GM food for thought
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Editor, The Konformist
GM food for thought
Online Journal Contributing Writer
"There is no love sincerer than the love of food." - George Bernard
July 15, 2003 - Unless you've gone exclusively organic, the odds are
you've eaten potatoes that are registered pesticides.
Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato is engineered to produce the
insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt kills the Colorado potato
beetle but it is also in every one of the New Leaf Superior's cells.
Thus, it is legally registered with the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) as a pesticide, not a food . . . and the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) cannot regulate the New Leaf Superior potato
because the FDA does not have the authority to regulate pesticides.
This would be an interesting and important issue even if it began and
ended with the New Leaf Superior but the concerns swirling around
genetically modified (GM) food run far deeper than a baked bug
killer. Among the countless GM projects in use or in development, we
have trees engineered never to flower, potatoes mixed with jellyfish
genes that glow in the dark when they need watering, and so-
called "edible vaccines."
Is any of this safe? Is it even understood? Corporate proponents and
their flacks would like us to believe so and they often go to great
lengths to discredit critics. For example, the most recent GM defense
paints agro-giants as saviors: altruistic entities trying to feed the
world. As part of his bullying effort to force GM food on the EU,
President [sic] Bush declared, "European governments should join, not
hinder, the great cause of ending hunger in Africa." But hunger isn't
a result of insufficient resources . . . it's more about the
inequitable distribution of abundant resources. In a recent study of
food production and hunger, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
concluded, "Globally, there is enough land, soil and water, and
enough potential for future growth in yields, to make the necessary
Hunger is a political problem that GM food will not and cannot solve.
Roughly 150 million acres of farmland around the world are planted
with GM crops . . . primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.
These four big moneymakers do little if anything to nourish hungry
people in developing countries.
"The field is dominated by five very large multinational
corporations," says Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller
Foundation. "For these corporations, there is no profit to investing
in expensive research on new products that can only be purchased by
subsistence African farmers with little money. So quite logically,
these companies are not focused on improving the basic crops of the
developing world such as millet, sorghum, cowpeas, yams or cassava."
What these companies are focused on is ignoring public sentiment and
rigorous science. Early in 2001, the Royal Society of Canada - the
nation's foremost scientific body - said there was insufficient
research into the potential allergic effects and toxicity of
genetically engineered foods. GM foods could cause "serious risks to
human health," the society said. "Genetic engineering of food has far
outrun the science that must be its first governing discipline," adds
Ralph Nader. "Many unknowns attend the insertion of genes across
species, from ecological risks to food allergies. These unknowns beg
Long-term (and unbiased) research is needed to make anything
approaching an accurate assessment. While such investigation does not
appear forthcoming at this juncture, there is enough already known
about GM food to put its safety in doubt:
Scientists have discovered that the aforementioned Bt may produce
allergies in people. A July 1999 study of Ohio crop pickers and
handlers shows that Bt "can provoke immunological changes indicative
of a developing allergy. With long-term exposure, affected
individuals may develop asthma or other serious allergic reactions."
Genetic engineers use antibiotic "markers" in almost every GM
organism to indicate that the organism has been successfully
engineered. These markers may play a role in the diminishing efficacy
of antibiotics against diseases.
Scientists warn that once the GM organisms and their altered genes
are released into nature, they may spread widely. Poisons, mutagens,
and carcinogens might be created in harmful concentrations.
English Nature, Britain's chief conservation agency, believes GM
farming will lead to a new generation of herbicide-resistant crops,
which could devastate the countryside. Dr. Brian Johnson, a co-author
of the English Nature report, said: "If you hit them with most of the
conventional herbicides they just smile at you. They certainly don't
GM soy-based infant formula has raised levels of estrogen, and today
more than 1 percent of three-year-old U.S. girls have pubic hair. Any
Scientists believe GM crops may be deadly to wildlife (i.e. the
Monarch butterfly) and may result in increased pesticide pollution
and soil damage, genetic contamination of the environment, and risks
Tobacco plants were genetically engineered to produce the Gamma-
linoleic acid. Instead the plant unexpectedly mainly produced the
toxic octadecatetraenic acid. This substance does not exist in the
natural tobacco plant. (Reddy SA, Thomas TL. Nature Biotechnology,
vol 14, sid 639-642, May 1996).
When a yeast was manipulated for increased fermentation there was an
unexpected production of a metabolite (methyl-glyoxal) in toxic and
mutagenic concentrations. (Inose, T. Murata, K. Int. J. Food Science
Tech. 30: 141-146, 1995).
When a gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into a soy bean it
appeared that it unexpectedly caused strong allergic reactions in
people allergic to nuts who never had any problems formerly in eating
soy products.(Nordlee, J.A. et al. The New England Journal of
Medicine 14: 688-728; 1996).
GM advocates point to studies and statements from scientific bodies
as support for their safety claims. However, technology like GM food
is typically based upon research that is funded by corporations. In
their book, "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates
Science and Gambles with Your Future," authors Sheldon Rampton and
John Stauber discuss the vast amount of time that "a modern
researcher spends writing grant proposals; coddling department heads;
corporate donors, and government bureaucrats; or engaging in any of
the other activities that are necessary to obtain research funding."
The influence of this money on research can result in the suppression
of certain studies while corporations commission writers to pen
favorable articles in peer-reviewed journals. In 1999, the editor of
the Journal of the American Medical Association, Drummond Rennie,
complained that the "influence of private funding on medical research
has created 'a race to the ethical bottom.'"
Government agencies have also become bottom dwellers. "Pharmaceutical
companies are big campaign finance contributors having given $44
million over the last ten years," explains Dr. Ray Greek, president
of Americans For Medical Advancement. "Food and Drug Administration
scientists who approve drugs or decide upon regulations are also
current, past or future employees of the drug industry. They are
inextricably tied to the industry that they are supposed to be
policing. What this means is that the FDA is effectively financed and
staffed by the pharmaceutical industry. The agency 'works for' the
industry, not for consumers, because consumers are not making
campaign contributions; nor are they arbiters of job security."
In such an environment, it comes as no surprise to hear Philip J.
Regal, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, equate the current
lack of regulation with "playing Russian roulette with public
health." Regal adds: "We've had years and years of scientific
discussion about this, and the conclusion is very clear. If it
continues along this path, some of these foods are eventually going
to hurt somebody."
"Recombinant DNA technology is an inherently risky method for
producing new foods," warns Dr. Richard Lacey, professor of medical
microbiology at the University of Leeds. "Its risks are in large part
due to the complexity and interdependency of the parts of a living
system, including its DNA. Wedging foreign genetic material in an
essentially random manner into an organism's genome necessarily
causes some degree of disruption, and the disruption could be
multifaceted. It is impossible to predict what specific problems
could result in the case of any particular genetically engineered
As with any new technology, the onus is on the proponents to prove
safety . . . not the critics to prove danger. If there is doubt, the
technology should not be utilized (see: DDT and Agent Orange). If
corporations want glow-in-the-dark potatoes, let's do away with the
subterfuge and shine some light on the process. Our
scientific/medical paradigm is overloaded with "institutions" like
vaccinations, animal experimentation, nuclear power, and
pharmaceuticals that were developed in the dark and force-fed to the
public. Those who question these theologies are met with mockery and
personal attacks . . . and often find themselves relegated to the
fringe. Will the same happen to anyone challenging GM food?
More than 450 scientists recently signed a statement calling for a
complete moratorium on the release of GM crops. "It is time to re-
establish priorities," Nader concludes. "Protection of human health
and the environment must take precedence over corporate efforts to
rush the latest product to market and please investors. The
commodification of life must be stopped. Sci-fi-like proclamations
about 'improving' the human species through germline modification
must not be permitted to translate into public policy."
No one can say with certainty that GM foods are safe or unsafe. Isn't
that reason enough to mandate more research . . . under public
For more information, visit: http://www.thecampaign.org
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and
Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be
reached at: mzx2@....