September 19, 2019 | 48° F

Lawyer discusses dangers of GMOS


Genetically modified organisms are often promoted as being a more efficient way to grow crops to feed a growing population, but some people are concerned they cause more harm than is apparent.

Steven Druker, a public-interest lawyer from Iowa spoke to the Rutgers community last Monday to discuss GMOs in his new book "Altered Genes: Twisted Truth."

“The more I learned the more I became concerned, because it became rapidly apparent that the claims being made on the behalf of genetically engineered foods were very removed from the actual facts,” he said.

He spoke at a Byrne seminar on genetic modification, "Traditional Organic Food and Farming Systems," which is taught by Joseph Heckman, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology.

Druker said he has been researching GMOs for about 20 years after first hearing of them in 1995. His book is the result of his work and activism during that period.

While many proponents of GMOs have labeled him unscientific, he said he is not a "climate change denier."

He said he has several supporters, including primatologist Jane Goodall.

"Without doubt, (this is) one of the most important books of the last 50 years," she said. "I shall urge everyone I know who cares about life on Earth, and the future of their children, and children's children to read it."

Druker said the pro-GMO argument relies on a “subversion of science" as well as corrupting the government and deceiving the public.

He said his first problem with proponents of GMOs is the claim there is "a seamless continuum" between domesticated breeding and genetic modifications.

Robert Servilio, a School of Engineering first-year student, said any domesticated crop can be considered "genetically modified."

"The blind rejection crops because of their status as GMOs is essentially the rejection of every food source that is not picked off wild foliage or hunted in the wilderness," he said.

Druker said there is nothing natural or continuous about this relationship, and says GMOs are crops whose genes are deliberately changed or combined with other genes in a laboratory.

He said the process of creating a GMO may prove to be harmful to consumer health. In order for the inserted gene to be expressed a gene promoter is needed to be turned “on,” usually by an enzyme. Most promoters are in the “off” position.

Scientists need promoters that are always “on” without needing outside help and get those from plant viruses. According to an article in Nature Education, it takes extra energy to express this gene constantly, and these alterations can change how quickly an organism uses energy, grows or responds to "external environmental factors."

Druker said it is “unnatural” and even “sacrilegious” to take genes from other species and asks if it is ethical to do so.

He said the religious community’s objection to GMOs' unnaturalness is valid.

“This whole venture has been sustained and chronically and crucially dependent on deception," he said. "It is ethically unsustainable.”

He said these crops are being dishonestly presented to the public.

He said he founded the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, a nonprofit organization supporting environmentally-friendly technological advancement. A lawsuit filed by the organization forced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to release letters saying that GMOs should be tested more because of their unique risks.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the first GMO to ever be released for consumption, amino acid L-Tryptophan, caused an epidemic in 1989, infecting approximately 1500 and killing about 30 people.

Druker said this deception started when President Reagan decided the biotechnology industry would help the economy and told the FDA to promote it. 

"GMOs are necessary to sustaining a human population of any size and have been since the dawn of civilization," Servilio said. "However, no one will deny that the actions of large corporations to both patent and micromanage life itself are deleterious to all of agriculture."

Heckman and Druker both said they received backlash over their anti-GMO stance. The scientific community in general is pro-GMO.

Heckman said he received an email upon inviting Druker asking why he invited a conspiracy theorist.

This type of dogmatic opposition made Heckman anxious to extend the invitation, he said. Coming out as anti-GMO can also risk his chance of gaining tenure.

“I felt very strongly that it’s time that we hear from another perspective on this issue,” he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article said that Steven Druker was from Ohio instead of Iowa, and that Joseph Heckman is an extension specialist in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, not a professor.

Namrata Pandya

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