GENTECH archive


a jumbled heap of broken twigs - by Prof Peter Wills (NZ)


New Zealand Herald 3-12-98

Genetic engineers are about to learn whether they will be allowed to slip
synthetic toad genes into potatoes. PETER WILLS says we should be
concerned about these experimental programmes.

Last month the new Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) held
hearings in Wellington about a proposal from the Institute for Crop and
Food Research to grow plots of potatoes containing a synthetic gene that
encodes an antibiotic toxin from the African clawed toad. The experimental
program is designed to discover whether production of the toad antibiotic
in potatoes protects them against the troublesome soft rot that plagues
growers and distributors.

Most people are unaware of how easy genetic engineering has made it to mix
and match genes from creatures belonging to completely different biological
kingdoms. And when they are told about it they are assured that the
process is really no different from the techniques of selective breeding
which humans have been engaging in for thousands of years. Genetic
engineering speeds up the process and is much more precise, we hear.

Crop and Food scientists are sure that potatoes lack something very
important and desirable - genes that confer resistance to soft rot. But
not to worry, they have set that right using information that can be found
on the internet about the gene from the African clawed toad, and now the
genetic diversity of potatoes has been increased by the addition of a
synthetic gene encoding the toad toxin. They even describe the synthetic
gene as a new potato gene.

ERMA has to decide whether Crop and Food should be allowed to grow plots
containing 150 different lines of genetically modified potatoes during each
of the next five years. Some of the spuds are to produce a toxin found in
giant silk moth rather than the toad, others an enzyme from a "phage", a
sort of virus that attacks bacteria, and still others Bt insecticide toxins
derived from the bacterium which was used to great effect in Auckland
against the white-spotted tussock moth.

The application from Crop and Food stated that all the transgenic potato
lines were produced essentially following their standard transformation
protocols, but it turns out that most of the potatoes, perhaps three or
four hundred different varieties, have not yet been produced at all. The
Institute's legal counsel argued that an application under the new
Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act was like a request for a
discharge under the Resource Management Act. You shouldn't have to specify
every occasion on which you are going to discharge waste, or the exact
composition of the waste, provided the levels of chemicals are within
certain limits. So, they argue, you shouldn't be required to have already
created all the modified potatoes you want to grow.

One of the problems with currently available techniques for genetic
engineering is that when you introduce a new gene into an organism, the DNA
can become inserted at essentially any point in the organism's chromosomes.
The genetic engineer lets this happen more or less at random and then
looks for transformed organisms that seem to behave normally, those whose
genetic structure has probably not been seriously disrupted by introduction
of the new foreign gene. The Crop and Food application is designed to
cover billions of such possibilities.

It is not possible to test many important characteristics of transformed
potatoes before they are field tested in open experimental plots. For one
thing, potato plants don't usually flower when grown in a containment
glasshouse. This means there is considerable uncertainty concerning the
possible characteristics of modified potatoes even after they have been
produced and grown in containment. However blanket approval is being
sought to grow open plots of potato lines that haven't yet been created,
let alone met the limited tests of normality that can be conducted in a

No-one denies that the proposed experiments run a risk of "genetic escape"
but the probability of the toxin genes being transferred into other
organisms in the wild is claimed to be minuscule. It is up to ERMA to
decide whether the benefits of the experiments outweigh the risks. In
making their judgment, the HSNO Act directs them to "take into account the
need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific or
technical uncertainty". This is an expression of the precautionary
principle that was incorporated into the 1992 Rio Declaration on
Environment and Development.

What approach would New Zealanders like to see ERMA adopt in reaching its
decision? A special advisory group, Nga Kaihautu Tikanga Taiao, has been
set up to look after Maori interests and comment on Treaty issues. The
group noted in its report that some of the general concerns about genetic
engineering raised in public submissions to ERMA were similar to those
likely to be raised by Maori, but tangata whenua cannot be lumbered with
the task of acting as a conscience for the whole of society.

The Maori attitude to indigenous flora and fauna obviously differs from the
attitude of scientists to "biodiversity", as the living world is now called
in official circles. If I sequenced the gene encoding the katipo toxin,
inserted a modified version into kumara which I then wanted to grow in
experimental plots with a view to testing the vegetables as possum bait,
great weight would be given to the statutory role of Nga Kaihautu in
protecting the status of katipo and kumara as taonga. However genetic
engineers do not regard the provenance of evolution as a treasure, the
integrity of which they have a responsibility to preserve. In New Zealand
we allow the transfer of genetic information from the African clawed toad
into potatoes to be carried out in an ethical void.

We are all complicit. While tangata whenua act to protect and preserve the
whakapapa of their valued taonga, we allow genetic engineers to reduce the
evolutionary tree of life to a jumbled heap of broken twigs. In fact, the
government is right behind such activity and foreign corporations are given
liberal access to New Zealand as a testing ground for their genetically
engineered products.

When scientific and technological innovation produces applications with
far-reaching social, political and economic consequences, all sorts of
ethical questions that need careful consideration and debate come to the
fore. At the very least, ERMA needs an Ethics Committee, analogous in its
mode of function to Nga Kaihautu, which can advise on the attitude of New
Zealanders to a range of questions concerning the effects of genetic
engineering. More desirable, and in addition, we should have a full public
enquiry, a Royal Commission, before whom members of the public can express
their attitudes about modern biotechnology. In the meantime, as a
precautionary measure, we should declare a moratorium on the release of all
genetically modified organisms into the environment.

* * * *

Dr Peter Wills is an associate professor, Department of Physics, University
of Auckland