hunger is distribution -- it's not volume, it's distribution. We have plenty of food. So until now -- until that's solved, I think we need to table that conversation. I think that the benefit question is really important, and one of the things that I didn't get to write about in the book is that, in the olden days, when they very first started doing risk analysis back in the sixties, they analyzed alternatives. Nobody ever analyzed one product, one technology, one thing. They identified the problem and then said, What are the range of solutions we have for the problem? And what's the most beneficial and the least potentially harmful out of all of those solutions? But we don't do that anymore.
Why is the public so unaware? Are scientists just ignoring these risks?
The public is unaware because there's no reason for the biotech industry or the regulatory industry to make it clear to people what's going on. The last thing in the world that the biotech industry wants is for people to start sniffing around and figure out what's going on here. A lot of legitimate researchers have asked very legitimate questions about what was happening out in the field of transgenic organisms, and they lost their research funding and people wouldn't publish their papers --
And they would be cut off because they would ask questions --
Exactly. The biotech industry has such an enormous amount of influence over the type of research that gets done and what information reaches the public.
You say in your book this is happening against a backdrop of conflicts of interest. When you follow the money, what do you see?
One of the points that I make in the book is about this revolving door between industry regulators and the biotech industry. If you look in the upper echelons of management of virtually all of the agencies, people go from industry into the agency, work in the agency for years and go back into industry and so you find that really, the regulators who are writing the legislation and regulations to protect the public interest are actually from the perspective of people in the industry. And some agencies have done studies on risk, but then ignored the results. One time the FDA got sued by a biotech activist group because of an FDA policy that said transgenic foods were substantially equivalent to traditional food crops that are grown. And amazing documents about how the people inside the agency were saying we have no idea whether this stuff is risky. But at the end of the day, the judge said that the FDA has the right to ignore its scientists' advice.
Sounds like risk analysis shouldn't just be left up to one government agency or one group of scientists.
Absolutely. The process needs to be much more democratic because, right now, ordinary people don't have much of a voice. The only way you can actually do a proper risk assessment is to find out who all the experts are who have any kind of expertise or interest in the subject. In this case, you'd find all of the biologists -- not just the molecular biologists, not just the people who sit in labs looking through their microscopes, but people in the field -- ecologists -- and the members of the public who have an interest. So, if you wanted to study something related to the San Francisco Bay, you would bring in people from the fishing industry.
Basically, you would bring in the most people who were relevant to the subject. Then you ask the question, what's the problem? What are we trying to do here? What's the risk? What that does is it gives someone who has to make the decisions -- the regulators -- a beautifully drawn map of what we know, what we don't know and what we could know if we spend some money on research to find out. This could be such a positive force because industry people today who do research are often doing discovery research, not risk research. They want to create a product. They want to build the tightest fence possible around the problem and say that what's inside the fence is safe. But, of course, that's not how the world works. No organism moves around in the world with a little bubble over it.
Whose jurisdiction should risk analysis be under? Should it be at the federal level? Is that even realistic? You mentioned earlier that any group -- a nonprofit or even a chamber of commerce -- if given the appropriate model, could do risk assessment.
The only way you can really effect change at the federal level is by starting at the local level. The feds, the agencies, they're all so insulated by money, by power, that nothing happens until people can rattle their tin cups against the bars loud enough for somebody to hear it, and I think that one of the things that's very powerful about this method of risk assessment is that it can be completely decentralized. That said, it would be much better if it were centralized like it is in Sweden and some places in northern Europe, where you have these participatory citizens groups that work with the government to do risk assessment on the really big, critical about where science and technology meet the public.
Are you anti-biotechnology?
Not at all. And I purposely made sure the book wasn't a rant against biotech. It's a rant against irresponsible risk assessment. It's a lot easier to sell a book that's a rant about biotech. You know, what people want to read about is you know, they want this sort of cross between Silent Spring and Michael Creighton. They want birds dropping out of trees and dinosaurs being brought back to life, but that's not what this is. I think it's scarier -- it's scarier that we don't know when the birds are going to start falling out of the trees. If or when.
Comment: Reminds me of "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Brrrrr...