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Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops:
Why We Need A Global Moratorium

Ronnie Cummins
Little Marais, Minnesota

Introductory overview

The technology of genetic engineering (GE), wielded by transnational "life science" corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis, is the practice of altering or disrupting the genetic blueprints of living organisms -- plants, animals, humans, microorganisms -- patenting them, and then selling the resulting gene-foods, seeds, or other products for profit. Life science corporations proclaim, with great fanfare, that their new products will make agriculture sustainable, eliminate world hunger, cure disease, and vastly improve public health. In reality, through their business practices and political lobbying, the gene engineers have made it clear that they intend to use GE to dominate and monopolize the global market for seeds, foods, fiber, and medical products.

GE is a revolutionary new technology still in its early experimental stages of development. This technology has the power to break down fundamental genetic barriers -- not only between species -- but between humans, animals, and plants. By randomly inserting together the genes of non-related species -- utilizing viruses, antibiotic-resistant genes, and bacteria as vectors, markers, and promoters -- and permanently altering their genetic codes, gene-altered organisms are created that pass these genetic changes onto their offspring through heredity. Gene engineers all over the world are now snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic material. Animal genes and even human genes are randomly inserted into the chromosomes of plants, fish, and animals, creating heretofore unimaginable transgenic life forms. For the first time in history, transnational biotechnology corporations are becoming the architects and "owners" of life.

With little or no regulatory restraints, labeling requirements, or scientific protocol, bio-engineers have begun creating hundreds of new GE "Frankenfoods" and crops, oblivious to human and environmental hazards, or negative socioeconomic impacts on the world's several billion farmers and rural villagers. Despite an increasing number of scientists warning that current gene-splicing techniques are crude, inexact, and unpredictable -- and therefore inherently dangerous -- pro-biotech governments and regulatory agencies, led by the US, maintain that GE foods and crops are "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods, and therefore require neither mandatory labeling nor pre-market safety-testing. This Brave New World of Frankenfoods is frightening.

There are currently more than four dozen genetically engineered foods and crops being grown or sold in the US. These foods and crops are widely dispersed into the food chain and the environment. Over 70 million acres of GE crops are presently under cultivation in the US, while up to 500,000 dairy cows are being injected regularly with Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Most supermarket processed food items now "test positive" for the presence of GE ingredients. In addition several dozen more GE crops are in the final stages of development and will soon be released into the environment and sold in the marketplace. According to the biotechnology industry almost 100% of US food and fiber will be genetically engineered within 5-10 years. The "hidden menu" of these unlabeled genetically engineered foods and food ingredients in the US now includes soybeans, soy oil, corn, potatoes, squash, canola oil, cotton seed oil, papaya, tomatoes, and dairy products.

Genetic engineering of food and fiber products is inherently unpredictable and dangerous -- for humans, for animals, the environment, and for the future of sustainable and organic agriculture. As Dr. Michael Antoniou, a British molecular scientist points out, gene-splicing has already resulted in the "unexpected production of toxic substances... in genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with the problem remaining undetected until a major health hazard has arisen." The hazards of GE foods and crops fall basically into three categories: human health hazards, environmental hazards, and socioeconomic hazards. A brief look at the already-proven and likely hazards of GE products provides a convincing argument for why we need a global moratorium on all GE foods and crops.

Toxins & Poisons

Genetically engineered products clearly have the potential to be toxic and a threat to human health. In 1989 a genetically engineered brand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled or afflicted more than 5,000 others with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS), before it was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration. The manufacturer, Showa Denko, Japan's third largest chemical company, had for the first time in 1988-89 used GE bacteria to produce the over-the-counter supplement. It is believed that the bacteria somehow became contaminated during the recombinant DNA process. Showa Denko has already paid out over $2 billion in damages to EMS victims.

In 1999, front-page headline stories in the British press revealed Rowett Institute scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosive research findings that GE potatoes, spliced with DNA from the snowdrop plant and a commonly used viral promoter, the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMv), are poisonous to mammals. GE-snowdrop potatoes, found to be significantly different in chemical composition from regular potatoes, damaged the vital organs and immune systems of lab rats fed the GE potatoes. Most alarming of all, damage to the rats' stomach linings --apparently a severe viral infection -- most likely was caused by the CaMv viral promoter, a promoter spliced into nearly all GE foods and crops.

Dr. Pusztai's pathbreaking research work unfortunately remains incomplete (government funding was cut off and he was fired after he spoke to the media). But more and more scientists around the world are warning that genetic manipulation can increase the levels of natural plant toxins in foods (or create entirely new toxins) in unexpected ways by switching on genes that produce poisons. And since regulatory agencies do not currently require the 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 at a target. Now put a blindfold on the man doing the shooting and that's the reality of the genetic engineer doing a gene insertion."

Increased Cancer Risks

In 1994, the FDA approved the sale of Monsanto's controversial GE recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) -- injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk -- even though scientists warned that significantly higher levels (400-500% or more) of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), in the milk and dairy products of injected cows, could pose serious hazards for human breast, prostate, and colon cancer. A number of studies have shown that humans with elevated levels of IGF-1 in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer. In addition the US Congressional watchdog agency, the GAO, told the FDA not to approve rBGH, arguing that increased antibiotic residues in the milk of rBGH-injected cows (resulting from higher rates of udder infections requiring antibiotic treatment) posed an unacceptable risk for public health. In 1998, heretofore undisclosed Monsanto/FDA documents were released by government scientists in Canada, showing damage to laboratory rats fed dosages of rBGH. Significant infiltration of rBGH into the prostate of the rats as well as thyroid cysts indicated potential cancer hazards from the drug. Subsequently the government of Canada banned rBGH in early 1999. The European Union has had a ban in place since 1994. Although rBGH continues to be injected into 4-5% of all 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 Fox TV Unite to Suppress Journalists'Free Speech on Hazards of Genetically Engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rBST)

Food Allergies

In 1996 a major GE food disaster was narrowly averted when Nebraska researchers learned that a Brazil nut gene spliced into soybeans could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans had turned up negative. People with food allergies (which currently afflicts 8% of all American children), whose symptoms can range from mild unpleasantness to sudden death, may likely be harmed by exposure to foreign proteins spliced into common food products. Since humans have never before eaten most of the foreign proteins now being gene-spliced into foods, stringent pre-market safety-testing (including long-term animal feeding and volunteer human feeding studies) is necessary in order to prevent a future public health disaster. Mandatory labeling is also necessary so that those suffering from food allergies can avoid hazardous GE foods and so that public health officials can trace allergens back to their source when GE-induced food allergies break out.

Unfortunately the FDA and other global regulatory agencies do not routinely require pre-market animal and human studies to ascertain whether new allergens or toxins, or increased levels of human allergens or toxins we already know about, are present in genetically engineered foods. As British scientist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho points out "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."

Damage to Food Quality & Nutrition

A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lower in genetically modified soybeans than in traditional strains. These and other studies, including Dr. Pusztai's, indicate that genetically engineering food will likely result in foods lower in quality and nutrition. For example the 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 plant or microbe, they often link it to another gene, called an antibiotic resistance marker gene (ARM), that helps determine if the first gene was successfully spliced into the host organism. Some researchers warn that these ARM genes might unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environment or in the guts of animals or people who eat GE food, contributing to the growing public health danger of antibiotic resistance -- of infections that cannot be cured with traditional antibiotics, for example new strains of salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter, and enterococci. EU (European Union) authorities are currently considering a ban on all GE foods containing antibiotic resistant marker genes.

Increased Pesticide Residues in the Soil and on Crops

Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studies have found that US farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxic pesticides and herbicides as conventional farmers, and in some cases are using more. Crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant account for 70% of all GE crops planted in 1998. The so-called "benefits" of these herbicide-resistant crops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide on their crops as they want -- killing the weeds without damaging their crop. Scientists estimate that herbicide-resistant crops planted around the globe will triple the amount of toxic broad-spectrum herbicides used in agriculture. These broad-spectrum herbicides are designed to literally kill everything green. The leaders in biotechnology are the same giant chemical companies -- Monsanto, DuPont, AgrEvo, Novartis, and Rhone-Poulenc -- that sell toxic pesticides. These companies are genetically engineering plants to be resistant to herbicides that they manufacture so they can sell more herbicides to farmers who, in turn, can apply more poisonous herbicides to crops to kill weeds.

Genetic Pollution

"Genetic pollution" and collateral damage from GE field crops already have begun to wreak environmental havoc. Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically-altered pollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic and non-GE farmers. An organic farm in Texas has been contaminated with genetic drift from GE crops on a nearby farm and EU regulators are considering setting an "allowable limit" for genetic contamination of non-GE foods, because they don't believe genetic pollution can be controlled. Because they are alive, gene-altered crops are inherently more unpredictable than chemical pollutants -- they can reproduce, migrate, and mutate. Once released, it is virtually impossible to recall genetically engineered organisms back to the laboratory or the field.

Damage to Beneficial Insects and Soil Fertility

Earlier this year, Cornell University researchers made a startling discovery. They found that pollen from genetically engineered Bt corn was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The study adds to a growing body of evidence that GE crops are adversely affecting a number of beneficial insects, including ladybugs and lacewings, as well as beneficial soil microorganisms, bees, and possibly birds.

Creation of GE "Superweeds" and "Superpests"

Genetically engineering crops to be herbicide-resistant or to produce their own pesticide presents dangerous problems. Pests and weeds will inevitably emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant, which means that stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to get rid of the pests. We are already seeing the emergence of the first "superweeds" as GE herbicide-resistant crops such as rapeseed (canola) spread their herbicide-resistance traits to related weeds such as wild mustard plants. Lab and field tests also indicate that common plant pests such as cotton boll worms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, will soon evolve into "superpests" completely immune to Bt sprays and other environmentally sustainable biopesticides. This will present a serious danger for organic and sustainable farmers whose biological pest management practices will be unable to cope with increasing numbers of superpests and superweeds.

Creation of New Viruses and Bacteria

Gene-splicing will inevitably result in unanticipated outcomes and dangerous surprises that damage plants and the environment. Researchers conducting experiments at Michigan State University several years ago found that genetically-altering plants to resist viruses can cause the viruses to mutate into new, more virulent forms. Scientists in Oregon found that a genetically engineered soil microorganism, Klebsiella planticola, completely killed essential soil nutrients. Environmental Protection Agency whistle blowers issued similar warnings in 1997 protesting government approval of a GE soil bacteria called Rhizobium melitoli.

Genetic "Bio-Invasion"

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

Socioeconomic Hazards

The patenting of genetically engineered foods and widespread biotech food production threatens to eliminate farming as it has been practiced for 12,000 years. GE patents such as the Terminator Technology will render seeds infertile and force hundreds of millions of farmers who now save and share their seeds to purchase evermore expensive GE seeds and chemical inputs from a handful of global biotech/seed monopolies. If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenic plants and food-producing animals will soon lead to universal "bioserfdom" in which farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomerates such as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds and offspring. Family and indigenous farmers will be driven off the land and consumers' food choices will be dictated by a cartel of transnational corporations. Rural communities will be devastated. Hundreds of millions of farmers and agricultural workers worldwide will lose their livelihoods.

Ethical Hazards

The genetic engineering and patenting of animals reduces living beings to the status of manufactured products and will result in much suffering. In January 1994, the USDA announced that scientists had completed genetic "road maps" for cattle and pigs, a precursor to evermore experimentation on live animals. In addition to the cruelty inherent in such experimentation (the "mistakes" are born with painful deformities, crippled, blind, and so on), these "manufactured" creatures have no greater value to their "creators" than mechanical inventions. Animals genetically engineered for use in laboratories, such as the infamous "Harvard mouse" which contains a human cancer-causing gene that will be passed down to all succeeding generations, were created to suffer. A purely reductionist science, biotechnology reduces all life to bits of information (genetic code) that can be arranged and rearranged at whim. Stripped of their integrity and sacred qualities, animals who are merely objects to their "inventors" will be treated as such. Currently, hundreds of genetically engineered "freak" animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government. One can only wonder, after the wholesale gene-altering and patenting of animals, will GE "designer babies" be next?

Published in In Motion Magazine August 29, 1999.
Ronnie Cummins.

Also see:

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: < > with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.

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