The writing excerpts included in this section are listed below. You can reach them by scrolling down the page or by clicking on a particular title.
Graduate School Research and Theses and the following publications: Trade and Investment in Japan: The Current Environment (1991 Study for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Japan and the management consulting firm A. T. Kearney), Notes on Change (1993 Newsletter), Between Two Worlds (1995 short non-fiction/current events book), The Eden Tree (still-unfinished novel), and the summer 2004 essay "Genes, Beans and Greens: A Taste of the Genetically Modified Foods Debate, Part I.
Photograph "Perth at Dusk" © 1987 Dorothy A. Birsic
At the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University), the master's degree thesis is known as the M.A.L.D. Candidates for the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy degree have the option of writing one full M.A.L.D. or two half M.A.L.D.s. I chose the latter. The topics (and a short description of each) are as follows:
* James N. Rosenau, "The State in an Era of Cascading Politics" Comparative Political Studies 21 (April 1988): 15
Other topics of research at both the Fletcher School and the Harvard Business School focused primarily on technological change, international trade and issues concerning sovereignty. These topics included:
This was a study completed and published in 1991 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Japan by the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. Although I was a primary author of the study as an A. T. Kearney consultant in Japan, I do not hold any copyright privileges for the document, so I will not provide any excerpts here. Please contact either of the organizations mentioned if you are interested in the report. For your information and clarification, a view of the cover of the report is provided below.
To read news coverage about the release and content of this study, please refer to the front page of the New York Times for Wednesday, June 12, 1991 ("U.S. Companies in Japan Say Things Aren't So Bad"), the business section of the Los Angeles Times for the same day, and page D3 of the Los Angeles Times for September 16, 1991.
To return to the top of the page, click here.
This was a short-lived newsletter focusing on the impact of technological change on our lives. In the October 1993 issue, which concerned changes in communication, information and transportation, I wrote:
"In many places on this planet, a person can walk out the door of the most sleek, modern jet plane, take a few steps past the runway, and find himself or herself deposited in a world far different than any he or she has ever known. Take the country of Nepal, for example. Once a person goes beyond a certain point outside of a small number of main cities, there are few roads of any sort. Passage for humans is strictly by dirt path and on foot, while goods are transported to distant villages on the backs of animals.
It is not uncommon to come across signs [such as the one included in the newsletter] offering the visitor a brief word of welcome, directions and travel times to certain destinations. In a way it is like stepping back hundreds of years in time to a period and place where the conveniences of modern transportation and communication do not exist. High in the mountains there are no cars and no phones, and there is no faxing ahead for reservations at the next rest stop. A person walks as fast and as far in a day as his or her legs will travel, then stops for a night's rest before beginning the journey again in the morning. There are few, if any, detailed and grid-lined map guides to the trails. Instead, trekkers rely upon experienced guides (sherpas) to navigate the routes and point them in the right direction. . ."
"No one can say with any great certainty what new discoveries or developments may come 100, 50 or even 25 years from now, or how they might affect human lives. As a result, the 'sherpas' of our institutions may face territory which is uncharted at best, or at least resemble little of what had been seen in the past. If so, the signs by the road will be welcome, but they will be able to provide only a partial idea of what lies on the journey ahead."
Photograph "Morning in Venice" © 1984 Dorothy A. Birsic
To return to the top of the page, click here.
This book was designed to be a quick introduction to issues of technological change for people who might not be inclined to read something on the subject that they couldn't finish in a few hours or a day or two. In the introduction, I said, "This book makes no attempt at being an academic treatise. It is not a book of numbers, and there aren't pages of charts and statistics to pore over. It could take a half-dozen or so good-sized volumes to thoroughly discuss all of the changes everywhere which have been brought about by technology, but many of those already exist. That is not the purpose of this book, either. Instead, it is designed for anyone seeking some type of understanding of the trends and dynamics which have shaped and continue to shape the world today. It includes a brief look at aspects of technological change in business, government and society. If the material piques interest or gives cause for further reflection, all the better. There are dozens of topics and concepts presented which the reader could explore easily and in greater depth (on his or her own). The dynamics of technological change are complex and uneven, as are its effects on human lives."
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER THREE, "BETWEEN DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL"
Corporation as "Person" and State as "Person"
The notion of sovereignty is frequently cited in discussions of two particular issues: immigration and international trade. Because such a large portion of international trade is conducted by large corporations, it is perhaps easiest to illustrate some of the complexities and differences between domestic and international by looking at differences between states (nations) and corporations as legal "persons" on the global stage. This does not mean small companies are insignificant, for they are not. In countries such as the U.S., they are dynamic engines of opportunity and often rapid expansion. However, most of the discussion in the chapter centers around large multinationals with extensive business dealings in many sites around the world.
The earlier definition of the criteria for statehood began by saying, ". . . the state as a person of international law. . ." Similarly, another "person" in domestic and international law is the corporation. To carry the analogy a bit further, these two persons are "endowed" with different "features" and are empowered to carry on their missions and duties in different ways. Using the United States and U.S. corporations as examples, one might first say of America as a "person" that it is a democracy. The legitimacy of its leaders is derived through popular election by a vote of its citizens. The leaders are then empowered to act based on the principles of government established in the Constitution, codified in a set of laws, adjudicated through a court system and administered and enforced through the executive branch (and law enforcement). At minimum, the role of this government is to protect the well-being and safety of its citizens and shores. The methods through which the government is allowed to carry out its duties include enacting and enforcing laws, levying taxes, entering into treaties and declaring war.
The corporation gains its existence and legitimacy at first by being incorporated within a particular state, and it is subject to the laws governing commercial activity. It is also subject to the laws and regulations of the cities, counties, states and countries in which it does business. Its equivalent of a constitution might be its articles of incorporation, and its power is derived through the marketplace by providing goods and services desired by its customers. These goods are often identified by brand name or trademark, all of which are considered property when properly used or registered with the government. If the company ceases to generate profits in the long run it cannot exist as a viable entity, regardless of its brand name or articles of incorporation.
The corporation's leaders are chosen by criteria determined within the organization (i.e. length of time with the business, revenue generated, track record, special skills and knowledge, or personal talents or proclivities). These people are generally not subject to vote or verification of the entire employee base of the company. Their corporate mission is to provide goods or services in a manner which maximizes profits and shareholder value. In order to do so the company must provide goods or services to the marketplace. It does so by marketing or selling them to the public, government or other companies and organizations.
In a legal sense, the state has jurisdiction over its citizens and within its boundaries. It can apply its law to all those on its soil, be they citizens or foreign visitors. It can tax both people and businesses, but if more revenue is needed, it cannot go to a foreign country and tax the citizens of that country. A business or corporation, on the other hand, can seek its profits in nearly any location, assuming it meets the legal and operational thresholds of other countries. While each sovereign nation will act to protect its own "national interest" (which can be defined broadly or narrowly), each business will act to protect its own "corporate interest." Perhaps at the intersection of these two interests is the best illustration of where the lines of sovereignty, or the lines between (purely) domestic and international, begin to blur.
Photograph "Tokyo Park/Spring2" © 1984 Dorothy A. Birsic
Overseas Influence and Activity
Not to belabor the point, but a nation and its government, at least as currently conceived, exists and enacts laws for a particular population within particular boundaries. The only means through which a government has an official presence in another country in through its embassies (and consulates) and the people who staff them. These embassies are considered pieces of sovereign land on foreign soil. States such as California or other government organizations may set up overseas offices with permission. These offices, however, are generally not considered sovereign territory. A diplomat's personal expression of sovereignty is represented by diplomatic immunity, or freedom from prosecution under foreign laws (although this may be waived under some circumstances). Although countries can and do send spies into other lands, or pay informants for information, the only legally-recognized national government representation it is embassy system. A company can obtain a "piece" of a foreign market by providing consumers with products they choose to buy, but the only way a country can obtain a "piece" of another nation's land is through voluntary secession or war.
A nation such as the United States may have influence over another country and its people by other non-official means, however. The strength of military forces or stockpile of weaponry could influence another's thinking or decision-making in regard to war. Its culture or values, as seen or heard through radio, television or motion pictures, or read in print, might affect the thinking of other governments or peoples. This is especially true if the materials are available in the country's native (local) language. Some non-democratic non-Western governments, however, have traditionally blocked access to information not in agreement with official state teachings or policies. During the course of the Cold War, radio broadcasts from the Voice of America to countries such as those behind the Iron Curtain frequently were jammed. Foreign magazines or other non-native materials were often confiscated, if found, at international borders. Finally, sources of influence might be exerted through the advanced nature of a country's industry or technology, by the moral strength of its people, or through mutually shared customs, traditions or religions, to name a few.
Unlike a government, a business or corporation can have a legal presence in most nations, given that the rules and regulations set forth by those nations are followed. That is not to say that certain countries do not maintain policies or practices which protect domestic industries or restrict foreign competition, for they do. Some mechanisms which have been used by governments to protect their "national interest" from foreign business include: import restrictions, tariffs (which make the cost of foreign goods higher than prices of comparable domestic ones), threats of nationalization ) businesses being taken over by foreign governments) and restrictions on profit repatriation (returning profits made in an overseas market to a home country), to name a few. More commonly, though, governments have sought to further the national interest by seeking trade or other policies breaking down barriers for their country's companies in foreign markets.
To return to the top of the page, click here.
This is a still-unfinished novel begun in 1999. It chronicles the story of Ashley, Marco, some computer software and a very large tree at a place called the Corrigian Institute. In essence, it is a tale of ideology and its impact on people's lives. The following is an excerpt from draft material submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office in 2001.
Like a fleet of lost souls docking at an ethereal netherworld harbor, the ghouls, goblins, ghosts and gremlins of that Halloween evening gradually made their way to the atrium. A thin layer of manufactures fog swirled around the room's floor, some spilling out in billowing puffs into the igloo-like corridor as the doors opened and closed. Several of the tables had been cleared from the back area near the stairwell leading to the classrooms in order to make room for a band and small dance floor, which was already packed by the time Ashley arrived. The lights in the room had been dimmed to near crypt-like levels, enhanced only by the glow of the electric candles in the pumpkins and the occasional flash of a strobe light.
At first it was difficult for Ashley to see when she entered. Then, as her eyes became accustomed to the interior lighting, she gradually made her way around the room. The spectacle around the tree had the same effect on almost all who entered. It was visually stunning. While some of the costumes were simple and their occupants easily recognizable, many others were more detailed and wildly creative than any they'd ever seen. Ashley stood still for a few minutes eyeing the ongoing parade of figures streaming in and out of the shadows, but then her heart sank a little. How would she ever find Marco amidst all of the characters if she didn't know what he was wearing? She did know she would never find him by standing still, so she began walking around the room.
The first people she recognized were Richard and the woman he now called his girlfriend. They were both dressed in matching Viking outfits, complete with hats adorned with big horns. Richard recognized Ashley right away.
"All hail Queen of Egypt," he said to her as she neared the table where they were sitting. "Would her majesty care to join a couple of lowly Scandinavians for some hearty grog?"
Ashley laughed and sat down on the chair which Richard pulled out for her. She'd already come to know his girlfriend, Gwen, quite well, and she also greeted Ashley warmly. "What a great costume, Ashley. It's so elaborate. Quite beautiful, actually."
"Thank you," Ashley replied. "A friend and I went to a big Halloween party last year and I bought it then. It's actually quite comfortable." She was about to continue when she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, there was a figure standing behind her who looked like a cross between a monk and the grim reaper. The person was dressed in a thick robe which had the texture of burlap and was dyed a deep blackish-brown. A large hood of the same material was attached to the top of the robe, and its rim extended so far out in front of the face so as to keep the face totally hidden from the viewer. An additional black mesh face plate made all the wearer's features indistinguishable. The robe was tied with a thick, braided black rope sash, and the person, whoever it was, held one hand behind his back. When Ashley turned around, he stood still for a second. Then he pulled his hand from behind his back and handed her a beautiful red rose.
Ashley had no idea who the person was, nor did anyone else at the table. She politely thanked him, and in a split second he turned and almost glided away. They tried to watch where he went, but the dark color of the robe quickly blended into the dark background and the shadows. She hoped it was Marco, but she had no way of knowing for sure. After a few more minutes of quiet conversation, she stood up and excused herself. "If you don't mind, I think I'm going to go and mingle a bit." She stood up and looked at the dance floor, still wondering where the cowled figure had gone. "Who's that with the - what is it - a motorcycle?"
"Oh, that's Karina as Evel Knievel," Richard said. He added, "See those two roly-poly figures at the table right next to the motorcycle?" Ashley nodded. "That's M.L. and Ilana as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee."
Just as Ashley looked over at the table Richard had pointed out, the person in the hooded robe stepped directly into her line of vision and stopped for a second. The opening in the hood was facing in her direction, but she couldn't tell if the person underneath was looking at her or not. The strobe light flashed and distracted her for a second as she picked out a couple of other people in the room. When she looked back to where the hooded figure had been standing, he was gone.
The bright red of Lucretia's cape had stood out against some of the other darker colors in the room as the strobe light flashed. Ashley recognized her immediately. Thinking she'd have as good a chance of finding Marco with her as with anybody else, she walked toward the woman's table. She didn't quite make it all the way before she heard her name being called.
"Ashley? Ashley, is that you?" the voice said.
Ashley spun around in the direction from which the voice had come. What she saw made her jaw drop, then she chuckled in amazement. The man, complete with rubber drumsticks and fully padded royal regalia, was a most jovial and realistic-looking King Henry VIII.
"Bartholomew?" Ashley asked.
"Your highness," he replied with a slight bow. "You may have predated me on a throne by a couple of thousand years, but I must say you still look stunning. You'd be welcome in my court anytime."
"Ah, yes - but I've always been told I have a good head on my shoulders, and I'd prefer keeping it that way," Ashley joked back.
"Would you like to dance a bit?" he asked.
"Sure, I'd love to," Ashley replied.
The two of them danced for at least the next five songs, stopping only once to talk to another couple who'd stood next to them on the dance floor. Ashley continually scanned the room for Marco, but she couldn't spot him. As she looked in one direction, she didn't notice that Karina had maneuvered her way across the floor until her motorcycle was directly next to them.
"Well, hello, you two!" she said. The visor on her makeshift helmet was up, so it was easy to see her eyes and facial features.
"Hello, Karina," Bartholomew said, and Ashley greeted her likewise. "What an interesting outfit - and props, too," he said, pointing to the motorcycle. "How ever did you decide on Evel Knievel?"
"Oh, well, someone I used to know back in Greece was a fan, and . . ."
"You lived in Greece?" Ashley asked.
"Oh, it was a long time ago," Karina replied, sidestepping the question and quickly changing the subject. "But I was making my way over here, Ashley, to tell you how stunning you look. That's a really super outfit. Absolutely. And Bartholomew - Henry the Eighth?"
"My idol," he joked, and both women rolled their eyes.
Photograph "Bryce Canyon, Utah, View 2" © 1991 Dorothy A. Birsic
As Ashley stood looking at Karina, the strobe light flashed again. In the brightness of the burst of light, she saw the hooded figure standing about fifteen feet away, directly in her line of sight over Karina's shoulder. She wanted to point him out to Bartholomew, but by the time the light flashed again, he was gone. Just then one of the members of the band took to the microphone and made an announcement.
"Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please? We're going to take you back a little bit with the next couple of songs. And in order to help us, we've brought someone special along. Back from the dead by special request, here's the man himself. Let's give it up for the one, the only, ELVIS!!"
The crowd backed off to form a semi-circle around the dance floor. Ashley glanced briefly at her watch. It was after ten, and she still hadn't found Marco. She was beginning to get a bit worried. Still, she didn't want to miss enjoying the entertainment, and she laughed along with the others as the person in the Elvis suit jumped out onto the floor. As the band began their rendition of "Blue Suede Shoes," the person in the white jumpsuit, bushy black wig, fake sideburns and dark glasses began gyrating his hips. It was clear that he was lip-synching while another member of the band did the singing, but it was still amusing to watch. Then, as the music continued, the impersonator grabbed what looked like a stack of autographed pictures and began going around to the women in the group. He started with the edge of the semicircle closest to Ashley.
The vocal imitation he did wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either. "Hello, ma'am. Pleasure to meet you," he said to the first woman, shaking her hand and then giving her a picture. One by one he continued with the women as the music played. When he reached Ashley, he said, "Hello, ma'am. They call me the King. We must be a match." He laughed a hearty laugh, and she rolled her eyes. He shook her hand, but when he pulled his away, she realized there was something he'd stuck in her palm. He handed her a picture as well. That she shared with Bartholomew while at the same time keeping the other item in her palm hidden.
"Oh look, it says 'Happy Halloween from the King' on it," she said, and they both watched as he continued his way around the semi-circle. The band was now playing a rendition of "Jailhouse Rock." The Elvis impersonator stepped back into the center of the area just briefly to gyrate his hips a bit, and he did so to the hoots and catcalls of many in the group. Ashley quickly, but inconspicuously, looked down at what "Elvis" had placed in her palm. She recognized it immediately as one of the keys to the residence building, but she was even more surprised when she read the note taped to it.
The note said, "Ashley - it's me, Marco. Meet me in this room, on the bottom floor of the residence building near the side entrance, at eleven." She smiled to herself, then cupped her hand securely around the key and looked at the "King." Never in a million years would she have guessed that it was Marco. Nor, more importantly, would anyone else.
As the song finished, Marco as Elvis made his way to the end of the semi-circle, not far from where Karina was standing. As the group had split apart, she had ended up on one side of the area while Ashley found herself on the other. Ashley saw him hesitate for a split second as he neared the motorcycle, but he quickly regained his composure and swiveled his hips to the last few beats of the song. As the music ended, he turned around and waved, then disappeared up the stairway behind the band platform. He didn't stop climbing until he reached the fourth floor. When he was sure there was no one coming up the stairs behind him, he sat down on the top landing and held his head in his hands.
It was then that he realized how badly his hands were shaking. His costume was soaked in sweat, but it was not the perspiration of just a few minutes of hip gyrations. It had become a cold sweat, and with the realization of his trembling hands, a gradual feeling of nausea. He didn't know why it hit him so suddenly; he did know it began when he saw the motorcycle. All of a sudden memories of Greece - bad, painful memories - came flowing back into his mind. And then there was the lifeless face of Julian, eyes closed, covered with blood as he laid dead among the rocks.
"No!" he screamed, realizing where he was only after the words flew from his mouth. He jumped to his feet, glancing in every direction to make sure no one had seen or heard him. Then he rushed around the corner, hoping that the gym bag with his regular clothes was still tucked away in the corridor where he had left it. It was. Marco pulled open the bag's zipper and pulled out a sweatshirt and pair of jeans. Piece by piece he pulled off his costume and threw everything into the now-empty duffle, then slipped on his pants. As he looked at the shiny moist skin of his bare chest and arms, he wanted desperately to take a shower before he saw Ashley. There was a clock above him in the corridor, and it read 10:35. He knew he'd be a few minutes late to meet Ashley, but he decided to go back to his apartment and clean up anyway.
Ashley, still in the atrium, waited for a few flashes of the strobe light to check her watch. It was 10:45. She stuck her hand in one pocket of the costume to make sure the key was still there. It was, and she decided to gradually make her way toward the igloo-like exit. She'd made it about half-way to the door when she heard Jane calling her. Jane was sitting at a table with Steppen and two others she recognized but didn't know.
"I saw you over in the circle when Elvis went around. I was wondering where you were. Turn around - let me see. What a great outfit!" Jane gushed.
Ashley spun around, then returned a compliment. "What a great Snow White costume." She was about to say something else when she looked more closely at the group and realized all four of the people had something in common. "Hey, this must be the fairy tale table - Snow White, Cinderella, Prince Charming, Alice in Wonderland. Did you plan it that way?"
"No, but we were just commenting on the same thing," Steppen said. "Would you like to pull up a chair and join us?"
Ashley hesitated. She didn't want to be rude, but she also didn't want to be late for Marco. "You know, this costume with all this decorative stuff gets a little heavy and warm after a while. I was about to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. Would you excuse me?"
"Oh, no problem," Jane replied. "It was nice seeing you."
The fog was still swirling around the doorway as the first set of double doors opened. She watched it curl up around her feet, then gradually drift away as she reached the doors to the outer courtyard. As she stepped into the cool evening air, it was more than the breeze that sent shivers down her spine. Ashley turned around to catch one last glimpse of the fog but was surprised to see that the inner door to the atrium was open. In the dim glow of the corridor lights, she could see the hooded figure standing at the portal. Although she couldn't tell for sure, she assumed he was looking in her direction. She practically jumped away from the outer door so that it closed, then before going much further checked to see that no one was following her.
After a few seconds passed and no one else came through the door, she hurried down the brick path toward the side entrance of the residence building. As she neared the glass door she glanced at the number on the key. Quickly she made sure there was no one else around. She opened the door to the corridor just a crack, peered inside, then rushed in and stuck the key in its slot. She stepped in the room and waited to hear the door latch behind her.
"Marco?" she said quietly, then a little louder. "Marco? Are you here?"
To return to the top of the page, click here.
*This month's piece is an attempt at something new: an interactive essay. Although it can be read as is, links are embedded at various points in the article. By clicking the link you can read more about the particular topic being discussed, then return to the essay by clicking your browser's "back" arrow. (The links are included for informations purposes only. No guarantees are made as to the accuracy of the materials presented on the sites, although every effort has been made to search out reliable and respected sources of information.) Footnotes and a bibliography are also included at the end for anyone wishing to learn more about the subject. The materials represented here are only a small fraction of what is available on this very complicated issue. The glossary link below has been provided as a reference for use as needed. If your browser does not allow you to see text in the box, click here to reach the glossary.*
Frankenfoods. It's a word designed to strike fear in the hearts (or stomachs!) of consumers about the foods they eat. It may conjure up images of scientists tinkering away in labs, busy creating plants or organisms like none anyone has ever known. It's also a word which has been used to describe and categorize the products of genetic engineering, or plants of modern agricultural biotechnology. It is not a word, however, which does anything to explain the subject or shed light on the debate concerning genetically modified (GM) food.
Consider the following: last year about 80% of the soybeans and 40% of the corn grown in the U.S. were grown from GM, or transgenic, seeds.(n1) Perhaps you're thinking, "Well, I don't eat tofu or drink soymilk, and I don't eat that much corn, so what does this have to do with me?" A quick trip down the grocery store aisles can answer that question easily. Pick up a bottle of salad dressing, a jar of pasta sauce, or many varieties of packaged desserts and crackers. What are some of the ingredients on the label? Soybean oil or soy flour. Some of your favorite sports/energy bars or cereals? Soy protein. Soft drinks and some juices? Corn syrup. By some estimates as much as "70% of the human food products in the marketplace"(n2) today contain some ingredients made from transgenic crops. [To view a diagram of the edible uses of soybeans, click here.]
From the first wide-scale planting of GM crops in 1996(n3), their cultivation has skyrocketed. By 2002, 145 million acres of GM soybeans, corn, canola and cotton were grown in 16 countries,(n4) by far the greatest percentage in the United States. As the products of agricultural biotechnology have surged, so has the debate concerning their safety, regulation, risks and benefits, alternatives and future uses.
So just what is it that everybody's talking about?
The Genes: A Primer on Modern Agricultural Biotechnology
Now take a walk over to the produce section of the grocery store. In recent years the bins have been filled with new, interesting items such as golden kiwi, broccoflower (a cross between cauliflower and broccoli), and pluots, plumcots and apriums (crosses between plums and apricots). These, however, are not products of modern genetic engineering. They are the outcome of the same type of conventional plant breeding that has been taking place for hundreds or thousands of years and has produced much of the food eaten today.
Pick up an ear of corn, though. Look at it, touch it, smell it. If it was grown from genetically modified seeds, you would have no way of knowing, for there is no difference in outward appearance between the current types of GM corn and its non-GM counterparts. The corn, soybeans, cotton and canola mentioned earlier are all products of a much different process. That process involves altering the microscopic building blocks of a plant's genes.
What are genes? A textbook definition of a gene is that it "is a section of a threadlike molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. DNA, the hereditary material that passes from one generation to the next, dictates the inherent properties of a species. Each cell in an organism has one or two sets of the basic DNA complement, called a genome. The genome itself is made up of one or more extremely long molecules of DNA that are called chromosomes."(n5). [If you would like to learn more about DNA and genes, click here.] If you took that ear of corn to a geneticist, he or she could determine whether or not it was genetically modified much in the same way a doctor might handle a paternity test, or the police might analyze DNA evidence from a crime scene.
These soy, corn and other crops being discussed are all the products of what is called modern agricultural biotechnology. In general, the term "biotechnology" refers to "any technique that uses living organisms or substances from those organisms to make or modify a product for a practical purpose."(n6). This broad definition can also include processes like fermentation or pasteurization. Modern agricultural biotechnology, the products of which are the subject of debate, has a more specific definition. The process "includes a range of tools that scientists employ to understand and manipulate the genetic make-up of organisms for use in the production or processing of agricultural products"(n7), many of which end up in the food on grocery store shelves. [To go to a basic introduction to biotechnology, available in both English and Spanish, click here.]
The soybeans and corn discussed so far are called transgenic because scientists created them by taking genetic material from one species, such as bacteria, and inserting the material into the genome of another species, such as soy. One aspect of the debate centers around objections to the technology itself based on moral, religious, or evolutionary grounds. Some feel it is "an area [which] should be left to nature rather than man,"(n8) since it entails "crossing lines that divide living organisms, which involves making irreversible permanent changes for future generations."(n9) The Pew Initiave on Food and Biotechnology has held a panel discussion on the subject which they called "Playing God or Doing God's Work?" To learn more about the outcomes of that discussion, click here. Also, to view a longer, more detailed report on the social and ethical issues surrounding biotech crops, click here.
To return to the top of the page, click here.
Photograph "Tahiti Sunset" © 1983 Dorothy A. Birsic
The Beans: Products of Modern Agricultural Biotechnology
In order to understand the rationale behind some of the earliest (i.e. first generation or first wave) transgenic crops, it is first necessary to understand a bit about modern commercial farming, generally referred to as agribusiness. Today's agribusiness is heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for achieving high yields from the crops that are sown. In some cases, since 1945, it has taken a "ten-fold increase in pesticide use to achieve the higher output."(n10). In addition, "a crop's susceptibility to attack by pathogens and animal pests increases with yield."(n11). Many of the companies which supply farmers with the chemicals used to treat their crops are also ones developing genetically modified seeds for farmers to plant in their fields. In part due to the working of modern agribusiness, by 2000 approximately three quarters of all genetically modified crop traits which had been tested in developed countries were designed to make plants (soybeans, corn, cotton, etc.) either resistant to insects, tolerant of herbicides, or both (referred to as "stacked" traits).(n12)
How exactly is this done? If you don't mind a little bit of scientific detail, it's fairly easily explained. Take insect-resistant crops to begin with. Although the seeds for the crops have trademarked names based on the company that developed them, they are generally referred to as Bt soy, Bt corn and Bt cotton. This is because a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringensis has been inserted into the plant genome. "The bacteria, [once a part of the growing plant], produces a protein that is toxic to certain Lepidopteran insects (ones that go through a caterpillar stage)," especially one called a corn borer.(n13) It is toxic because it "creates a protein that bonds to specific receptors in the midgut of sensitive insects but does not affect mammals or insects that lack those receptors, [and] is harmless to humans, fish, wildlife and beneficial insects."(n14) "It is a novel approach to controlling insects because it is produced throughout the plant for its entire life. Therefore, the insecticide is more effective than conventional and biological insecticides because it cannot be washed off by rain or broken down by other factors."(n15)
Herbicide tolerant crops also have trademarked names which most often reflect the identity of the company that developed the seeds. Two examples of this are Roundup Ready® Soybeans (Monsanto) and LibertyLink® Corn (BayerCropScience). These types of plants are the most widely-adopted transgenic crops and "were developed to survive the application of specific herbicides that previously would have destroyed the crop along with the targeted weeds."(n16) Roundup is a common herbicide found even in local home improvement stores. The active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, and it kills plants "by interfering with the function of an enzyme called EPSP synthase."(n17) Roundup Ready® plants are made to tolerate the herbicide; humans do not possess the EPSP synthase enzyme so they cannot be harmed by it."(n18) [To view a list of transgenic products on the market now and within the next six years, click here.]
This first wave or first generation of transgenic crops has primarily benefitted farmers, and they are some of the biggest proponents of the technologies. To understand a bit more about their perspective, click here. The benefits of the second and third generation, or next waves of biotech crops, should be more visible to consumers,(n19) but also potentially more contentious and controversial. They include things such as "improved" fruits and vegetables, and "edible vaccines" grown in crops such as bananas and potatoes.(n20) These will be discussed at greater length in next month's essay. It is important to note here that although transgenic crops may provide benefits, there are also potential environmental and human health risks associated with their cultivation. The ultimate custodian of the public safety when it comes to monitoring and regulating their approval and use is the federal government. The discussion will turn briefly to a look at the risks associated with GM food products and the government controls that allow them to eventually become part of the nation's food supply.
Photograph ""Between Two Worlds"" © 1985 Dorothy A. Birsic
Regulation and Risk
The material covered up to now is undoubtedly a lot of information to digest (no pun intended). Perhaps you're thinking to yourself that you want to go out to the kitchen and get something to eat or drink before continuing. Please do. While you're on your way, take a look at some of the labels on the food items in your pantry or refrigerator. Unless you've purchased something from a company that voluntarily notes whether or not their products contain GMOs, you have no way of knowing if anything you're eating has come from a transgenic crop. Compare this to a law which took effect throughout the European Union (EU) in April of this year. The EU law states that "Any food or feed containing, consisting of or produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will need to be labelled in a way that indicates it contains GMOs. For GMOs that are currently approved in the EU, . . . levels of up to 0.9% will be permitted without the need for labelling. GMOs that have received neither EU approval nor a favorable risk evaluation will be forbidden. The labelling requirements do not apply to food products for which the manufacturing process commenced before April 18, 2004."(n21)
Voluntary labelling in the U.S. versus mandatory labelling in the E.U.? Why the difference? Differences across the Atlantic may be due to many factors, but partly to matters of philosophy (when it comes to assessing risk) and practice (when it comes to labelling). The philosophical framework behind much of the decision-making in the U.S. on GM products is a doctrine called "substantial equivalence." The principle was originally developed by international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the OECD. "The underlying concept is the requirement that any safety assessment should show that a genetically modified variety [of plant, in this case] is as safe as its traditional counterparts [substantially equivalent] through a consideration of a wide range of both intended and unintended effects. This involves consideration of a wide range of information including agronomic properties, phenotypic changes, and . . . data on critical nutrients and toxicants."(n22)
The more prevalent doctrine in Europe is known as the "precautionary principle." Although there are several definitions of the term, it is essence is a belief [that] there is an obligation to be certain that our actions (or . . . chemicals, food ingredients or technologies) do not cause harm or potential harm to people."(n23) The differences between the two play out in the assessment of risk and uncertainty over the effects of a new substance or technology. "The utilitarian/science model as used in the U.S. would have it that if the probability of harm is judged to be low and it the genetically modified foodstuffs are of some social benefit, then the introduction or use of those substances is 'safe.' A strict application of the precautionary approach says that if there remains any uncertainty or the extremely remote possibility of a disaster, prudence and ethics demand the substance/technology in question not be permitted."(n24) Application of the principle in the EU, especially as it applies to food labelling, may reflect the notion that people should be allowed to " exercise their autonomy to be able to choose not to consume or be exposed to possibly risky substances."(n25)
As a contrast to this, in "North America, regulators and companies agree that mandatory labels should be reserved for those products carrying a documented health risk or substantial change in nutritional composition. If the GM products are 'substantially equivalent' to conventional counterparts, companies argue, the GM label would be 'misleading,'"(n26) since they have already been determined to be 'safe.'
So who makes
the decisions in the United States when it comes to these products? In the
U.S., three agencies share responsibility for regulating the products of
modern agricultural biotechnology.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS) of the USDA regulates the field testing and
commercial sale of agricultural bioengineered plants.(n27) The Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) is responsible for regulating pesticides, including what they
call the "plant incorporated protectants", or insecticidal properties,
of transgenic plants.(n28) The Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) regulates the safety of foods and the safety and efficacy of
pharmaceuticals and animal feeds, as well as elements of labelling.(n29)
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA regulates the field testing and commercial sale of agricultural bioengineered plants.(n27)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for regulating pesticides, including what they call the "plant incorporated protectants", or insecticidal properties, of transgenic plants.(n28)
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of foods and the safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals and animal feeds, as well as elements of labelling.(n29)
The three agencies together maintain the U.S. Regulatory Agencies Unified Biotechnology Website. Click here to visit the site and learn more about the regulatory process for GMOs in the United States. Also, to view a searchable database of legislation concerning all aspects of GMOs which have been introduced in the state and federal legislatures, click here.
history, new technologies have brought with them risks and benefits,
intended and unintended consequences. The debate on GM plants cannot be
fully understood without looking at some of the specific risks associated
with modern agricultural biotechnology, risks both to the environment and
to human health. These risks include:
Gene flow (pollen from GM plants finding
its way into native plants producing new plants with adverse or
unintended effects) Emergence of new forms of resistance and
secondary pest or weed problems Recombination of the viruses or bacteria
[from the GM plants] to produce new pathogens Direct and indirect effects of new
[plant-based] toxins Changes in farm practices leading to
changes in biodiversity.(n30)
Gene flow (pollen from GM plants finding its way into native plants producing new plants with adverse or unintended effects)
Emergence of new forms of resistance and secondary pest or weed problems
Recombination of the viruses or bacteria [from the GM plants] to produce new pathogens
Direct and indirect effects of new [plant-based] toxins
Changes in farm practices leading to changes in biodiversity.(n30)
These five risks are classified as risks to the environment. The two primary risks to human health which have been identified to date are: 1) the new substances in transgenic crops might cause allergenic or immune system reactions, and 2) antibiotic resistance that might be transferred to humans from organisms used in developing the GM crops (antibiotic resistance marker genes).(n31) It is important to note here that no adverse effects on human health (from genetically modified foods) have been reported.(n32) However, it has also been suggested that "there could, in theory, be long-term effects on human health that have not yet been detected because GM foods have been available for less than ten years."(n33) [To view these issues in greater detail, you can click here to link to a 2002 report entitled Benefits and Risks of Food Biotechnology. The report also contains extensive information about transgenic plants in California.]
The issues of risks versus benefits, and how those risks versus benefits should be handled in the interest of mankind, are significant portions of the overall debate on GM food and modern biotechnology in general. As much as been said about proponents of the technologies such as some farmers, industry organizations, scientists, agribusiness companies and others, there are also very vocal opponents to GM foods.
To return to the top of the page, click here.
Photograph "Sarajevo Courtyard" © 1984 Dorothy A. Birsic
The Greens: Organics and Environmentalists
Few consumers may realize that there is a family of products which by definition and by law must be free of GMOs. These are organic products. Although some major grocery stores have begun devoting small portions of their produce sections to organics, for many the term still conjures up images of the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Sales of organic products, however, have been increasing at about 20% per year, from about $1 billion in 1993 to about $13 billion in 2003.(n34)
What exactly is organic farming? The organic farming philosophy centers "on practices designed to improve the richness and stability of the soil by restoring its organic matter and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides."(n35) A goal of this type of agricultural practice is "to optimize the health and productivity of interdependend communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."(n36) [Click here to read more about organic farming and organic products.]
Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) back in 1990. Its objective was to ensure consumers that foods labelled "organic" met a defined set of production criteria,(n37) which now has come to specifically exclude GM products. (These are deemed to be incompatible with the practices of organic farming.) The Act established the National Organic Program (NOP) within the USDA, and NOP regulations require that all food labelled as organic originate from farms or handling operations certified by a state or private entity that has been accredited by the USDA. [For further information on the NOP and organic standards, click here.]
The pictures below depict two of the types of labels which can be found on organic products. The one on the left is the official seal of the USDA. This seal may only appear on foods which consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The words "organic" or "100% organic" may also appear on the labels of such items. Processed foods containing at least 70% organic ingredients may use the phrase "made with organic ingredients," but not the seal. All other products may not use word "organic" on the main display portion of the label.
The label on the right (image courtesy of QAI) is from one of the certification agencies accredited by the USDA. Organizations such as this one, Quality Assurance International (QAI), verify that growers, processors and handlers of organic products meet all applicable standards, statues and regulations.(n38) Both of the seals may appear on products marked "organic" or "100% organic." Anyone intentionally violating the label laws may be fined up to $10,000; operators whose gross agricultural income from organic sales is less than $5,000 is exempt from them. The full text of laws governing growers can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations, 7 CFR Subchapter M, Part 205.
In general, organic farming is part of the much broader organic movement. The organic movement also "encompasses such tenets as animal welfare, energy efficiency, social justice and the simple agrarian ideals of small farms growing produce for local communities."(n39) As such, the movement finds close kin in many environmental organizations. Some of the largest of these organizations have taken the most prominent and visible stands against transgenic products. To read some of their positions on the debate, click on the links below. Where possible, direct links have been made to the pages stating positions on agricultural biotechnology and/or GM foods.
How can the debate and all these issues play out? This year a California county, Mendocino County, became the first in the nation to pass a local ballot measure concerning genetically modified organisms. The measure specifically prohibits the cultivation of GM crops within the county. To view the text of that measure, click here.
Photograph "Nepalese Rice Paddies" Copyright 1985 Dorothy A. Birsic
Conclusion and a Look Ahead to Part 2
"Plants are remarkable in their capacity to synthesize a variety of organic substances, such as vitamins, sugars, starches and amino acids. As many as 80,000 different substances are synthesized in plants, including macronutrients and micronutrients significant to human health."(n40) In Part 1, much of the "mechanics" of the debate on modern agricultural biotechnology have been discussed. Part 2, coming next month, will look at what modern agricultural biotechnology might look like in the future. Vitamin-enhanced rice and plant-based medicines (nutraceuticals) are just two of the products in the GM pipeline of tomorrow. Also, no discussion of the GM food debate would be complete without looking at the hopes for transgenic crops as a solution to hunger in the third world. The "debate" will continue next month. . . Hope you'll be back!
A special thanks to Norman E. Ellstrand, Professor of Genetics and Director of the Biotechnology Impact Center, Alan McHughen, Biotechnology Specialist and Plant Geneticist, and Carl Cranor, Professor of Philosophy, all of the University of California Riverside, for their insight and input during the writing of this essay.
To return to the top of the page, click here.
FOOTNOTES - The following are the footnotes indicated in the text in parentheses with the letter "n" and a number. If you click the asterisk at the end of the footnote, it will take you back to the paragraph where you left off.
n5 - Griffiths, Anthony, Miller, Jeffrey H., Suzuki, David T., Lewontin, Richard C., and Gelbart, William M. An Introduction to Genetic Analysis, 5th Edition, W.H. Freeman and Company: New York, 1993, p. 2 (*)
n23 - Burkhardt, Jeffrey, Thompson, Paul B., and Peterson, Tana Rae, "The First European Congress on Agricultural and Food Ethics and Follow-Up Workshop on Ethics and Food Biotechnology. A U.S. Perspective," Agriculture and Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2000, p. 329 (*)
To return to the top of the page, click here.
The list of links included in the essay is as follows:
Photograph "Tahitian Reef" © 1983 Dorothy A. Birsic
BIBLIOGRAPHY - The following is a bibliography for Part I of the essay. It will be updated to include the references for Part II once Part II is posted.
Biotechnology Industry Organization, Food Biotechnology. Online document: www.bio.org/speeches/pubs/er/food.asp
Bruening, George, "Transgenes are Revolutionizing Crop Production," California Agriculture, Vol. 54, No. 4, July/August 2000
Burkhardt, Jeffrey, Thompson, Paul B., and Peterson, Tana Rae, "The First European Congress on Agricultural and Food Ethics and Follow-Up Workshop on Ethics and Food Biotechnology: A U.S. Perspective," Agriculture and Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 4, December 2000, pp. 327-332
California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), Benefits and Risks of Food Biotechnology. CCST: Sacramento, CA, 2002
Council for Biotechnology Information, Good Ideas are Growing: Plant Biotechnology. Washington, D.C., June 2003
Council for Biotechnology Information, Realizing the Promise of Innovation, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Washington D.C., no date listed
Craddock, Neville, "Flies in the Soup - European GM Labeling," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, No. 4, April 2004, pp. 383-384
Cranor, Carl, Telephone interview, May 2004
Dandekar, Abhaya and Gutterson, Neal, "Genetic Engineering to Improve Quality, Productivity and Value of Crops," California Agriculture, Vol. 54, No. 4, July/August 2000, pp. 49 - 56
Degregori, Thomas R., Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 2001
Ellstrand, Norman, Telephone interview, May 2004
Federal Register, National Organic Program; Amendments fo the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, Vol. 68, No. 211, October 31, 2003
Federal Register, Statement of Policy: Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties, Vol. 57, No. 104, May 29, 1992
Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge and McBride, William D., Adoption of Bioengineerd Crops. Washington D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, AER-810, May 2002
Fox, Jeffrey, "USDA Scrutinizes GM Organism Regulations," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, No. 3, March 2004, pp. 255-256
Gewin, Virginia, "Organic FAQs," Nature 428, 22 April 2004, pp. 796-798
Giles, Jim, "Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't," Nature 425, 16 October 2003, pp. 656-657
Griffiths, Anthony, Miller, Jeffrey H., Suzuki, David T., Lewonton, Richard C., and Gelbart, William M., An Introduction to Genetic Analysis, 5th Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1993
Huang, Jikun, Pray, Carl, and Rozelle, Scott. "Enhancing the Crops to Feed the Poor," Nature 418, 8 August 2002, pp. 678-684
King, Nicelma, "Low Income Consumers, Though Less Aware of GMOs, Are Concerned and Want Labels," California Agriculture, Vol. 57, No. 3, July/September 2003
Kirby, Sarah L., "Genetically Modified Foods: More Reason to Label Than Not," 6 Drake Journal of Agricultural Law 351, Fall 2000
Klonsky, Karen, "Forces Impacting the Production of Organic Foods," Agriculture and Human Values, Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2000
Krebs, John, "Chairman's Report: The OECD Edinburgh Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of GM Foods," March 2000. Internet document: www.oecd.org/dataoecd/34/30/2097312.pdf
Lumpkin, N.H. and Padel, S., The Economics of Organic Farming. Wallingford: CAB International, 1994
Lurquin, Paul F., High Tech Harvest: Understanding Genetically Modified Food Plants. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002
MacIlwain, Colin, "Organic: Is It The Future of Farming?" Nature 428, 22 April 2004, pp. 792-793
McHughen, Alan, Pandora's Picnic Basket. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
McHughen, Alan, Telephone interview, May 2004
Monsanto Company, A Clear Focus: 2003 Annual Report. St. Louis: Monsanto Company, 2004
Monsanto Company, Biotechnology: Solutions for Tomorrow's World, June 2000. Company Brochure #00400089.
Monsanto Company, Key Facts About Food and Feed Safety: The Products of Plant Biotechnology. Company Brochure #00499185.
Monsanto Company, The Promise of Plant Biotechnology. Company Brochure #00499184.
Pretty, Jules, "The Rapid Emergence of Genetic Modification in World Agriculture: Contested Risks and Benefits," Environmental Conservation 28 (3), pp. 248-262
Quality Assurance International, FAQ Brochure
Ruse, Michael and Castle, David, eds., Genetically Modified Foods. New York: Prometheus Books, 2002
United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, State of Food and Agriculture, 2003-2004. Internet document: www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160e/y5160e07.htm
United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Statistics Service, Acreage Report. Washington D.C., June 2003
United States House of Representatives, Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Basic Research, From the Lab to the Field to the Market, Parts I - III, August 3, October 5 and October 19, 1999
To return to the top of the page, click here.