WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW CAN HURT:
THE RISKS OF GENETICALLY
ENGINEERED FOOD
By Barbara Keeler

"It's 2 a.m... a fog has descended... set against the yellow lights from
a nearby industrial plant, a figure lobs another destroyed vegetable
through the night air. Nearer to me another darkened figure slashes at the earth... Nearer still something more recognizable as human makes quick work of topping a row of vegetables
... in the 20 acre field... a whole acre of sugarbeet is being systematically destroyed. As the sugarbeet is hacked at, ripped out, slashed and beheaded, this doesn't at first sight resemble what I thought an 'action' would look like... in fact it looked more like the world gone wrong, the people fighting for the planet were now attacking it with vigor."

Letter from Gaelic Earth Liberation Front, sent to web site for the Great Boycott:
Why would people "fighting for the planet" rip up acres of sugar beets? On May 1st, 1997 the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted Monsanto the first license in Ireland to release genetically modified organisms (GMO) - Round-Up Ready sugar beet. Round-Up Ready seeds are Monsanto-engineered to produce plants that tolerate heavier doses of Monsanto's own herbicide, Round-Up. To GELF supporters, such an expedient is unacceptable on their land and in their food supply.

GELF is not alone in its opposition. Last fall, 120 French farmers destroyed corn seeds genetically engineered (GE) by Novartis to produce its own bacillicus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins in the flesh and ears of the plants. Greenpeace has turned back ships laden with GE foods. In Germany, organic farmers with land next to GE crops test fields took the biotechnology companies to court for compensation. The farmers fear their own seeds will be polluted by the GE pollen of the transgenic crops.

In countries as diverse as Austria, Denmark, Bavaria, Japan, and the United States, millions have signed petitions demanding either the outright prohibition or the labeling of GE foods. Demonstrations occur world wide. The Pure Food Campaign endorsed the international Great Boycott launched in 1996 against leading multinational producers of GE foods.

These objections are not the grumblings of chronic naysayers who would limit human aspiration, but the concerns of informed consumers. While the spotlight illuminates such high-visibility GE issues as cloned sheep, medical miracles, animal organ donors, and the ethics of human cloning, the day-to-day business -the business which actually puts products on store shelves and dinner tables - carries on in the shadow.

Though lacking the glamour of human cloning, food engineering dominates the research of biotechnology companies. Baseball-sized blueberries, tastier strawberries, more nutritious soybeans, an end to world hunger? Not exactly. According to Weed Technology, 57 percent of GE food research focuses on developing food crops that tolerate more pesticides, and scientists estimate that herbicide-tolerant plants will actually triple the amount of herbicide use. Herbicide-resistant corn, soybeans, potatoes, cotton, and rape seed oil are available from Monsanto, Dupont, Rhone Poulenc, Hoestch and other multinational corporations.

These and other GE foods are mixed with their unadulterated counterparts and diffused into the food supply without identifying labels. Neither long-term nor short-term safety tests have been conducted on humans or animals. As a citizen pointed out at a recent USDA hearing, "Human trials are, in fact, underway on GE foods, but the subjects have not consented or been identified."

Unlike genetically altered crops, humans, other life forms, and their ecosystems are not engineered to tolerate toxic herbicides. Chances are, you have already consumed plenty of herbicide-tolerant GE foods. More than sixty percent of processed food products contain soybeans or their derivatives, and of the soybeans planted in the United States this year, 30 percent will be Monsanto's Round-Up Ready beans.

New developments could reduce that percentage, however. Field trials conducted for American Cyanamid Company in 1997 by growers showed that America's farmers could  experience yield losses up to $43 per acre when using  Monsanto's Round-Up Ready soybean program.  The alternative is worse: multiple applications of Round-Up, reducing profit by the cost of additional herbicide. Profits are of paramount importance to farmers who must sign a contract with Monsanto stating that they will not use any other seeds or buy chemicals from any one else, and must allow company inspector's on their land to ensure compliance.

Other common GE food crops are registered as pesticides under EPA law, but sold as foods in the market, with no labels or warning that they produce their own insect-killing toxins internally. These BT toxin-producing plants include corn from Monsanto and Novartis and potatoes from Monsanto.

However, with eons of experience, nature ultimately outclasses humans in the engineering of species. As soon as humans invent something to kill pests, the pests find a way to develop resistance. Evidence shows that pesticide use produces resistant strains of pests, requiring ever more and stronger pesticides. Already scientists have proved herbicide-resistant genes can migrate into weedy populations, producing resistant super-weeds.

Organic gardeners, as well as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organization of about 30,000 scientists, have other concerns about pests' abilities to foil the best laid plans of humans. Organic gardeners rely on applications of bacillicus thuringiensis, soil bacteria that produce Bt toxins, to food crops. They apply the microbes judiciously, as needed, and at appropriate points in the growing process. The bacteria produce Bt toxins which bind to sites in the target insect's digestive system, preventing its absorption of food. Organic farmers and scientists and fear that the pests will develop resistance to Bt-toxins, rendering one of the most useful biological pest controls a might ineffective.

Scientists have other concerns. "Genetically modified organisms might migrate, mutate and multiply, and genetically pollute traditional crop varieties - but they cannot be recalled like a faulty product," warns Dr. Michael Antoniou, a senior lecturer in molecular pathology in London, Britain. He adds that normal gene function is tightly controlled so that the right proteins are made in the correct place, quantity, and time within the organism. It is the DNA that ensures that we do not find liver functions in the brain or leaf proteins in the fruit.

When genetic engineers cut and recombine the DNA molecule, they rearrange the code of all life. The DNA molecule comprises a string of genes that encode all the information that determines the structure and functioning of an organism for its entire lifespan, and the biological information passed to the next generation. The sequence of genes in DNA has not been completely deciphered except for rudimentary organisms such as bacteria, according to Dr Geoffrey Clements, Leader of the Natural Law Party of UK. In addition to genes, the molecule contains lengths of DNA about which little is known, and sections of the DNA which switch the genes on or off.

Clements emphasizes that the DNA molecule is not a simple chain of units with interchangeable parts like legos or computer chips. "....any  infinitesimal change to the DNA at any point will change its properties  throughout its length, in ways that no scientist could possibly predict. " he warns.

Another concern of Clement's involves the bacteria or virus genes commonly spliced into the food crops. "The control sections for the new gene [from bacteria] are much cruder in their operation than for 'natural' genes [in soybeans, corn, etc.]. Therefore they may switch the new gene on or off in an unpredictable manner, leading again to side-effects that could turn up at any time in the future."

While the explosion of biotech breakthroughs holds unlimited possibilities, what we do know, combined with what we don't know, can lead to unforeseen disasters. Pointing to FDA requirements of human testing before new additives can be marketed, molecular biologist John Fagan is among the scientists advocating similar requirements for GE foods. Dr. Fagan, formerly affiliated with the National Institutes of Health, has conducted extensive research with recombinant DNA. He warns that many genes spliced into common foods are from organisms that have never before been part of the human diet.

Most disturbing, if such foods were known to pose health risks, consumers and regulators would have no way to use the information. With GE foods unsegregated and unlabeled, who could identify the products to recall or avoid? As Fagan points out, this practice puts sensitive individuals at risk of allergies triggered by the genes added to foods.

Scientists report a number of adverse effects already. Considering that foods have only recently been genetically engineered, many scientists believe they have enough examples to justify a halt to experimentation, or at least long-term safety studies before putting GE crops into commercial use. They cite these examples: impaired sense of smell and shortened lifespan in bees consuming pollen from GE plants; changed hormone levels and altered milk content in cows eating GE soybeans; sickness in cattle given Bovine Growth Hormone (BST); crippled, blind, and immuno-compromised GE animals; failure of a GE cotton crop; unexpected and unpredictable change in color of GE petunias; pollution of the soil with transgenes; soil damage when a bacterium genetically engineered to aid in producing ethanol rendered the land infertile with its residues. New corn crops planted on the soil grew to three inches and died.

Dennis Parke, British advisor to the FDA on safety of biotechnology, writes: "In 1983, hundreds of people died in Spain after consuming adulterated rapeseed oil. This adulterated rape seed oil was not toxic to rats."

Although U.S. regulators are not heeding concerned scientists, manufacturers and retailers are responding to consumer demand. Even before Prince Charles called on UK supermarkets to stop selling foods with GE ingredients, the largest UK chains were calling on suppliers to label GE containing foods.

After Prof. Philip James, the UK's new Food Standards Agency, issued warnings, Malcolm Walker, chairman and chief executive of the UK supermarket chain Iceland Frozen Foods, decided to guarantee that 400 grocery products will contain no GE ingredients. Technical manager Bill Wads-worth assisted suppliers by scouring the world to find GE-free ingredients for their goods. In March, at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, he described the processing plant he set up in Brazil near the farmers who supply GE-free soybeans. In one location, oil is pressed from the beans, and soy flakes, soy powder, and textured soy protein made from the leftover meal. Lecithin is manufactured from the gum. His suppliers use these GE-free soy ingredients in their foods.

Norway also imports GE-free soybeans from Brazil, and provides them for Sweden. Last year, supermarket chains in Sweden pulled Nestle's products off the shelves when the company announced it could not guarantee them free of GE soy products.

U.S. consumers are not so lucky. A poll by Novartis showed 93% of American citizens strongly supporting labeling of GE foods, and demand for mandatory labeling is supported by dozens of national consumer, environmental, health, and business organizations. Yet the FDA maintains that GE foods are "virtually unchanged," and do not require labels. Concerned scientists, consumers, environmentalists, and health activists disagree. "A change in genetic material, which determines what an organism is, is the most fundamental change that can be made in a food," says Laura Ticciati, executive director of Mothers for Natural Law.

In spite of these warnings, the U.S. government has been hostile toward leaders of nations who try to protect their own citizens from GE foods. President Clinton and USDA Secretary Dan Glickman threatened last year to enlist World Trade Organization muscle and strong-arm countries who refuse to buy unsegregated GE foods from U.S. suppliers.

Soy products are of particular concern to vegetarians and fat-conscious consumers who rely heavily on soy products as meat substitutes. Would health-conscious individuals choose foods that are registered as pesticides, or grown in herbicide drenched soil? Regardless of the answer, informed choice is impossible given the present situation.

Concerned about lack of adequate studies, and unable to protect themselves and their children by reading labels, wary consumers are forced into more extreme measures. Some buy only organically raised foods and their products. Unfortunately, the proposed USDA rule defining organic standards, issued December 15, 1997, did not explicitly prohibit GMOs in organic food. The comment period for the rule closed April 30.

Lacking government protection, some consumers are taking action by whatever means available, such as substituting economic leverage for government muscle. Boycotts have been called against GE foods abroad, but at home they are impossible to implement without labels. Unable to identify GE foods, supporters of the Great Boycott target what they can identify - the stock and the entire line of products by Monsanto, Du Pont, and other identified leaders in production of pesticides and GE pesticide-tolerant food seeds. More long-standing boycotts have targeted Mon-santo products for the company's unlabeled bovine growth hormone.

Most of the world's people will never be affected by human cloning or animal organ donors, but GE foods are already on our plates. Yet while most Americans could name the first cloned sheep, many do not know that the products of GE food seeds - most of them toxin-producing or exposed to greater than normal levels of herbicide - are unlabeled and diffused into the general food supply worldwide.

Media reports that mention food engineering tend toward glowing accounts of healthier, tastier, and more abundant food. Yet most of the GE crops now in our food supply tolerate pesticides or produce toxins. When tastier, more nutrient dense GE foods appear, will they be safe? Nobody knows, and that is what worries scientists, environmentalists, and health activists, and consumers. 

Meanwhile, any hazardous effects may continue for generations to come. The effects of GE accidents may be irreversible. Once released into the environment, new life forms cannot be recalled.

For information and action concerning GE foods, contact:
Pure Food Campaign (310) 399-9355 or www.purefood.org
Mothers for Natural Law, (515) 472-2809 or mothers@fairfield.com  
 

To meet with others concerned about genetic engineering and supporters of the Great Boycott of leading multinational producers of GE foods and pesticides, call (310) 281-1927 or check the Great Boycott website at http://home.earthlink.net/~alto/boycott.html  

Barbara Keeler writes about health and the environment in news articles and in Health, Science, and Social Studies textbooks.


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