Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Genetically engineered...truth or dare?

Martek, maker of microbial oils by single cell protein production, states that their oils are not genetically engineered. Since the company began in 1985 they have always stated that genetic engineering is a possibility but that would be sometime in the future. Their first few patents were filed in 1992-1995. They now have many more patents but the original patents were from that time period.
Genetic engineering went commercial in 1985 when companies were able to manipulate enzymes. This was not public knowledge. Most consumers are unaware of how much of our food is genetically modified. I have helped run a small local organic food coop since 1985, and in the nineties came to the realization that almost all USA cheese is made with a genetically engineered enzyme that imitates cow or pig rennet (chymosin). Our coop in order to get cheese without this genetically engineered enzyme had to order cheese from Europe. Since that was prohibitively expensive, most members were resigned to eating American cheese or none at all. How many US consumers realize this fact. Do we know if this is safe technology? How do we know that this is safe? Previously we were dependent on the slaughter of veal calves or cows or pigs for our cheese. We are now dependent on genetically engineered E.coli, Kluyveromyces lactis, and Aspergillus niger to make our rennet. (from "An Introduction to Genetic Engineering," by Desmond S. T. Nicholl, second edition, Cambridge University Press, p.186)
Martek Bioscience is a spinoff company from Martin Marietta and the NASA space program. Providing food for people in space is a complex problem. Remember Tang, the orange breakfast drink? This drink was the result of the NASA space program. Teflon is also another product that has its roots in the space program. The space program creates consumer products that are in the marketplace.
On March 29, 1995 Henry Linsert, Chairman and CEO of Martek Biosciences (Steve Durbin is the current CEO) testified before the House Judiciary Committee subcommittee on courts and intellectual property. He was testifying on behalf of BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization). His testimony was about the enormous capital needed to bring a biotech product to market. He stated that Genzyme raised $328 million and Amgen had to raise $406 million. He spoke about the "critical synergy between intellectual property protection and capital formation." He quoted A Dr. Austin who states that patents are a way to attract investment capital. Henry Linsert states in this testimony, "Since genetic engineering is the only commercially feasible method for manufacturing human proteins, a patent on the recombinant manufacturing process can be tantamount to a product patent." Later he states, "Thus a patent on the method of making a protein by using a host cell would produce a basis for an infringement action under section 271(g) of tile 35, United States Code."
In a report written in June 2001 in Science ( volume 292 15 June 2001 page 2073) called "Trophic Conversion of an Obligate Photoautotrophic Organism Through Metabolic Engineering," scientists from Martek and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, detail how to genetically engineer a microalgae, Phaeodactylum tricornutum to thrive on glucose in the absence of light. This abstract states, "This also represents progress toward the use of fermentation technology for large scale commercial exploitation of algae by reducing limitations associated with light dependent growth."
In an article in the Asia Food Journal written by Leontien Braakman dated January 1, 2005 it states, "An American firm, Martek Bioscience has used genetic modification to convert algae that need light to grow, to the their energy instead from sugar." and "But the strain of algae has become a genetically modified organism (GMO) as a result consumers may not like this and reject products made with it." What strain are they talking about, since Martek denies genetically engineering the algae used for infant formula? Does Martek have separate fermenting tanks? How is this separation maintained during processing? Does the FDA inspect the facilities to ensure that no gmo strain accidently contaminates the algae not genetically engineered? Anyone know?
SemBioSys Genetics, Inc. has an agreement with Martek Bioscience that was amended in 2007. In a press release by BioSpace it states, "Martek has decided it is important to have the flexibility to pursue a traditional commodity crop as well as specialty crops, like safflower, as a source of DHA-rich plant oil. Regardless of the crop used by Martek as a source of DHA-rich oil, under the amended agreement, SemBioSys will receive a royalty on gross margin of DHA-rich plant oil product sales." SemBioSys is a biotech company that is developing commerical products using genetic engineering (in this case the plant,safflower, to create DHA).
So Martek is not adverse to using other biotech company's genetically engineered oils but does not genetically engineer its own oils. Will the consumer know whether the DHA is from algae or safflower or a mixture? Afterall, it's rocket science, and your guess is as good as mine. Rock, paper, scissors: who wins?
Copyright 2008 Valerie W. McClain

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