Hazards of Genetically Engineered Food

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December 03, 2000 | 29,638 views

The patentingof genetically engineered foods and widespread biotech food productionthreatens to eliminate farming as it has been practiced for 12,000 years.

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

Introductory Overview

The technology of genetic engineering (GE), wieldedby transnational "life science" corporations such as Monsantoand Novartis, is the practice of altering or disrupting the genetic blueprintsof living organisms -- plants, animals, humans, microorganisms -- patentingthem, and then selling the resulting gene-foods, seeds, or other productsfor profit.

Life science corporations proclaim, with great fanfare,that their new products will make agriculture sustainable, eliminate worldhunger, cure disease, and vastly improve public health. In reality, throughtheir business practices and political lobbying, the gene engineers havemade it clear that they intend to use GE to dominate and monopolize theglobal market for seeds, foods, fiber, and medical products.

GE is a revolutionary new technologystill in its early experimental stages of development. This technologyhas the power to break down fundamental genetic barriers -- not only betweenspecies -- but between humans, animals, and plants. By randomly insertingtogether the genes of non-related species -- utilizing viruses, antibiotic-resistantgenes, and bacteria as vectors, markers, and promoters -- and permanentlyaltering their genetic codes, gene-altered organisms are created thatpass these genetic changes onto their offspring through heredity.

Gene engineers all over the world are now snipping,inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming geneticmaterial. Animal genes and even human genes are randomly inserted intothe chromosomes of plants, fish, and animals, creating heretofore unimaginabletransgenic life forms. For the first time in history, transnational biotechnologycorporations are becoming the architects and "owners" of life.

With little or no regulatory restraints, labelingrequirements, or scientific protocol, bio-engineers have begun creatinghundreds of new GE "Frankenfoods" and crops, oblivious to humanand environmental hazards, or negative socioeconomic impacts on the world'sseveral billion farmers and rural villagers.

Despite an increasing number of scientists warningthat current gene-splicing techniques are crude, inexact, and unpredictable-- and therefore inherently dangerous -- pro-biotech governments and regulatoryagencies, led by the US, maintain that GE foods and crops are "substantiallyequivalent" to conventional foods, and therefore require neithermandatory labeling nor pre-market safety-testing. This Brave New Worldof Frankenfoods is frightening.

There are currently more than fourdozen genetically engineered foods and crops being grown orsold in the US. These foods and crops are widely dispersed into the foodchain and the environment. Over 70 million acres of GE crops are presentlyunder cultivation in the US, while up to 500,000 dairy cows are beinginjected regularly with Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH).

Most supermarket processed food itemsnow "test positive" for the presence of GE ingredients.In addition several dozen more GE crops are in the final stages of developmentand will soon be released into the environment and sold in the marketplace.According to the biotechnology industry almost100% of US food and fiber will be genetically engineered within 5-10 years.The "hidden menu" of these unlabeled genetically engineeredfoods and food ingredients in the US now includes soybeans, soy oil, corn,potatoes, squash, canola oil, cotton seed oil, papaya, tomatoes, and dairyproducts.

Genetic engineering of food and fiber products isinherently unpredictable and dangerous -- for humans, for animals, theenvironment, and for the future of sustainable and organic agriculture.As Dr. Michael Antoniou, a British molecular scientist points out, gene-splicinghas already resulted in the "unexpected production of toxic substances...in genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with theproblem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen."

The hazards of GE foods and crops fall basically intothree categories: human health hazards, environmental hazards, and socioeconomichazards. A brief look at the already-proven and likely hazards of GE productsprovides a convincing argument for why we need a global moratorium onall GE foods and crops.

Toxins & Poisons

Genetically engineered products clearly have the potentialto be toxic and a threat to human health. In 1989 a genetically engineeredbrand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement,killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled or afflicted more than 5,000others with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophiliamyalgia syndrome (EMS), before it was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration.

The manufacturer, Showa Denko, Japan's third largestchemical company, had for the first time in 1988-89 used GE bacteria toproduce the over-the-counter supplement. It is believed that the bacteriasomehow became contaminated during the recombinant DNA process. ShowaDenko has already paid out over $2 billion in damages to EMS victims.

In 1999, front-page headline stories in the Britishpress revealed Rowett Institute scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosiveresearch findings that GE potatoes, spliced with DNA from the snowdropplant and a commonly used viral promoter, the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus(CaMv), are poisonous to mammals. GE-snowdrop potatoes, found to be significantlydifferent in chemical composition from regular potatoes, damaged the vitalorgans and immune systems of lab rats fed the GE potatoes.

Most alarming of all, damage to the rats' stomachlinings -- apparently a severe viral infection -- most likely was causedby the CaMv viral promoter, a promoter spliced into nearly all GE foodsand crops.

Dr. Pusztai's pathbreaking research work unfortunatelyremains incomplete (government funding was cut off and he was fired afterhe spoke to the media). But more and more scientists around the worldare warning that genetic manipulation can increase the levels of naturalplant toxins in foods (or create entirely new toxins) in unexpected waysby switching on genes that produce poisons.

And since regulatory agencies do not currently requirethe kind of thorough chemical and feeding tests that Dr. Pusztai was conducting,consumers have now become involuntary guinea pigs in a vast genetic experiment.As Dr. Pusztai warns, "Think of William Tell shooting an arrow ata target. Now put a blindfold on the man doing the shooting and that'sthe reality of the genetic engineer doing a gene insertion."

Increased Cancer Risks

In 1994, the FDA approved the sale of Monsanto's controversialGE recombinant BovineGrowth Hormone (rBGH) -- injected into dairy cows to forcethem to produce more milk -- even though scientists warnedthat significantly higher levels (400-500% or more) of a potentchemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), in themilk and dairy products of injected cows, could pose serioushazards for human breast, prostate, and colon cancer.

A number of studies have shown that humans with elevatedlevels of IGF-1 in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer. Inaddition the US Congressional watchdog agency, the GAO, told the FDA notto approve rBGH, arguing that increased antibiotic residues in the milkof rBGH-injected cows (resulting from higher rates of udder infectionsrequiring antibiotic treatment) posed an unacceptable risk for publichealth.

In 1998, heretofore undisclosed Monsanto/FDA documentswere released by government scientists in Canada, showing damage to laboratoryrats fed dosages of rBGH. Significant infiltration of rBGH into the prostateof the rats as well as thyroid cysts indicated potential cancer hazardsfrom the drug. Subsequently the government of Canada banned rBGH in early1999. The European Union has had a ban in place since 1994.

Although rBGH continues to be injected into 4-5% ofall US dairy cows, no other industrialized country has legalized its use.Even the GATT Codex Alimentarius, a United Nations food standards body,has refused to certify that rBGH is safe. (Also see: Monsanto and FoxTV Unite to Suppress Journalists'Free Speech on Hazards of GeneticallyEngineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST)

Food Allergies

In 1996 a major GE food disaster was narrowly avertedwhen Nebraska researchers learned that a Brazil nut gene spliced intosoybeans could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitiveto Brazil nuts. Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans hadturned up negative.

People with food allergies (which currently afflicts8% of all American children), whose symptoms can range from mild unpleasantnessto sudden death, may likely be harmed by exposure to foreign proteinsspliced into common food products. Since humans have never before eatenmost of the foreign proteins now being gene-spliced into foods, stringentpre-market safety-testing (including long-term animal feeding and volunteerhuman feeding studies) is necessary in order to prevent a future publichealth disaster.

Mandatory labeling is also necessary so that thosesuffering from food allergies can avoid hazardous GE foods and so thatpublic health officials can trace allergens back to their source whenGE-induced food allergies break out.

Unfortunately the FDA and other global regulatoryagencies do not routinely require pre-market animal and human studiesto ascertain whether new allergens or toxins, or increased levels of humanallergens or toxins we already know about, are present in geneticallyengineered foods. As British scientist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho points out "Thereis no known way to predict the allergenic potential of GE foods. Allergicreactions typically occur only some time after the subject is sensitizedby initial exposure to the allergen."

Damage to Food Quality& Nutrition

A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe published in the Journalof Medicinal Food found that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogencompounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lowerin genetically modified soybeans than in traditional strains. These andother studies, including Dr. Pusztai's, indicate that genetically engineeringfood will likely result in foods lower in quality and nutrition. For examplethe milk from cows injected with rBGH contains higher levels of pus, bacteria,and fat.

Antibiotic Resistance

When gene engineers splice a foreign gene into a plantor microbe, they often link it to another gene, called an antibiotic resistancemarker gene (ARM), that helps determine if the first gene was successfullyspliced into the host organism.

Some researchers warn that these ARM genes might unexpectedlyrecombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environmentor in the guts of animals or people who eat GE food, contributing to thegrowing public health danger of antibiotic resistance -- of infectionsthat cannot be cured with traditional antibiotics, for example new strainsof salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter, and enterococci. EU (European Union)authorities are currently considering a ban on all GE foods containingantibiotic resistant marker genes.

Increased PesticideResidues in the Soil and on Crops

Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studieshave found that US farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxicpesticides and herbicides as conventional farmers, and in some cases areusing more. Crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant accountfor 70% of all GE crops planted in 1998.

The so-called "benefits" of these herbicide-resistantcrops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide ontheir crops as they want -- killing the weeds without damaging their crop.Scientists estimate that herbicide-resistant crops planted around theglobe will triple the amount of toxic broad-spectrum herbicides used inagriculture. These broad-spectrum herbicides are designed to literallykill everything green.

The leaders in biotechnology are the same giant chemicalcompanies -- Monsanto, DuPont, AgrEvo, Novartis, and Rhone-Poulenc --that sell toxic pesticides. These companies are genetically engineeringplants to be resistant to herbicides that they manufacture so they cansell more herbicides to farmers who, in turn, can apply more poisonousherbicides to crops to kill weeds.

Genetic Pollution

"Genetic pollution" and collateral damagefrom GE field crops already have begun to wreak environmental havoc. Wind,rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically-alteredpollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic andnon-GE farmers.

An organic farm in Texas has been contaminated withgenetic drift from GE crops on a nearby farm and EU regulators are consideringsetting an "allowable limit" for genetic contamination of non-GEfoods, because they don't believe genetic pollution can be controlled.Because they are alive, gene-altered crops are inherently more unpredictablethan chemical pollutants -- they can reproduce, migrate, and mutate. Oncereleased, it is virtually impossible to recall genetically engineeredorganisms back to the laboratory or the field.

Damage to Beneficial Insectsand Soil Fertility

Earlier this year, Cornell University researchersmade a startling discovery. They found that pollen from genetically engineeredBt corn was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The study adds to a growingbody of evidence that GE crops are adversely affecting a number of beneficialinsects, including ladybugs and lacewings, as well as beneficial soilmicroorganisms, bees, and possibly birds.

Creation of GE "Superweeds"and "Superpests"

Genetically engineering crops to be herbicide-resistantor to produce their own pesticide presents dangerous problems. Pests andweeds will inevitably emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant,which means that stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to getrid of the pests.

We are already seeing the emergence of the first "superweeds"as GE herbicide-resistant crops such as rapeseed (canola) spread theirherbicide-resistance traits to related weeds such as wild mustard plants.Lab and field tests also indicate that common plant pests such as cottonboll worms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, will soon evolveinto "superpests" completely immune to Bt sprays and other environmentallysustainable biopesticides. This will present a serious danger for organicand sustainable farmers whose biological pest management practices willbe unable to cope with increasing numbers of superpests and superweeds.

Creation of NewViruses and Bacteria

Gene-splicing will inevitably result in unanticipatedoutcomes and dangerous surprises that damage plants and the environment.Researchers conducting experiments at Michigan State University severalyears ago found that genetically-altering plants to resist viruses cancause the viruses to mutate into new, more virulent forms. Scientistsin Oregon found that a genetically engineered soil microorganism, Klebsiellaplanticola, completely killed essential soil nutrients. EnvironmentalProtection Agency whistle blowers issued similar warnings in 1997 protestinggovernment approval of a GE soil bacteria called Rhizobium melitoli.

Genetic "Bio-Invasion"

By virtue of their "superior" genes, somegenetically engineered plants and animals will inevitably run amok, overpoweringwild species in the same way that introduced exotic species, such as kudzuvine and Dutch elm disease, which have created problems in North America.What will happen to wild fish and marine species, for example, when scientistsrelease into the environment carp, salmon, and trout that are twice aslarge, and eat twice as much food, as their wild counterparts?

Socioeconomic Hazards

The patenting of genetically engineered foods andwidespread biotech food production threatens to eliminate farming as ithas been practiced for 12,000 years. GE patents such as the TerminatorTechnology will render seeds infertile and force hundreds of millionsof farmers who now save and share their seeds to purchase evermore expensiveGE seeds and chemical inputs from a handful of global biotech/seed monopolies.

If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenicplants and food-producing animals will soon lead to universal "bioserfdom"in which farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomeratessuch as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds and offspring. Family andindigenous farmers will be driven off the land and consumers' food choiceswill be dictated by a cartel of transnational corporations. Rural communitieswill be devastated. Hundreds of millions of farmers and agricultural workersworldwide will lose their livelihoods.

Ethical Hazards

The genetic engineering and patenting of animals reducesliving beings to the status of manufactured products and will result inmuch suffering. In January 1994, the USDA announced that scientists hadcompleted genetic "road maps" for cattle and pigs, a precursorto evermore experimentation on live animals. In addition to the crueltyinherent in such experimentation (the "mistakes" are born withpainful deformities, crippled, blind, and so on), these "manufactured"creatures have no greater value to their "creators" than mechanicalinventions.

Animals genetically engineered for use in laboratories,such as the infamous "Harvard mouse" which contains a humancancer-causing gene that will be passed down to all succeeding generations,were created to suffer. A purely reductionist science, biotechnology reducesall life to bits of information (genetic code) that can be arranged andrearranged at whim.

Stripped of their integrity and sacred qualities,animals who are merely objects to their "inventors" will betreated as such. Currently, hundreds of genetically engineered "freak"animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government. Onecan only wonder, after the wholesale gene-altering and patenting of animals,will GE "designer babies" be next?

Also see:

Published in Motion Magazine August 29, 1999. Originally published by Ronnie Cummins in the August 24, 1999 issue of the Internet publication Campaign for Food Safety News. Republished with permission.

Ronnie Cummins works at the Campaign for Food Safety
The Campaign for Food Safety is a public interest organization dedicated to building a healthy, safe, and sustainable system of food production and consumption. We are a global clearinghouse for information and grassroots technical assistance.To subscribe to the monthly electronic newsletter, Campaign for Food Safety News, send an email message to: < majordomo@mr.net > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.
Affiliated with the Organic Consumers Association

Although this is an olderarticle not much has changed in food that is genetically engineered, exceptthat there is more of it. This is an excellent review of the topic andone that we ALL need to familiarize ourselves with as we will be increasinglyexposed to GM foods.

I did not realize that the contaminated tryptophanissue was related to genetically modified bacteria. Folks, this is a bigissue and my feeling is that this is the tip of the iceberg. If you wantto keep you and your family healthy I advise avoiding these foods.

If you follow the dietguidelines you will be doing it, since soy and corn aretwo of the most widely GM foods. You also might want to considersubscribing to the Organic Consumers Association.

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