How GMOs Got Started

Copyright © 2020 Steven M. Druker


by Steven M. Druker
Executive Director of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity

Before 1970, biologists lacked the capacity to tinker with DNA. Although they had gained detailed knowledge about its structure and about the nature of the genetic code, they were unable to isolate, manipulate, or copy genes — and the notion of transferring individual genes between unrelated species was the stuff of science fiction. But during that year, a monumental change began. Scientists finally discovered the means by which the DNA molecule could be cut in some manageable ways; and within four more years, researchers were able to copy segments of DNA from a frog and splice them into the DNA of a bacterium, creating the first genetically modified organism (GMO).

The revolutionary technology through which such recombinations of DNA could be accomplished was often referred to by its practitioners as genetic engineering, a term that implies precision and predictability — and beclouds the fact that the technology is to a significant degree imprecise and unpredictable. Moreover, this radical innovation posed unprecedented risks, such as the potential to create new pathogens, and the risks were recognized by scientists at the revolution’s forefront. Yet, when they spoke candidly about the magnitude of the potential problems, they flamed peoples’ fears and spurred efforts among legislators to strictly regulate their new technology. This was an unwelcome reaction. As the Nobel laureate biologist James Watson acknowledged in his book, The DNA Story, he and his colleagues in “the molecular biology establishment” wanted to prevent outsiders from intruding on their turf and restricting their genetic engineering venture with regulations.

Accordingly, many influential members of this scientific establishment stopped communicating in a forthright manner and instead adopted the methods of spin doctors, dispensing words with greater concern for their political effect than their factuality. And in several cases, they issued outright falsehoods. In one of the most egregious episodes, they claimed that “new evidence” had been generated demonstrating that research with recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology is safe, even though the purported evidence merely consisted of unfounded conjectures: conjectures floated during three conferences held for the purpose of projecting the illusion that such evidence had accrued.

In another high-profile and highly effective deception, one of the technology’s pioneers claimed that an experiment he conducted provided “compelling evidence” that the kinds of alterations performed through the technology also spontaneously occur in nature. However, although he asserted that the experimental conditions were natural, they were significantly artificial: a fact about which the public and the members of the US Congress were kept in the dark.

Nonetheless, despite the falsity of their key assertions, by the end of 1977 scientist-promoters of rDNA technology had succeeded not only in convincing most people that its operations are natural and safe, but in quashing several efforts in Congress to subject it to effective regulation. What’s more, their truth-twisting subsequently convinced the National Institutes of Health to shift the burden of proof. Instead of requiring the biotechnicians to demonstrate that their novel projects were safe, as had previously been the policy, the agency decided to allow the projects to advance unless people with concerns could demonstrate they were dangerous.

This shift in policy was momentous, even though at that time the new technology had a limited range of application. It was primarily applied to microbes and employed in biomedical research, and it was incapable of expanding into agriculture until much later. Indeed, due to the formidable barriers within plants against the incursion and function of foreign genes, it took more than nine years from the creation of the first genetically modified bacterium until scientists were finally able to create the first genetically modified plant. Yet, although the shift in the burden of proof had been induced by deception — and was based on considerations specific to biomedical research with modified microbes confined to laboratories — it set the stage for the other administrative agencies of the US government to subsequently shift the burden in regard to the environmental and human health risks of GM foods, relieving manufacturers from the responsibility of demonstrating safety in relation to those issues as well.

As my book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, demonstrates, the lax regulatory approach on the part of the world’s major superpower has not only subjected its own citizens to an unacceptable level of risk, it has exerted an adverse international influence and enabled other countries to employ inadequate regulations. The book also reveals that as the GMO venture continued to advance, the misinformation dispensed on its behalf by eminent scientists and scientific institutions intensified — and became increasingly crucial to its survival.

A Note to Our Readers: The fascinating story of the GMO venture’s early history — highlighting the essential role of misinformation in fostering its advance — is more fully and dramatically told in the free sample of Steven Druker’s widely acclaimed book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, available here.

You can download a free Kindle reading app for your computer, tablet, or phone here. The free sample includes the introduction, the entire first chapter, and most of the second chapter. It also includes the foreword by Jane Goodall, in which she hails Altered Genes, Twisted Truth as “without doubt one of the most important books of the last 50 years.”