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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

Will Human Genes Be Spliced into Food for People?

by Don Fitz, Gateway Green Alliance

...they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting, —sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham's Pure Leaf Lard!

—Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906

Exactly what constitutes cannibalism is less clear than it might seem. Everyone would agree that eating a human finger is cannibalism. But what about the tip of a finger? If you eat food cooked with lard which includes fragments of a slaughterhouse worker, is that cannibalism?

The problem of inserting human genes into food destined for human consumption is not so different. Is it cannibalism to eat food with one human gene? What about 50 human genes or an entire human chromosome? How much human material spliced into a living organism would make a product "essentially human?"

Just as people are unlikely to agree on how much genetic material constitutes "humanness," they are likely to differ on the conditions under which it is moral or immoral to consume food with human components. Given such a lack of consensus, we might expect that there would be a national discussion of using human genes in food.

Eating food with human genetic components would certainly run counter to the moral or religious beliefs of more than a few people... Food corporations and government agencies have acted as though there are no moral issues involved in the decisions they have made concerning what reaches consumers.

Eating food with human genetic components would certainly run counter to the moral or religious beliefs of more than a few people. Even those who do not agree with their values are likely to defend their right to practice their beliefs. This would suggest that, even if there was no debate on whether or not to produce food with human genes, if it were done, such food should be labeled so that those who choose not to consume it could do so.

While these might seem to be reasonable expectations, food corporations and government agencies have acted as though there are no moral issues involved in the decisions they have made concerning what reaches consumers. Experimentation with introducing human genes into the food supply is already well advanced. There is good reason to suspect that the number of human genes in food will increase during the next few years. As this happens, industry is developing rationalizations of why human genes in food is not an issue deserving attention and governments are making it increasingly difficult for people to find out exactly what they are eating.

Human genes into animals

Genetic engineering (GE) researchers have been putting human genes into animals for years for medical purposes, such as trying to make pig hearts human-compatible. Biotechnology companies have also investigated putting human genes into animals for food production. Gen Pharm bioengineered Herman, the first transgenic dairy bull, for producing milk with a human protein. By identifying which proteins are most important for infants, laboratories will be able to produce formula more similar to mother's milk by inserting human genes. (It would not be surprising if companies then promoted their genetically engineered formula as being just like human milk but having less dioxin.)

Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture put human growth hormone genes into pig embryos to produce faster growing hogs. The project was abandoned, partly because the resulting pigs were so deformed that some could not support their own weight.

Putting human genes into plants would go beyond crossing the species barrier. It would cross the kingdom barrier.

Could another research team overcome these problems and successfully implant human genes into pigs or cattle or goats or chickens? If one gene worked pretty well, could 20, 100 or 1000 genes work even better? In 1997, Japanese researchers reported inserting a complete human chromosome into mice to produce human antibodies. This transplanted 50 times as much human genetic information as had previously been accomplished.

Transplanting human genes into animals destined for human consumption is not a fantasy of a hypothetical future—it is history which can be expanded.

One gene which could be put into human food with current technology is human growth hormone (hGH). Genetech received a patent for a genetically engineered hGH in the 1980s in order to treat children with dwarfism. By the 1990s, sales of the synthetic hGH were booming as parents bought it for kids they thought were too short. There is nothing to prohibit a milk producer or hamburger chain from using hGH and advertising that using its products will guarantee that your kids will grow.

Human genes into plants?

Putting human genes into plants would go beyond crossing the species barrier (plant to plant or animal to animal). It would cross the kingdom barrier (animal to plant). This barrier has already been broken, with transfers of firefly genes to corn, hamster genes to tobacco and flounder genes to tomatoes.

An article in the December 18, 1998 Science magazine discusses the possibility of producing edible insulin using transgenic plants. The author cites research which used a cholera toxin to implant human insulin into potatoes. Eating the potatoes with GE insulin delayed the onset of symptoms in diabetes-prone mice.

Human genes may also be put into plants as part of the "functional food" fad of biotech companies. Such foods would be designed for specific health problems. In early 1998, I heard Monsanto Senior Executive Arnold Donald describe such foods. The corporate visionary shared his dream that one day Americans could go into McDonald's and order food specially engineered for their health needs. If scientists put human genes into bovine embryos to produce milk for easy digestion by human infants, why not investigate whether human genes put into plants could be a real or imagined solution to dietary problems?

If human genes were successfully introduced into plants, their transgenic pollen could contaminate neighboring fields. Despite industry propaganda denying the likelihood of such "genetic pollution," it has happened repeatedly. In one celebrated case, the October 25 Daily News reported that the British government expects to charge Monsanto that pollen from its Roundup-resistant canola test site in Lincolnshire spread to an adjoining non-GE canola plot.

Unlike cars with exploding gas tanks, genetic alterations cannot be recalled. Human genes introduced into potatoes or any other crop could become a permanent part of that species.

Who decides?

When I presented this issue to the St. Louis Ethical Society in November, 1998, one person commented, "I work for the Human Genome Diversity Project and I cannot understand the problem with using human genes in food for people. Genes are just molecules. Human genes are no different from other genes."

The view that moving genes around is just a technical problem with no moral implications is central to the "reductionist" ideology of biotech. Reductionism maintains that all activity can be explained by (or reduced to) the movement of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and a few other atoms and therefore human activity and consciousness are not unique. Variants of the reductionist view are so pervasive that many environmentalists fall prey to them. Some have challenged my saying that "human genes are quite different from other genes" with the objection that over 99% of human genes are shared with chimpanzees. This ignores the fact that even if there were no more than 0.1% of human genes which were not shared with other species, it is precisely this 0.1% which the genetic engineers are targeting for transplantation. A non-reductionist world view understands that genes interact with each other to produce activity which cannot be explained by analyzing them in isolation-only a tiny number of distinctly human genes may be necessary for interaction with other genes to produce the unique aspects of humanness.

Human genes introduced into ... any ... crop could become a permanent part of that species.

Ethical problems of splicing genes into food hinge on two questions:
1. Who decides what material (such as human genes) is put into food?
2. Will consumers know what is in food so that they can make choices based on their personal and religious beliefs?

The last thing the food industry wants is a national debate which suggests that society itself should determine uses of biotechnology. They push the image of a masterful "Science of Biotechnology" marching inevitably forward. They see no reason to discuss what should or should not be put in food because they intend to put anything in food which is technically feasible and economically profitable. To them profit equals morality and everything else is a nuisance factor to be handled by a PR department.

Agribusiness has successfully persuaded the US Department of Agriculture to accept that genetically engineered products should only be labeled if there is a problem with safety or nutrition and that labels should not be required because of a "process of production," such as introducing a human gene. When a tomato with a flounder gene was introduced, the fact that consumers would not know that it had an animal gene was not treated as a problem. The company recalled it because picking and packing equipment did not handle it well.

If a tomato which violated personal beliefs of vegetarians could be sold without being labeled, it is clear that food with human genes would not require labeling simply because it violated the moral or religious beliefs of many consumers.

Industry spokespersons argue that it should be illegal to require labeling of food sold internationally "merely" because it is genetically engineered. They reason that requiring labeling for other than safety reasons could cater to anti-GE biases prevalent in some countries. In the language of trade agreements, this would be a "non-tariff barrier to trade."

At the beginning of this century, image control by the food industry was crude and unsophisticated. They simply covered up everything they did. When Upton Sinclair exposed their practices, the Pure Food and Drug Act followed the same year.

Agribusiness not only is introducing human genes into food without a national discussion — they are moving to make sure that people do not know enough about what they are eating for such a discussion to occur.

The massive explosion of public relations during the twentieth century has resulted in a food industry which is smooth and slick in its ability to rationalize its activity and manipulate international law. This could make it more difficult to restrict food contamination now. Agribusiness not only is introducing human genes into food without a national discussion-they are moving to make sure that people do not know enough about what they are eating for such a discussion to occur.


Daily News (United Kingdom), October 25, 1998.

Donald, A. (April 2, 1998) The Power of Biotechnology, Talk to the University of Missouri at St. Louis Business School.

Moffat, A.S. (December 18, 1998). Toting up the early harvest of transgenic plants. Science Magazine, 282 (5387), 2176-2178.

Phillips, P.W.B., & Isaac, G. (1998). GMO labeling: Threat or opportunity? AgBioForum (On-line magazine: www.erols.com/jlc), 1 (1)

Rampton, S., & Stauber, J. (1997) Mad Cow U.S.A. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Rifkin, J. (1998) The Biotech Century. New York: Putnam.

Shiva, V. (1997) Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston: South End Press.

Don Fitz is active in the Gateway Green Alliance, which hosted the July, 1998 "First Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation: Genetic Engineering." A member of the Industrial Workers of the World and The Greens/Green Party USA, he can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com. The author would like to thank Brian Tokar for thoughts in developing this article.

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