Genetic Engineering of Plants--A Review
by Jean English
How is it done?
Genes from organisms that would never cross with plants without human intervention can now be put into plants in two general ways, both known as genetic engineering. In one, genes are inserted using viruses or bacteria as vectors. The desired gene from an organism is removed by the action of enzymes, while the DNA of the bacteria or virus is split with other enzymes. Yet another enzyme "glues" the desired gene into the bacteria or virus, then these carry it into the plant, where it may or may not become part of the plant genome.
Because of the imprecision of this procedure, "marker genes" are inserted with some novel genes. These markers usually are genes that confer antibiotic resistance to the engineered plant. After the novel genes are mixed with the plant genes, the resultant organisms are exposed to an antibiotic. Those that have incorporated the novel gene and the antibiotic resistance trait will survive exposure to the antibiotic; those that haven';t, won';t.
Other genes may be inserted to activate the target gene. The cauliflower mosaic virus (CMV) is a common activator.
Another way to insert a gene into a plant is to "shoot" micro particles of DNA-coated gold, tungsten or other inert materials, using a "gene gun," directly into the cells of the plant. Where the DNA lands in the genome of the plant, no one knows. It may not land, or it may land in many different regions of the genome and exhibit varying degrees of stability.
Both methods have been described as crude, inexact and unpredictable.
A new method called chimeraplasty uses "gene conversion" to edit the genetic code of a living cell without inserting foreign genes. A short piece of DNA is coated with fragments of RNA and is taken up by cells. According to Dr. Joe Cummins, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at University of Western Ontario (Genetic Engineering News, 7/26/99), the impact of this new technology on families of related genes--which are most genes involved in metabolism--has not been discussed. "Non-target, related genes may be converted with untoward consequences. Furthermore, the very technique shows that exposure to naked DNA or DNA mixed with RNA fragments may provoke unexpected changes in the cells..."
What';s out there?
Genetically engineered foods have been widely consumed in the United States since 1996, when the Flavr Savr tomato was put on the market. By 1999, 33% of the U.S. corn crop was genetically engineered (mostly to express the Bt toxin); 50% of the U.S. soy crop was engineered (mostly Roundup Ready soy); and 50% of the cotton crop was engineered, including some that was grown for edible cottonseed oil ("Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions," by Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 8/15/99). Sixty percent of Canada';s canola crop was engineered. Nearly one-quarter of U.S. cropland raised GE crops in 1999. Fifty-six genetically modified farm products were on the market by the summer of '99, and hundreds more were being developed ("Tinkering with the DNA on Your Dinner Plate," by Scott Allen, Boston Globe, 7/11/99). Seventy-one percent of the GE crops grown in 1998 were engineered to resist such herbicides as Roundup, the world';s largest selling herbicide (Consumers for Food Safety News). In addition to soy, corn, canola and cotton, other engineered crops that are on the market include potatoes, squash, papaya, tomatoes and dairy products. The majority of the processed foods (some 30,000 items) on supermarket shelves contain engineered products or their derivatives.
Going beyond the supermarket, Monsanto's Paul Teng says that 1 million farmers in China';s Hebei Province are growing GE cotton (Reuters, Nov. 23, 1999). Australian scientists have engineered a poppy plant that can produce twice as much opium as non-GE plants (Genetic Engineering News, 11/29/99). British and U.S. scientists are experimenting with fish that have been engineered to include the gene for human growth hormone (hGH), which increases the growth rate and final size of the fish (New Scientist, 4/12/99; www.newscientist.com). Trees are being engineered for increased growth rates, modified wood structured, altered reproductive cycles, improved tolerance to herbicides, and possibly to store more carbon (World Wide Fund for Nature, Press Release, 11/9/99). The Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research is developing bananas that include vaccines, while researchers are hoping to engineer plants that fight pests, thrive under adverse environmental conditions, offer improved nutrition (such as increased beta-carotene content) and produce plastics ("Reassessing Ecological Risks of Genetically Altered Plants," by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, The New York Times, Nov. 3, 1999).
Dr. Pusztai';s Story
The most dramatic story of what';s been going on and what';s been going wrong with genetic engineering is the story of Dr. Arpad Pusztai. Dr. Pusztai is the world expert in a type of proteins called lectins. After the Hungarian Revolution, he was offered a fellowship to work wherever he wanted. He chose Great Britain, believing that he would be able to do his work and discuss his results freely there.
Dr. Pusztai was a strong proponent of genetic engineering. He engineered the lectin protein from snowdrops into potatoes, along with the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter gene (CMV), to confer pest resistance to the potatoes. He expected that the potatoes would be perfectly safe for human consumption--but unlike other researchers, he decided to make sure. The only published paper he could find on feeding trials of a GE crop was a study published by Monsanto in 1996 in which rats, catfish, chickens and cows were fed Roundup Ready soy. "...the researchers appear to have done their utmost to find no problem," Pusztai told GM-FREE magazine (Aug./Sept. 1999, "Why I Cannot Remain Silent"). "They were using mature animals which are not forming body tissues and organs... With a nutritional study on mature animals, you would never see any difference in organ weights, even if the food turned out to be anti-nutritional." The Monsanto researchers fed the rats commercial feed that contained 20% protein, only one-tenth of which was GE soy. "Most of this high overall dietary protein was used by the rats for energy, thus masking any possible effect of the GM soya protein. You need to stress the animals if you want to see the effects of a feeding trial in a short enough time. This is my field, so you can take it for granted that if I had had the chance of refereeing that paper, it would never have passed."
Pusztai claims that the Monsanto researchers never weighed the organs of the animals in the experiment. "...they just looked at them--what they call 'eyeballing.'; I must have done thousands of post-mortems, so I know that even if there is a difference in organ weights of as much as 25%, you wouldn';t see it."
Pusztai decided to do a feeding study of his own. Working at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, Pusztai conducted a 10-day trial in which he fed six rats potatoes that had been genetically engineered to contain the snowdrop lectin protein, which is commonly engineered into crops; six others were fed the parent line of the potato, spiked with the lectin (the lectin was not engineered into the plant); while six others received the parent line without the added lectin.
All of the rats receiving lectins suffered some damage, since lectins are poisonous (note that the Bt protein that is engineered into potatoes and corn is a form of lectin), but the rats who ate the engineered potatoes had significantly weaker immune systems and more malformed kidneys, spleen and brain tissue than control rats.
Pusztai asked Stanly Ewen, senior pathologist at the Aberdeen University Medical School, to examine the rats. Ewen found that rats who had eaten the engineered potatoes had thickened stomach linings and enlarged crypts (the bottom part of the large intestine). This is problematic because theoretically it provides more surface area upon which cancers can grow.
Pusztai was so alarmed by the results of his trial that he sought further financing, which he was refused. So he decided to go on British television in January of 1998, after receiving permission to do so from Philip James, director of Rowett, to discuss his results. He was given permission again in April to televise his concerns. He said on TV that he would not eat GE foods himself and that it was "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs." ("Miracle Foods That the Public Won';t Swallow," by Luke Anderson, Observer (London), 2/14/99)
Philip James defended Pusztai';s actions on the day after his television appearance, but on the second day suspended him, criticized his research techniques, made him sign a gag order, and forced him to retire. An internal audit of Pusztai';s research said that it was flawed. Note that Rowett had received $230,000 from Monsanto two years before this incident, and that the British government was being pressured heavily by the Clinton administration to promote GE foods. Philip James denied that Monsanto had put any pressure on the Institute (Chicago Tribune, 2/18/99).
However, when Pusztai';s data were reviewed by an outside panel of toxicologists, genetic engineers, medical experts and other scientists from 13 countries, these scientists signed a joint memorandum saying that his conclusions were justified. The panel recommended a five-year moratorium on the sale of genetically engineered foods in Great Britain.
Pusztai and Ewen speculate that the effects on the rats may have been caused by the CMV, the promoter virus used to activate inserted genes in their experimental potato and in most engineered crops--especially since the alarming damage to the rats'; stomach linings appeared to be due to a severe viral infection (CFS News, 8/24/99). More recent research suggests that CMV can reactivate dormant viruses or create new viruses in species to which it is transferred. CMV is in almost all transgenic crops, where it may also promote the over-expression of genes, possibly leading to cancer (Mae-Wan Ho, Angela Ryan and Joe Cummins, "Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter--A Recipe for Disaster?" Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, Dec. 1999, www.scup.no/mehd/ho. See also www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/camv.htm).
After Pusztai made his research public, Dr. Vyvyan Howard, a toxipathologist at Liverpool University, told the BBC: "We're going to have to test these plants like pharmaceutical agents." Ronald Finn, former president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental Medicine, said that if the engineered potatoes had the same effects on humans as on rats, they could be expected to increase cancer rates, and he said that "Dr. Pusztai's results, at the very least, raise the suspicion that genetically modified food may damage the immune system."
Pusztai';s research was published in the journal Lancet (Oct. 1999; www.thelancet.com). His story highlights two problems that have plagued genetic engineering: the lack of testing for effects on consumers, and the political and corporate pressure being applied to promote this technology without such testing. Pusztai told reporter Brian Baxter that even when he was under the rule of Stalinist Russia, he was not treated with the repression that he received in Britain. "...we have much to be ashamed of," he told Baxter. "It would appear, for instance, that no scientist is allowed to disclose any discovery without it being passed by those in authority above. In other words, truth is no longer acceptable if it goes against the ideas or ideals of those in power." ("Scientist Must Not Be Gagged," by Brian Baxter, Eastern Daily Press, 2/16/99).
Other Health Effects
Also regarding health effects, people with allergies may be at risk when they eat engineered foods--and not just when common allergens are involved. Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist, told the Sunday Independent (United Kingdom, 2/21/99) that disrupting genetic functions can lead to biochemical changes which, in turn, may give rise to novel toxins and allergens. The ingestion of L-tryptophan that was derived from genetically engineered bacteria may show how serious these toxins can be: In 1989, when this product hit the market, 37 people were killed and 1500 were permanently disabled by a new blood disease. Scientists at the Japanese company Showa Denko Corp., where the amino acid was synthesized, think that the engineering process itself produced traces of a potent new toxin that caused these deaths and disabilities, according to Antoniou. Showa Denko has, so far, paid out more than $2 billion in damages to victims of the disease, Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome. (Consumers for Food Safety News, 8/24/99)
Other allergies are also of concern. Because genes are "translated" into proteins by cells, and because proteins are the most common allergens, engineered foods may be exposing the populace to novel allergens. When a bacterial gene is engineered into a potato, we eat a protein--in large quantities--that was never before part of the human diet. Some 2.5 to 5 million Americans (including 8% of all American children) suffer from food allergies, reacting with anything from mild discomfort to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. ("Genetically Engineered Foods: Who';s Minding the Store?" Environmental Defense Fund pamphlet).
Such a problem almost occurred when Pioneer Seed Co. spliced a Brazil nut gene into soy. Pioneer did not think that putting just one gene from the thousands of Brazil nut proteins into soy would cause allergies, especially since the GE soy tested negative for allergenicity on animals. However, researchers did find that this one gene could cause potentially fatal allergic reactions in humans. "In trying to build a better soybean, the company had made a potentially deadly one," reports Rick Weiss ("Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions," Washington Post, 8/15/99). Pioneer immediately pulled the soybean, but this whole event was symbolic because, as Weiss says, "it was, and still is, one of the very few studies ever to look directly for any harm from an engineered food or crop." The biotech industry, on the other hand, argues that this example shows that the regulatory system works.
Another interesting note is that in Britain, food allergies relating to soy increased by 50% in 1998, and for the first time in 17 years of testing, soy made the York Nutritional Laboratory's list of top 10 foods to cause allergic reaction in children.
British scientist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho says, "There is no known way to predict the allergenic potential of GE foods. Allergic reactions typically occur only some time after the subject is sensitized by initial exposure to the allergen." The fact that we allow untested, engineered soy in formula for babies is unconscionable.
How did we get to this point? Thank former Vice President Dan Quayle who, in May 1992, announced a new FDA policy called "regulatory relief." This leaves food producers to themselves to decide whether they need to consult FDA before marketing GE foods, and it no longer requires food manufacturers to establish scientifically the safety of new substances that are added to food before selling them to the public. The FDA requires proof of safety only "in cases where safety questions exist sufficient to warrant formal pre-market review." Since 1992, the FDA has required allergy testing only when new foods contain genes from milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, legumes or nuts--foods that account for about 90% of food allergies in the United States. Companies must assure FDA, also, that their novel foods are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods. Of the 44 crops approved by the FDA by early 1999, 44 were claimed to be "substantially equivalent" by the industry. ("Genetically Engineered Foods: Who';s Minding the Store," Environmental Defense Fund pamphlet; "Long-Term Effect of Genetically Modified Crops Serves Up Food for Thought," by Declan Butler and Tony Reichhardt, Nature, 4/22/99). The refusal of FDA to regulate GE foods has continued under the Clinton Administration.
Butler and Reichhardt point out an additional worry: There';s no widely accepted way to predict the potential of a novel food to cause an allergy. "The FDA is now five years behind in its promise to develop guidelines for doing so."
Pusztai questions the notion of "substantial equivalence," pointing out that genes are inserted in different positions within the target genome, even in a single experiment, and because of the positioning effect of genes, "we don';t know which genes in the host organism the inserted genes will make silent or reactivate."
Pusztai continues, "Biotech companies claim they test for 'known allergens'; like peanuts. But there are thousands of other foods that can cause serious allergies but which are not classed as known allergens. On top of this, there may be new toxins or allergens in GM foods that are not spotted because they are not looked for." ("Why I Cannot Remain Silent," GM-FREE, Aug./Sept. 1999).
On the flip side, Dr. Michael Vayda, a molecular geneticist at the Univ. of Maine, says he looks forward to the day when genetic engineering enables him to eat wheat by removing the substance in that food to which he is allergic. (Personal communication, Oct. 1999)
Here's another health caution: Some scientists think that the antibiotic resistance marker genes used to indicate that crops have been successfully engineered may spread horizontally through the microbial world--either in the environment or in the mouth, respiratory tract or guts of those who eat GE foods--and may pass antibiotic resistance on to animals through their feed, and then on to human consumers. This could add to the existing problem of antibiotic resistant diseases. The "World Scientists'; Statement", signed by 85 prominent scientists as of July 15, 1999, cites several experiments that showed the possibility of such horizontal movement (see www.i-sis.dircon.co.uk). The European Parliament demanded a ban on antibiotic-resistant marker genes in GE crops, and industry reportedly is trying to phase out the use of these markers. ("GM Crops Face Heat of Debate," by Ricki Lewis and Barry A. Palevitz, The Scientist, Oct. 11, 1999; www.the-scientist.library.upenn.edu/yr1999/oct/lewis_pl_991011.html) Other scientists downplay this possible problem, especially in light of the extensive amount of resistance that has developed already through the overuse of antibiotics in conventional agriculture and medicine.
Most (71%) GE crops are engineered to resist herbicides, especially Roundup (glyphosate). The journal Cancer (3/15/99) reported links between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin';s lymphoma, a form of cancer. In 1998, over 112,000 tons of glyphosate were sprayed on the earth. (Consumers for Food Safety News, 7/14/99).
Damage to Food Quality
A paper in the Journal of Medicinal Food (Vol. 1, No. 4, 1999) by Dr. Marc Lappe and coworkers showed that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) in Monsanto';s Roundup-Ready soybeans were 12 to 14% lower than in nonengineered soy. Phytoestrogens are believed to protect against breast cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis. Lappe hypothesizes that the RR soybeans put so much energy into metabolizing their herbicide resistance that less energy was available to synthesize phytoestrogens. Lappe';s work was criticized by Monsanto and by the American Soybean Association because he studied only two varieties of RR soybeans. Lappe responded, "Monsanto, which controls all these seeds, told our supplier to cut us off." (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/26/99).
Effects on the Ecosystem
Engineered crops may harm nontarget, predatory insects and therefore interfere with natural pest control--and thus may require more chemical pesticide applications. In one study in Scotland, aphids were fed genetically engineered potatoes. Ladybugs that then ate those aphids laid fewer eggs and had shorter lifespans than ladybugs who ate aphids that fed on nonengineered potatoes. Other experiments have found similar results with lacewings, while still others suggest that Bt corn may inadvertently kill ladybugs and lacewings--thus destroying the bugs that kept the corn-eating caterpillars in check in the first place (Consumers for Food Safety News, July 14, 1999). In addition, the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), to which most crops are engineered to resist, may harm predatory mites and parasitoids, according to a European Community report on the herbicide (Pesticide Action Network press release, Oct. 27, 1999). Ecologists believe that such disruptions could affect insect-eating bird populations and other levels of the farm food web. Similarly, the British government's chief scientist, Sir Robert May, worries that wildlife will suffer when herbicide-resistant crops allow farmers to eliminate almost all species from their fields except the engineered crop.
The widespread use of the herbicide Roundup, already noted, adds to the above concerns. This herbicide is already widely applied to soy, cotton, canola and corn acreage in the United States. In 2000, it will be used on RR sugar beets. ("Say--What';s It All About?" The Green Guide, July 1999). This extensive use of Roundup may increase soil erosion and runoff into streams--and it is threatening the milkweed crop on which many Monarch butterflies depend. About 50% of the Monarchs that overwinter in Mexico spend the summer in a small area between Nebraska and Ohio--where rapid adoption of herbicide-resistant corn and soy has occurred.
Add to this the news that pollen from Bt corn is toxic to Monarchs in lab and field tests, and may be toxic to 18 other threatened or endangered species of Lepidoptera. Thus, the major environmental groups in the United States have asked the EPA to stop registering new varieties of Bt corn until a better plan for preserving ecosystems is developed. All Bt corn varieties on the market have temporary registrations that expire in 2000 or 2001. (J. Losey, L. Raynor and M. Carter, "Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae," Nature 399:214, May 20, 1999; L. Hansen and J. Lbrycki, "Non-target effects of Bt corn pollen on the Monarch butterfly," Abstract of a poster presented at the North Central Branch meeting of the Entomological Society of America, March 29, 1999[www.pme.iastate.edu/info/monarch.htm]. See also "Monarch butterflies may be threatened in their North American range," Environmental Review, April 1999; "Monarchs and their roots," Science, Jan. 8, 1999; and Monarch Watch at www.monarchwatch.org.)
The Union of Concerned Scientists has published research showing that genetically engineered Bt crops are building up Bt toxins in the soil, thereby damaging the soil food web and harming beneficial insects. (Fall/Winter 1998 UCC Gene Exchange; also C. Creechio and G. Stotzky, "Insecticidal activity and biodegradation of the toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki bound to humic acids from soil," Soil Biology and Biochemistry 30:463-470, 1998) Likewise, Dr. Guenther Stotzky and co-workers at New York University have shown that Bt corn releases the Bt toxin into the soil through its roots. The toxin then binds with soil particles, where it becomes very stable, persisting in this study for 243 days (Nature, Dec. 2, 1999; www.nature.com). Scientists previously thought that the Bt protein was too large to cross the membranes of root cells. Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer are actually engineering a corn variety now that expresses a high Bt toxin concentration in the root system and in exudates to control the corn rootworm complex (Genetic Engineering News, Dec. 2, 1999).
Even the biotech industry has admitted that engineering crops to resist pests will result in pests that resist particular toxins. For years we have been trying to get off of the pesticide treadmill, which addicted farmers to increasingly toxic pesticides as insects and diseases became resistant to one pesticide after another. Now we are on the genetic engineering treadmill. This has alarmed organic growers, because one of their primary tools in fighting pests, Bacillus thuringiensis, has been engineered into so many crops that the insects will soon resist the engineered and non-engineered forms of the bacteria. Because of this, more than 70 plaintiffs, including Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, IFOAM (with 650 member groups--including MOFGA--in 100 countries) and other environmental organizations, businesses and growers have sued EPA, charging that it did not properly assess the environmental risks associated with Bt crops: insect resistance to Bt; transfer of Bt genes to other plants; and effects of Bt crops on beneficial, nontarget insects. The lawsuit asks the EPA to withdraw current registrations and deny future approvals of Bt crops. At the opening session of this suit in the Federal District Court in Wahsington, D.C., in Januray, Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer said he woud "hold EPA';s feet to the fire" and ordered the agency to respond to the charges within 60 days. (Genetic Engineering News, Jan. 22, 2000)
The industry claims that refuge strategies--planting areas of nonengineered crops where pests that are developing resistance to Bt will mate with those that aren';t--will slow the resistance problem. However, that strategy has many faults. First, farmers are not always willing to sacrifice part of their acreage to refuges. Second, refuges will only slow and not prevent the development of resistance. Third, refuges may not even work. For instance, Yong-Biao Liu of the University of Arizona found that Bt-resistant bollworms took longer to mature than did those feeding on non-Bt cotton; reaching sexual maturity at different times interferes with the ability of resistant and non-resistant insects to mate. (Nature, 8/4/99). Likewise, scientists had assumed that resistance would be inherited as a recessive gene and would take longer to emerge than if it were dominant; but a report in Science magazine (284:965-967) showed that European corn borers resistant to the Bt toxin may carry the trait as dominant.
Scientists, environmentalists and farmers also fear that engineered crops will spread their seeds and/or genes to plants and places in the environment where they are not wanted. This could create "superweeds" that may push out native vegetation (and harm wildlife that feed on that vegetation), or it may contaminate organic and nonengineered crops (including honey). Such fears are not unfounded. Research has shown that a GE, herbicide resistant species, Arabidopsis thaliana, readily crossed with a non-resistant variety. Others have shown that GE Brassica napus readily crosses with a weedy relative. Wheat (non GE) can readily cross with bearded goatgrass, a problem weed in the western United States--even though they';re different species; so if herbicide resistant wheat were developed, herbicide resistant goatgrass could result. Likewise, sorghum can easily cross with Johnson grass, a problem weed in the United States and Africa.
In 1998, Monsanto received an "escaped pollen fine" of almost 25,000 pounds from magistrates in Lincolnshire (England) after the company's test planting of engineered oilseed rape failed to meet rules intended to stop the spread of pollen to other crops.
One British study found that bees could spread GE-tainted pollen from oilseed rape for a distance of 4 kilometers, thus endangering the crops of many nearby farmers ("Gene Flow in Agriculture," Relevance for Transgenic Crops Conference, Keele Univ., April 1999, British Crop Protection Council Symposium Proceedings No. 72). A review of studies by the National Pollen Research Unit for the Soil Association in Great Britain says that oilseed rape pollen can travel up to 4 km, while sugar beet and corn pollen can travel 800 meters. (Farmers Weekly, UK, Jan. 14, 2000)
At the University of Maine, John Jemison evaluated natural cross-pollination of GE corn into standard corn hybrids and found that the highest cross-pollination occurred 100 feet from the GE corn at 1%, while cross pollination appeared to drop off exponentially with distance from the source (email of abstract from email@example.com).
Terra Firma Inc., an organic food company in Wisconsin, was forced to recall over $100,000 worth of organic tortilla chips that had been contaminated by engineered corn from another farm. (Thus, farmers using engineered seed are increasing their liability.)
The problem of GE crops crossing with non-GE is coming back to haunt even the biotech companies themselves. Two Pioneer HiBred corn varieties grown in Switzerland, which has banned Bt corn, were found to contain the Bt gene--probably from stray pollen that contaminated the seed crop when it was being grown in the United States.
As Prince Charles has said, this is a kind of pollution that is self-perpetuating. In fact, it has the potential for such widespread environmental disruption that the European Parliament has voted to impose strict corporate liability and mandatory insurance on companies that release genetically modified organisms into the environment; and the European Commission has formulated an emergency response plan to decontaminate areas where engineered plants have gone awry.
Some argue that genetic pollution could put centers for biological diversity at risk, if engineered crops crossed with wild relatives. Mexico had banned the imports of GE corn to prevent this from happening, but on July 2, 1999, Greenpeace activists delivered several hundred pounds of GE corn seed, purchased in Mexico, to Mexican health authorities. (Consumers for Food Safety News, 7/14/99). Proponents of GE counter that traditionally bred varieties can do the same.
In Canada, herbicide-resistant GE canola is cross-pollinating with wild relatives, creating herbicide resistant weeds ("Biotech Food Raises a Crop of Questions," by Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 8/15/99).
Another health and environmental concern surrounds indiscriminate dumping of genetically modified organisms from factories and labs using them for research and drug development into the waste stream ("Britons Seek Tighter Controls on GM Wastes," Reuters, Jan. 9, 2000).
Social and Economic Considerations
We should be supporting local farming systems that justly reward growers and sustain communities, rather than supporting technology systems that profit multinational corporations--corporations that use unethical, Big-Brother-type techniques to force farmers and consumers to buy their seed. Since Monsanto bought DeKalb, Cargill and Unilever's crop breeding unit, it has become the world's dominant biotech company and is one of only two (DuPont is the other) sources of most of the field crop seed in the United States. This consolidation of the world's genetic resources--combined with the "Terminator" and "Traitor" type technologies that will prevent farmers from saving, replanting and growing out their own seed without special chemical washes--is a grave threat to--and potential exploiter of--farmers.
In the United States, for example, Delta and Pine Land controls more than 70% of the cotton seed market, and four companies control 70% of the seed corn market. (Financial Times, Sept. 13, 1999) Ten companies own 30% of the commercial seed trade, and five of them--Monsanto, Novartis, Astra Zeneca, Aventis and DuPont--control virtually all GE crops. To counter these trends, the Foundation for Economic Trends and the National Family Farm Coalition have joined farm groups worldwide in filing antitrust suits claiming that certain biotech companies have amassed too much control over GE seeds--that they are exploiting biotechnology to gain a stranglehold over agricultural markets. (Financial Times, Sept. 13, 1999)
Consumers have loudly proclaimed that they do not want this unproven, unnecessary technology, and their proclamations are having economic effects. For example, a Sept. 1999 poll by Edelman Public Relations Worldwide showed that 70% of respondents want the U.S. government to label GE foods, and 40% want closer regulation of agricultural biotech. ("Survey: Consumers Want Gene-Altered Food Labeled," Wisconsin State Journal, Sept. 15, 1999) Likewise, a Time poll in January 1999 showed that 81% of respondents want labeling.
In 1998, Canada lost $300 to $400 million in canola sales because the Canadian government didn't require labeling and allowed engineered and nonengineered grains to be mixed, and it lost more than 100 to 200 million more in canola sales in 1999; also in 1998, the U.S. exported only 3 million bushels of corn to the European Union, down from 70 million the previous year, and it lost $400 million in corn exports to Europe during 1998 and 1999. Japan, another major buyer of North American grains and oil seeds, is following Europe in refusing engineered foods. (Consumers for Food Safety, 7/14/99).
By the summer of 1999, major U.S. corn buyers Archer Daniels Midland and A.E. Staley said they would no longer buy GE corn for sale to the European Union, and up to 20% of U.S. corn farmers in some areas returned their GE corn seeds to distributors (Consumers for Food Safety News, July 14, 1999). Archer Daniels then began offering a premium for non-GE soy-- while European markets turned to Brazil for more and more of their soy.
At the same time, ethical investment advisors began telling their clients to dump shares of the major gene manipulators--Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca (Guardian, UK, 2/20/99). They were followed by the mainstream Deutsche Bank, Europe';s largest bank, which advised investors--including large institutional investors and pension funds--to drop companies involved in developing GE foods because consumers don';t want the products (Guardian, London, 8/25/99). These actions have brought into question Monsanto';s ability to manage its debt, which escalated when it spent more than $8 billion in the past two years to acquire seed companies and develop GE foods ("Monsanto Faces Growing Skepticism on Two Fronts," by David Barboza, New York Times, 8/5/99). Between Sept. 1998 and Sept. 1999, Monsanto';s share price had dropped from $62 to $37.
By December 1999, Novartis and AstraZeneca had announced that they would separate their pharmaceutical divisions from their troubled ag biotech divisions, and Monsanto stockholders were demanding a similar move. (Searle is Monsanto';s pharmaceutical business.)
For more on economics, see the Politics and Lies section of this article.
Who will be liable for the genetic contamination of crops resulting from growing GE crops nearby? Agronomist Ann Clark of the University of Guelph says that canola pollen can move up to 8 kilometers, and corn and potato pollen can move about 1 kilometer. The Canadian National Farmers Union wants the Canadian government to legislate that industry must compensate for contamination of non-GE crops ("Canadian Farmers Seek Compensation for 'Genetic Pollution,';" by Brian Hoyle, Nature Biotechnology, Aug. 1999).
Such contamination is not unlikely. As mentioned above, for instance, the Swiss Department of Agriculture found that Pioneer Hi-Bred';s non GE corn seed varieties, Ulla and Benicia, contained novel genes from engineered Bt corn--apparently caused by stray pollen during the growing season, since Pioneer does not offer these two varieties in GE form. The Swiss government ordered contaminated fields to be destroyed, but many farmers wanted to know where compensation would come from before they did so. The Swiss seed importer had agreed to pay some, but the Swiss farmers'; association was also filing a class action lawsuit against Pioneer. (Nature Biotechnology, July 1999)
Likewise, in Canada, grower Percy Schmeiser is being sued by Monsanto because the company found a variety of its GE canola growing on his farm without Monsanto';s consent. Schmeiser said the wind blew the seed into his field of conventional canola, and he, in turn, is suing Monsanto... ("Monsanto: The Seeds of Dispute," Financial Times, 7/13/99. Monsanto reportedly is suing some 250 farmers for growing its seed without a company contract. It seems that the lawyers will be the ultimate beneficiaries of genetic engineering.
In November 1999, the National Family Farm Coalition, the American Corn Growers Association, and some 30 other farm groups warned their members that they risked their livelihoods if they planted GE crops, because consumers don';t want them and because they would be vulnerable to "massive liability" due to genetic drift and other environmental problems (Washington Post, Nov. 24, 1999). In December 1999, a legal consortium headed by N.Y. law firm Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll and working with the National Family Farm Coalition, the Foundation for Economic Trends and others, attempted to put the liability on the biotech industry when it filed its lawsuit against the large biotech corporations, previously mentioned. The suit alleged that the cartel "forced genetically-modified (GM) seeds onto the market at fixed prices without sufficient testing for safety to human health and the environment." It also alleged "violations of U.S. anti-trust law, public nuisance, deceptive trade practices and breach of implied warranty" as well as violation of "customary international law" (AP, Dec. 15, 1999).
Biopiracy and Biosafety
Do corporations have the right to usurp a plant variety that has been selected over generations in some area, then change a particular gene and patent that "new" variety as its own? The 1992 UN Biodiversity Convention, ratified by many countries but not by the United States, says no. Indian activist Vandana Shiva says that plant varieties, native herbal preparations, and such are 'prior art,'; and that "no patent should be given where prior art exists, since patents are supposed to be granted only for new inventions on the basis of novelty and non-obviousness. These criteria establish inventiveness, and patents are exclusive rights granted for inventions." A recent example of this type of cultural rape occurred last summer, when the U.S. firm Cromak Research was granted a patent on a combination of three anti-diabetic herbs that have been used in India for centuries. (The herbal combination contains bitter gourd, eggplant and jamun, the fruit of the rose-apple tree.) Two years ago, the Indian government succeeded in having a U.S. patent revoked; the patent was for the use of turmeric, long used as an anti-inflammatory and wound-healing preparation in India. Likewise, a patent on neem oil taken out by W.R. Grace was disallowed after-the-fact because the anti-fungal property of the plant was long used in India. ("India Accuses US of Stealing Ancient Cures," by David Orr, The Times (London), 7/31/99; "Biopiracy: Need to Change Western IPR Systems," by Vandana Shiva, The Hindu, 7/28/99)
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has documented 147 cases of biopiracy and provides a good example in "Mexican Bean Biopiracy" (see www.rafi.org). In this case, the U.S.-based company POD-NERS, L.L.C., is demanding that two Mexican seed companies must pay royalties when they sell a yellow-colored bean in the United States. Larry Proctor, owner of a small seed company and president of POD-NERS, bought such a seed in Mexico in 1994, grew it out in the United States for several years, then, even though beans are self-pollinating, patented 'Enola'; as his own "invention." The Mexican government is fighting Proctor "because the defense of our beans is a matter of national interest," says Jose Antonio Mendoze Zazueta, under-secretary of Mexican rural development.
Terminator and Beyond
The "technology protection system," dubbed the Terminator Technology by RAFI, includes two bacterial genes and one plant gene that, together, prevent a plant from producing viable seed. Worldwide protests have been aimed at this technology, which would prevent the 12,000-year-old custom of farmers saving their own seed, and would make farmers more dependent on a few multinational seed corporations. The biotech firms say that they are just protecting their intellectual rights. The Terminator is so widely despised, however, that even the Rockefeller Foundation, a strong proponent of genetic engineering, has told Monsanto not to employ it, and Monsanto claims that it won';t commercialize it. (This technology, by the way, was developed with U.S. tax dollars when USDA cooperated on it with seed company Delta and Pine Land. The technology was developed, originally, to prevent the spread of engineered germplasm. Monsanto is now buying Delta and Pine Land.)
The Terminator, however, is not the only example of the ability of biotech firms to halt plant metabolism at particular stages. Companies are working on engineered varieties that will not pass certain stages of development without a proprietary chemical wash being applied.
Politics and Lies
One of the leading biotech firms, Monsanto, has a history of environmental abuses and close ties to politics, leading the public to question whether we should trust anything the company says or sells. In the United States, for example, two investigative reporters, Steve Wilson and Jane Akre, have accused Fox Television of succumbing to pressures from Monsanto after it lobbied to pull or heavily edit a story they wrote about possible harmful effects of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) on humans and cows. The reporters refused hush money and were fired in December 1997. They are now suing Fox (Lancet, 10/31/98), which has spent over $1 million on the case. (You can help Wilson and Akre with their legal fees by contributing to Citizens'; Fund for the Right to Know, 25400 U.S. 19 N, Suite 192, Clearwater FL 33763; firstname.lastname@example.org; PlainJaneE@aol.com; 727-796-6504; http://foxBGHsuit.com.)
Monsanto allegedly concealed troubling rBGH safety tests on rats from government regulators in the United States and Canada. The tests showed that rats fed high levels of rBGH had damaged thyroid and prostate tissues. When this information came to light, it contributed to the banning of rBGH in Canada. (Food Bytes #13, 10/31/98)
In Britain, Monsanto';s lies have been disclosed when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) there upheld complaints from environmental groups about the company';s newspaper ads. The ads stated that "rigorous tests have been undertaken throughout Monsanto';s 20-year biotech history to ensure our food crops are as safe and nutritious as the standard alternatives." The ASA found that before 1983, Monsanto researched GE techniques and not its safety, and thus could not claim 20 years of safety testing. The ASA, after consulting expert scientists, also told Monsanto to stop claiming that cross-species gene transfer was an extension of traditional cross-breeding. It also objected to Monsanto';s technique of passing off its opinion as accepted fact. ("British Watchdog Tells Monsanto to Stop Making GM Safety Claim," Independent (London), 8/11/99)
In the United States, concerns about the safety of GE foods apparently were voiced at FDA--but were then suppressed. According to Steve Druker of the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, which obtained previously unpublished, internal documents from FDA, scientists there had serious differences over the Agency';s policy of not labeling and not requiring safety testing on GE foods. Officials "repeatedly cautioned that foods produced through recombinant DNA technology entail different risks than do their conventionally produced counterparts," said Druker, but these concerns "were consistently disregarded by the bureaucrats who crafted the agency';s current policy." (Genetic Engineering News, 7/15/99; copies of FDA documents showing concern can be viewed at www.biointegrity.org.)
The fact that Monsanto and the Clinton Administration maintain a "revolving door" increases concern about FDA';s actions. For example: Marcia Hale, a former advisor to Clinton, is now Director of International Government Affairs for Monsanto; Michael Kantor, former Secretary to the US Dept. of Commerce, is now on Monsanto's board; John King, former Director of Production for White House events, is now Director of Global Communications for Monsanto; Margaret Miller, former Chemical Lab Supervisor for Monsanto, is now Deputy Director of the New Animal Drug Evaluation Office at the FDA; Dr. Nick Weber of the FDA--a former Monsanto analyst--has sent confidential European Union documents to Monsanto. (For more, see www.edmonds-institute.org/door.html.)
Add to this the misrepresentations about yield increases and pesticide reductions that Monsanto promised. Two recent studies, one by USDA and one by Dr. Charles Benbrook, have shown that yields of Roundup Ready soybeans tend to be lower than those of comparable, nonengineered soy, and that farmers are using more herbicide on these crops. Benbrook analyzed a survey of over 8000 field trials conducted by the University of Wisconsin and found that farmers growing RR soy, for instance, used two to five times more herbicide per acre than those growing non GE soy. He also found that farmers growing RR soy got 5% fewer bushels per acre than those growing conventional. The Biotechnology Industry Organization reported that the introduction of Bt corn reduced insecticide use on only 2.5% of the total U.S. corn acreage in 1998. The USDA, using data from the Heartland region, showed that Bt corn reduced insecticide use only minimally in 1997 compared with its use in non-Bt corn; while tests at the Univ. of Missouri showed that in 1999, non-Bt corn hybrids are more profitable than Bt hybrids because they cost less and because pressure from the European corn borer was not severe (http://agebb.missouri.edu/news/queries/showcur.idc?story_num=245&iln=184). Also, soybean growers in the southern United States have found that stems of RR soy varieties split open in the heat, causing losses of up to 40 percent ("Splitting Headache--Monsanto';s Modified Soya Beans are Cracking Up in the Heat," by Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, Nov. 20, 1999). Farm Journal (Nov. 1999) reported that an Iowa State Univ. study of 800 farmers showed no significant differences in net profits per acre in 1998 for growing GE versus non-GE corn and soy.
These problems, plus the "technology fee" imposed on farmers who use GE seeds, make the economics of the technology questionable. Yield reductions have also been found in trials of GE canola and sugar beet in the United Kingdom. (Genetic Engineering News, 7/16/99) Thus, Monsanto';s claim that its new "life sciences" business has been developed to help feed the world is questionable, at best. How can Third World people afford seed that costs more, requires costly chemical inputs, and yields less?
Labels, Bans and Moratoriums
Grocery stores and governments in several countries are banning, labeling or imposing moratoriums on GE foods until this new technology can be studied properly. For example:
*Brazil has banned transgenic seed until rules governing its sale and use are adopted there and until environmental impact statements show no damage to the environment or to consumers.
*Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand have labeling laws.
*The European Union and Japan have suspended approval of Bt corn due to fear that it would harm native moths and butterflies. The European Union has also implemented a three-year moratorium on new approvals of GE foods or crops. Many European grocery stores have pledged to rid their shelves of GE foods. (The European Union allows food containing up to 1% GE material to be labeled as GM-free; The Independent, Oct. 22, 1999).
*The British Medical Association has called for a moratorium on GE foods.
*Austria and Luxembourg have banned GE corn; Norway has banned GE corn and five other GE crops.
*Genetically engineered corn has been banned in Switzerland out of fears that it may lead to the development of superweeds and may contaminate honey with its engineered pollen.
*The Church of England has refused to allow the British government to use its 23,000 acres of agricultural land to conduct trials of GE crops because of questions about the morality and safety of the technology.
*Codex Alimentarius, the international certifying body, has refused to certify that rBGH is safe for humans.
*Gerber and Heinz have stopped using GE corn and soybeans in their baby foods, after Greenpeace tested their products and found engineered foods in them. Ironically, Gerber is owned by Novartis--a major proponent of GE.
*Iams will no longer use GE corn in its pet foods--an alternative use that U.S. farmers had hoped to fill after their GE corn was rejected by Europe.
*The American Corn Growers Association has told U.S. farmers to consider planting only nonengineered seed; it predicts a reduction of 20 to 25% in acreage planted to GE corn in 2000.
*Major U.S. grain exporters have asked farmers to segregate GE from non-GE grains.
*Honda Trading Corp. of Japan is building a plant in Ohio to sort non-GE soybeans (Genetic Engineering News, Nov. 29, 1999).
*McCain Foods said in November that it would no longer accept GE potatoes for processing. (You can call McCain at 1-800-387-7321.)
*Mexico';s largest corn flour company, Maseca, has banned GE ingredients from its products. Mexico is the second largest buyer of U.S. corn.
*Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others are campaigning to get GMOs out of meat and animal feeds. The groups say that some 50% of GE crops worldwide are incorporated into animal feed.
*Johnny';s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Cook';s Garden, Butterbrooke Farm, Zwann Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, seed saving networks in Maine and western Mass., are among 40 seed companies and groups nationwide that have pledged not to buy or sell, knowingly, GE seeds (see www.bckweb.com/nerage).
*The Organic Trade Association (www.ota.com) has called for a moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms in all agricultural production.
*The two largest natural foods supermarket chains in the United States, Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wild Oats Markets Inc., said this January that they would ban genetically modified ingredients from their private-label products.
Even the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, said last summer that labeling might be necessary to quell consumers'; fears, and he called for an independent scientific evaluation of the USDA biotechnology approval process, as well as establishment, with the EPA, of regional centers to monitor the long-term effects of GE products.
In the fall of 1999, Reps. David Bonoir (D.-Mich.) and Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) asked other legislators to sign on to a letter asking the government to require that the FDA label GE foods and test them for safety, and Kucinich introduced The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, HR 3377, in November. The American Corn Growers Association has endorsed the legislation. The bill summary can be viewed at www.foe.org/safefood/billsummary.html; cosponsors are listed at www.foe.org/safefood/cosponsors.html; call 202-224-3121 (the Capitol) to ask your congressperson to cosponsor it.
According to Reuters (Dec. 9, 1999), EPA is considering requiring stricter tests on the effects of GE crops on mallards, quail, rainbow trout, channel catfish, honeybees and earthworms; on degradation of plant material in the soil; on crossing with wild relatives; and on effects on human health.
This spring, at annual meetings, shareholders of major corporations that use GE ingredients are expected to demand that those ingredients be removed until they are proven to be safe, long-term, for the environment and consumers. This campaign has been organized by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and targets such companies as Kellogg';s (1-888-876-3750), Kraft (800-268-6450), Nabisco (800-461-0094), Nestle (800-387-4636), Proctor and Gamble (800-395-5594) and Robin Hood Foods (800-268-3232). Consumers can tell shareholders and corporations what they think at the following message boards:
American Home Products
In Maine, Rep. Joanne Twomey (D.-Biddeford) tried to introduce An Act to Place a Moratorium on Planting Genetically Engineered Seeds in Maine until the federal government has tested them adequately. The Legislative Council voted against placing the proposed legislation on the agenda for the session. (Twomey was a co-sponsor of the most recent bill introduced to the Maine Legislature to require labeling of GE foods. That bill was endorsed by the Agriculture Committee but was indefinitely postponed on the floor of the House.)
On Jan. 21, 2000, the U.S. agreed to meet the European Union';s new requirement for labeling foods that contain more than 1% GMOs (Reuters, Jan. 21, 2000).
In Britain, GenetiX Snowball has organized numerous public crop pullings to protect public health, while in India farmers burned Monsanto';s GE cotton, beginning "Operation Cremate Monsanto." Crop destructions actually began in the United States in 1989, when California activists destroyed strawberries sprayed with Frostban, a GE bacteria that was to impart frost resistance to the crop. They picked up again in November 1998, when "California Croppers" played tag football on a plot of transgenic corn at U.C. Berkeley. (Monsanto and Novartis heavily fund the Natural Resources Dept. at Berkeley.) In 1999, the Croppers took out rows of GE corn at Berkeley. In the same year, RR corn was destroyed in the San Francisco Bay area; Seeds of Resistance destroyed a RR corn plot at the University of Maine; and Vermont activists left posters of Monarch butterflies in a trashed field of Bt corn in that state.
On Jan. 12, 2000, at a panel session of Farm Forum in Spokane, Washington,
The Nature of Genes
Molecular geneticist Michael Antoniou explains that plants have 20,000 to 80,000 genes, humans 80,000 to 150,000, and the "maps" of these genes for higher plants and animals are far from complete. Only a small percentage of all genes are known. We know even less about how these genes work as an integrated whole to produce the right combinations of proteins at the right time, in the right place, and in the right quantity. Genes and proteins don't work alone, but function in complex, natural groupings that have evolved over millions of years to work harmoniously. Now genetic engineers are randomly shooting a few genes into unrelated organisms, with no idea of where the genes will "land" or what physiological processes they will affect--and they expect us to eat the products of these highly experimental, unpredictable, unnatural techniques. Antoniou asks, What is the fate of these chemicals within plants? Are they stable? If not, what are their breakdown products? What are their health risks?
In 1917, the renowned genius D'Arcy Thompson wrote: "Cell and tissue, shell and bone, leaf and flower, are so many portions of matter and it is in obedience to the laws of physics that their particles have been moved, moulded and conformed. There are no exceptions to the rule that God always geometrises." Today, mathematicians study chaos theory--which is really just the opposite of what it sounds. They are finding that repeated rhythms and forms define cells, tissues, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and all of nature. Do genetically engineered foods which fracture those rhythms and forms? It would be nice to know before we ate them.
World Scientists'; Call on All Governments
As of July 1999, 85 scientists had signed the following call on governments:
*Impose an immediate moratorium on further environmental releases of transgenic crops, food and animal-feed products for at least five years;
*Ban patents on living organisms, cell lines and genes;
*Support a comprehensive, independent public enquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all.
Similarly, the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), which consists
A similar declaration, The Pacific Declaration, was drafted in July 1999 in
Bolinas, California. The Declaration calls for the suspension of all further
releases of GE organisms and cites the failure of governmental agencies to
review the long-term prospects for environmental and human harm stemming from
genetically engineered organisms. The signatories state that "those
altering the genetic integrity of natural species bear the burden of proving
their interventions will not jeopardize fundamental human values which include
respect for life and protecting ecosystems. They demand an effective regulatory
system to assure the public';s access to safe food. The 42 co-signers,
which include the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the American Corn Growers
Association, and others, also ask that practitioners of genetic engineering be
held liable for any adverse consequences of their work, and call for greater
attention to the equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of the
products of genetic engineering. (Press Release by Mark Lappe, Center for Ethics
and Toxics, Gualala, California, Oct. 12, 1999)
Is the biotech industry listening? On Sept. 5, 1999, Reuters reported that top executives at Monsanto wanted to pull out of GE crop trials in Britain, but that Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro was insisting that the trials continue. On the other hand, Shapiro met with representatives of the Soil Association in Britain last summer to ask where his company had gone wrong. One result of that meeting was the suggestion that genetic engineers use their knowledge of the genome not to engineer plants, but to speed traditional breeding.
Other scientists often ask me why I went against the code of practice and spoke out before publication in a peer reviewed journal. I made my 150-second testimony on TV';s World In Action because I had facts that indicated to me there were serious problems with transgenic food. It can take two to three years to get science papers published and these foods are already on the shelves without rigorous biological testing similar to that of our GM potato work. I did indicate my concern and it cost me my job but I would do it again. If I had not done it, we would now be eating these potatoes and not discussing the safety of GM food.
Dr. Arpad Pusztai, GM-FREE, Aug./Sept. 1999
Union of Concerned Scientists www.ucsusa.org
Consumers Union www.consumersunion.org
Friends of the Earth www.foe.org
Rural Advancement Foundation International www.rafi.org
Foundation for Economic Trends www.biotechcentury.org
Organic Trade Association www.ota.com
Edmonds Institute www.edmonds-institute.org
Ecologist Magazine www.gn.apc.org/ecologist
genetiX snowball www.gn.apc.org/pmhp/gs
Archer Daniels Midland www.admworld.com
Monsanto U.K. www.monsanto.co.uk
Biotechnology Industrial Org. www.bio.com
Food Biotechnology Communications Network
The Grocery Mfgrs. Assoc. www.gmabrands.com
Nat';l Food Processors Assoc. www.nfpa-food.org
Food Marketing Institute www.fmi.org
Missouri Botanical Gardens www.mobot.org
US. Gov';t. Food Safety Site www.foodsafety.gov
Dept. of Ag. Biotech. Info. Resource www.nal.usda.gov/bic
UN Biosafety Info. Network and Advisory Service
Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN
Nat';l Corn Growers Assoc. www.ncga.com
Nature Magazine www.nature.com
Science Magazine www.sciencemag.org
Legislative Alert re: Genetic Engineering
Below is a letter that MOFGA President Sharon Tisher sent to our
I am writing on behalf of the members and supporters of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), to request that you consider cosponsoring [or supporting] the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, HR 3377, introduced by Dennis Kucinich. The bill would require that foods that contain genetically engineered material or are produced with genetically engineered material must be labeled.
MOFGA has 185 certified organic farmers and over 3000 members, who are farmers, gardeners and consumers,concerned about the healthfulness of their foods and the connections among farming, health, the environment, and rural economies. MOFGA has for many years supported the consumer';s right to know and to choose whether or not to consumer genetically engineered foods.
In April, 1994, in response to the first legislative proposal in Maine to label genetically engineered foods, the 116th Maine Legislature created a Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Issues, with the express charge to advis[e] the legislative and executive branches on the adequacy of existing state and federal oversight frameworks and recommend needed action at state and federal levels. I served as one of 15 members of the Commission, which included legislators, academics, and representatives of the biotech and food processing industry, environmental organizations and the State Bureau of Health. At the outset, it seemed an unlikely group to achieve consensus on as controversial a subject as biotech regulation. For a year and a half, the Commission labored to accomplish its task, studying the state of existing regulation of genetic engineering, reading much and meeting with experts in the field, including a full session spent with Dr. James Maryanski, the FDA';s Strategic Manager for Biotechnology. The Commission carefully studied the material provided by Dr. Maryanski outlining the FDA';s position on biotech food safety and labeling, which position is unchanged to this day. Much as we appreciated Dr. Maryanski';s taking the time to come to Maine to meet with us, the Commission did not endorse the point of view urged by Dr. Maryanski, that current FDA policy is sufficient to address consumer needs and concerns.
In the end, this diverse group of Maine businesspeople, academics, legislators, scientists and public representatives reached consensus on three deficiencies in current federal policy on genetic engineering. Its recommendations were as follows:
In sum, the FDA should review and promulgate a regulation for labeling of genetically engineered foods broad enough to protect the consumers freedom of choice in the marketplace and ability to avoid health risks.The Committee recommends that the FDA establish an effective system of mandatory pre-market notification for genetically engineered foods.
An effective system of federal legislation needs to be established to assess the risks of environmental release [of genetically engineered fish] and regulation to address those risks. (March, 1996 Report of the Maine Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, at 19, 22)
The report was forwarded to the FDA; no response has ever been received. To this day, there is no mandatory pre-market notification for newly developed genetically engineered foods; no GE labeling; and no federal legislation addressing the unique issues of regulating the development and environmental release of genetically engineered fish and shellfish (or, for that matter, animal life of any kind). It is clear that it is time for Congress to act in the face of FDA inaction.
Since 1996, two additional proposals have been submitted to the Maine legislature for labeling of genetically engineered foods. Each time this issue comes up, the broader is the public and legislative support for the proposal, and the greater is the dismay at FDA inaction. This past legislative session, members of the Maine Legislature';s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture received more telephone calls, letters and emails from Maine consumers in support of GE labeling than on any previous legislation of any kind. For the first time, MOFGA';s proposal to label genetically engineered whole foods passed the Joint Standing Committee with a majority Ought to Pass vote. Only after a dozen biotech lobbyists worked the halls of the Maine legislature for weeks leading up to the floor vote, did the legislature vote down the bill. Many if not all of those Maine legislators who voted down the bill did not do so because they opposed GE labeling, but because they felt the practical problems of doing it alone in Maine were insurmountable, and that this should be done on a national basis by the FDA.
As a matter of public policy, it is clear that consumers want GE labeling. Any number of credible polls reveal that the demand for labeling is overwhelming. The only reason that the FDA has not heard an even louder cry from the American public for labeling is because, through the policy of ignorance that the FDA has fostered, many Americans are unaware that they are eating genetically engineered foods. A 1999 poll disclosed that 47% of the American public do not believe that genetically engineered food is yet on the market. As a distinguished genetic scientist recently acknowledged at a conference at Harvard that I attended, "The consumer has a right to know. Even if the scientist believes that a label is stupid, unnecessary, and possibly even false, the decision of the consumer that the label is necessary must be overriding." (Dr. Julian Kinderlerer, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Sheffield University, U.K., speaking on Sept. 2, 1999, at Harvard). USDA Chief Dan Glickman has conceded that the U.S. government can no longer take the consumer for granted.
As a matter of science, it';s time as well for the FDA to admit that the policy of characterizing genetically engineered foods as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), hence not requiring safety testing, is fundamentally flawed. The traditional prerequisite for a finding that a food is GRAS is a long history of human consumption. Restricting safety testing to GE foods that incorporate common allergens misses the basic point that we are dealing here with new proteins, never before consumed by people, and we cannot predict whether or not these substances will engender subtle, chronic, or even acute allergic reactions in some segment of the human population. As James Maryanski has admitted, "There are no direct methods to assess potential allergenicity of proteins from sources that are not known to produce food allergy." (FDA';s Policy for Foods Developed by Biotechnology, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Handout: 1995) We are assessing that allergenicity, indirectly, as we speak, by making the American population the guinea pigs. Without labeling, and without any systematic effort to scientifically study potential long-term effects of these changes in the American diet, we are conducting food policy in the dark.
MOFGA was not surprised to learn recently that documents produced in pending litigation against the FDA (Alliance for Bio-Integrity, et. al. v. Shalala) disclose substantial dissention within the FDA regarding the scientific basis for FDA';s food safety and labeling policy. We concur with the perceptions of Dr. Louis Priybl of the FDA Microbiology Group that "there is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering, which is just glanced over in [the FDA Statement of Policy on biotech foods]," and with Dr. Linda Kahl, an FDA compliance officer, who objected that the agency was "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole[by] trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices." We were surprised to hear Dr. Maryanski, who assured the Maine Commission that FDA policy was well founded in science, quoted as acknowledging in FDA documents that there is no consensus about the safety of genetically engineered foods in the scientific community at large.(June 24, 1999 Press Release from Alliance for Bio-Integrity.) Dr. Maryanski also acknowledged in a letter to a Canadian government official dated Oct. 23, 1991, that the potential for genetic engineering to introduce new compounds into foods that could trigger allergic reactions is particularly difficult to predict. [The recently disclosed FDA documents are available on the website www.biointegrity.org].
The documents discovered in the Shalala lawsuit also disclose that the FDA is operating under a directive to foster the U.S. biotech industry. That comes as no surprise. It is clear that a further directive from Congress on biotech labeling is necessary to bring the FDA';s regulatory perspective into closer alignment with its original legislative mandate: to promote honest and fair dealing in the interest of consumers. (Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Ch. IV, sec. 401).
Beyond the issues of the consumer';s right to know and unknown health risks, it is clear that federal action on biotech labeling is essential for our international trade policy, to bring our exports in line with the demands of the European Union and our Asian trade partners. Already, Maine farmers are exporting high quality, food grade soybeans to Japan, which are required by the Japanese to be certified as not genetically engineered. A uniform federal labeling rule would assure the Japanese that they are getting what they want: GE free products. Just last week, David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health, stated that consumers in Europe have never been so united on any one issue than on the labeling of GMOs. Regulators and the food industry must ensure that this demand for information is met if GMOs are to win acceptance. Byrne added that an appropriate labeling system of genetically modified food is one of the cornerstones in resolving the current controversy concerning the application of biotechnology to food. Without appropriate consumer information, mistrust about biotechnology and GMO food is bound to proliferate. (Speech delivered at The Hague, The Netherlands, January 21, 2000). At that same conference, U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce David Aaron reported that U.S. food exporters were prepared to meet the new EU requirement that food producers label their products as containing GMOs if they cannot guarantee each of the ingredients contains less than one percent of GM material. Don';t you believe that U.S. consumers are entitled to the same information U.S. producers are prepared to give to their European markets?
Please call me (or email at email@example.com) if you would like a copy of the full report of the Maine Commission to Study Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, or any other information regarding the case for labeling genetically engineered foods. I look forward to your response.
Very truly yours,
Sharon S. TisherPresident