Home PageGluten-Free PageRon Hoggan Articles

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 ~ 1/2% 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.