November 21, 2004December 19, 2004Meeting Report

November 21, 2004

Dr. Belinda Martineau

Genetically Modified Organisms

Dr. Belinda MartineauDr. Martineau has a PhD in genetics from UC Berkeley and worked at Calgene on the development of the first commercial genetically engineered whole food, the Flavr Savr™ tomato. She is the author of the book, "First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food." She was given a long introduction by HAGSA member Gerald Bachman, who lamented the lack of rational talk about genetically modified organisms.

Dr. Martineau recounted her own past work at Calgene, which was later bought out by Monsanto. In recent years there has been a highly polarized debate about the whole subject of biotechnology (BT), with each side not telling the whole truth. It has been argued that BT is simply an extension of traditional breeding methods. Sometimes this is true, but the insertion of genes from bacteria and viruses into higher plants and animals is not such an extension. One argument for using BT is that it can reduce the amount of pesticides needed. Instead, the plants can be engineered to produce their own pesticides. Sometimes this can cause unintended side effects, such as killing monarch butterflies. Dr. Martineau did say that BT crops are generally safe for people, except for StarLink™ corn. There is a potential for human harm, but it has often been exaggerated. 

There is some oversight of BT from the EPA, FDA and USDA but it seems haphazard and cumbersome. BT plants are considered pesticides but are regulated by the EPA. The FDA doesn’t regulate BT food except for allergens. And there are no labeling requirements for BT foods in the United States. (There are in the European Union.) Dr. Martineau said that for the marketplace to work properly there should be better information for consumers. She favors labeling of BT products. 

The speaker fielded a lot of probing questions. She had a good rapport with the audience, not only because of her knowledge, which was considerable, but also because of her lack of any current or recent conflict of interest, as she is not on the payroll of and BT firm or anti-BT organization.

—Report prepared by Wayne Luney, Recorder

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