“A purely reductionist science, biotechnology reduces all life to bits of information (genetic code) that can be arranged and rearranged at whim.” –Ronnie Cummins, Campaign for Food Safety & Organic Consumers Association
What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Through genetic engineering, an organism’s DNA can be manipulated to highlight a desired trait- for example, the gene for drought resistance or pest resistance can be isolated in one organism and transferred to the target organism to produce a plant that now has an internal genetic resistance to drought or particular pests. This could and has been accomplished for thousands of years through traditional plant breeding methods, but proponents claim that genetic engineering speeds up and makes more precise this process through bioengineering. It should be noted that the majority of the scientific community opposing genetic engineering stress the fact that we would need to understand completely the processes of ecology, genetics and biology before ensuring that we can understand and anticipate all of the effects of creating, growing and consuming genetically engineered foods. This requires numerous, lengthy and rigorous testing of these products before placing on grocery store shelves for consumers. The most extensive studies have been done by the biotech corporations themselves and they are not sharing with the consuming public- and are not required to currently, as those findings are protected by law as confidential business information.
The most famous of genetically modified organisms thus far is Monsanto’s Bt gene being used in corn and cotton plants. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces insect larvae lethal crystal proteins. This integration of the Bt genes into the corn allows the corn to produce its own pesticide, specifically against the European corn borer (Whitman, p.1).
Some food for thought…
- More than 48 GE products being grown/sold in grocery stores presently.
- There are currently more than 80 million acres devoted to GE crops in the United States.
- 750,000 dairy cows are being treated with rBGH by Monsanto.
- The majority of processed foods on grocery shelves have tested positive for the presence of GE ingredients.
- Unlabeled GE foods include: soybeans, soy oil, corn, potatoes, squash, canola oil, cottonseed oil, papaya, tomatoes, and various dairy products.
- The same biotech companies creating and selling the genetically engineered crops and organisms are also the makers and sellers of the pesticides and herbicides meant to be used on these crops.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the agencies responsible for regulating the products of genetic engineering. Thus far, they are doing this with statues created long before the concept of modern biotechnology and have been adapted to continue to monitor that which they were not intended to. Most GE crops are not subject to regulations and voluntary consultation by the biotech corporations with the FDA does not require a standard set of safety tests.
Known Environmental Hazards
Plants engineered to be pesticide and herbicide resistant have posed the problem of the necessity of more pesticide spraying, as opposed to the lessening of required sprayings as the Biotech industry has promised:
- For example, the Bt toxin engineered into plants has been proven to be effective for only 80-100 days, according to Dr. Mayee, the director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research in India. Dr. Mayee said, “(We expected the) new variety of a crop would give some relief regarding the bollworms. There was no truth in the propaganda that Bt Cotton was a non-spray” (Shiva, p.5).
- Residues of many herbicides remain long after the herbicides have been applied and this is going to continue to be a problem as the promises of non-spray crops have failed. For example, studies in Sweden and the United States on glyphosate, a common herbicide used in farming, show that residues from the chemical are present up to three years after application; the chemical actually invades the plant and has been found to be inside many fruits and vegetables, it cannot be washed off; the actual breakdown of glyphosate consists of an even more residual compound called aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) that has been shown to cause damage to the livers and bladders of rats; another study showed that five months after spraying a field with glyphosate and four months after planting lettuce in that same field, those lettuces tested positive for the chemical- meaning that the vegetables absorbed the chemical through the soil.
For crops that are engineered to contain an internal pesticide in order to drastically reduce the use of pesticides, it has been found that:
- Target pests quickly adapt and evolve a resistance to the engineered toxin in the crops, as well as their natural (and parasitic) enemies.
- The Bt Corn that is supposed to have been toxic to a particular pest, has been found to also adversely affect other insects that are not necessarily pests to corn crops. For example, Nature did a study that showed significant negative effects on Monarch butterfly caterpillar populations that were fed on Bt Corn pollen. In Switzerland, research found that lacewings fed on corn borers raised on Bt crops were insufficiently developed and had a high early mortality rate. Additionally, in Scotland, the Scottish Crop Research group found that ladybirds fed aphids that were fed transgenic potatoes were laying fewer eggs and dying sooner than ladybirds on a traditional diet (Shiva, p.16).
- Populations of natural enemies of the target species (bollworm) have been shown to in field experiments with Bt Cotton to have increased significantly, such as: cotton aphids, thrips, lygus bugs, cotton leaf hopper, cotton spider mites, cotton whitefly and beet army worm. Often these secondary pests replaced the target pests in damaging the cotton plants and ultimately upsetting the balance within these insect communities.
The possibility of cross pollination between the GE crops and the weeds being targeted by the herbicide would produce “super weeds” that would also be herbicide resistant. The Union of Concerned Scientists is concerned with the ability of engineered genes to spread throughout the traditional/pure seed supply though pollination by wind or insects is a matter of concern, when grown out in the open, this pollination-contamination cannot be regulated. Many scientists have tried to resolve this problem with “suicide genes” engineered for male sterility, but this creates many economic problems for small farmers already choking in competition with the industrial agriculturists.
Some biotech companies are working to create crops that produce pharmaceuticals and substances such as plastics. These test fields are also out in the open and the possibility of these crops cross pollinating with traditional crops is potentially deadly to humans and animals that may eat the waste left over after harvest of these crops, as allergies to pharmaceuticals and industrial material-laced crops would be unknown and unlabeled for the farmers and the consuming public. Besides the cross pollination issue, the clean up after these crops needs to be fully addressed and has thus far been neglected.
Some plants are being engineered to remove toxic metals and industrial sludge from soil and store them in inedible parts of the plants. The problem with this is, again, not enough is known about genetics to guarantee that the “on/off” switch that controls where the toxins are stored are completely “off” for edible tissues. Additionally, disposing of the toxin-laden portions of the plants after harvesting poses some environmental and wildlife concerns.
The members of the Alliance for BioIntegrity say that… “These and the many other environmental risks are especially problematic because their effects are to a substantial extent irreversible. Once gene-altered organisms are released, it is difficult to recall or control them. They continue to propagate, migrate, and cross-breed with similar species” (p.1-2).
The carriers, or “promoters” of target genes to be recombined into the new DNA are derived from disease-causing viruses, plasmids and mobile genetic elements- parasitic DNA that have the ability to invade cells and insert themselves into the cells’ genome. Generally, plant promoters being used are tumor-inducing plasmid carried by the Bacterium AgroBacterium tumefaciens and animal promoters being used are retroviruses which are known to cause cancers and other diseases. Scientists are also specifically employing antibiotic resistant genes as promoters; within the plant, the antibiotic gene is expressionless and benign. If the gene were able to transfer out of the GM plant system and enter into a bacterium, the bacterium could then become antibiotic resistant. This becomes a serious problem when dealing with this transfer between plants and bacterium that afflicts humans and livestock. Commonly used antibiotics utilized to fight beatable diseases would be rendered useless against these “super bacterium.”
- It was believed for some time that the enzymes in the human gut could break down DNA, however Dr. Mae-Wan Ho spoke of a study “designed to test the survival of viral DNA in the gut, mice were fed DNA from a bacterial virus, and large fragments were found to survive passage through the gut and to enter the bloodstream. Within the gut, vectors carrying antibiotic resistance will be taken up by the gut bacteria, which would then serve as a reservoir of antibiotic resistance for invading pathogenic bacteria.”
Some erratic and random health effects that have surfaced with studies and research done on GMO’s:
- At the Urbino University in Italy, researchers found considerable changes in the livers of mice fed on GE foods. Specifically, the nuclei (the “brain” of the cell) were dramatically altered.
- Mihn-Ha Pham Deleque, on behalf of the French Government Research Institute (INRA), has done laboratory research on the effects of pollen from GM varieties of canola and soybeans on honey bees. While the pollen was not found to outright kill the bees, she found that their lifespan was considerably shortened and they suffered from behavioral, smell and memory disabilities- all essential to bees’ lives.
- Residents living near a Monsanto Bt Corn field in Marbel, South Cotabato (Southern Philippines) have complained of numerous ailments shortly following a two week flowering stage of the GE corn, including: headache, flu, nausea, fatigue and skin irritations.
- In 1989, 37 Americans died and thousands of others suffered as a result of ingesting a dietary supplement made of genetically engineered L-tryptophan. More than 5,000 others that also took the supplement reported being permanently disabled or suffering from a painful, possibly fatal blood disorder, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome.
- Monsanto’s rGBH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) has been shown to elevate chances of developing human breast, prostate and colon cancers due to the use of the chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1).
- Mice intestines were found to be damaged from the FlavrSavr Tomato.
- In 1999, the British Rowett Institute’s Dr. Arpad Pusztai’s research on snowdrop potatoes (potatoes integrated with genes from the snowdrop plant and the viral promoter Cauliflower Mosaic virus– CaMv) found the differences between the GE potatoes and their traditional counterparts to be quite significant. Damage to vital organs and immune systems of rats fed on the snowdrop potatoes was overwhelming, with the rats suffering severe damage to their stomach linings by a viral infection brought on by the promoter, CaMv. More alarming is the fact that this viral promoter is used in a majority of GE foods.
Toxins naturally produced by stationary plants to fend off predators could be adversely affected by engineering by intensifying these toxins or even activating naturally “inactive pathways” leading to toxic substances, which could be detrimental to humans or other animals. Another possible negative consequence of engineering is the possibility of removing beneficial toxins such as the experiments with genetically decaffeined coffee plants, which removed the plants natural defense against toxic fungi. In this case, research found that processing for human consumption cannot remove the resulting toxic fungi aflatoxin from the now decaffeinated coffee.
A respected German zoologist, Dr. Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, at the University of Jena in Germany has done research on “gene jumping” and found that “the alien gene from genetically modified rape-seed had transferred to bacteria living inside the guts of honey bees” (Shiva, p.16). Dr. Mae-Wan Ho’s lecture only serves to support this data, “…they (genes used in engineering) are designed to breakdown species barriers so that they can shuttle genes between a wide range of species. Their wide host range means that they can infect many animals and in the process pick up genes from viruses of all these species to create new pathogens” (p.2-3).
“Because we do not have enough knowledge to understand all of the hazards which GE foods present, or have fully reliable methods to test their safety or estimate the risks of introducing them into the food supply, it must be concluded that GE foods cannot be reliably certified as safe at this time.” -Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology
Alliance for BioIntegrity. “Why the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Offends Science, Religion and the Bill of Rights.” 2001: 1p. Alliance for BioIntegrity. 13 June 2004. www.biointegrity.org/Overview.html.
Campanha por um Brasil Livre de Transgênicos. “US Company Ads Vex Brazilians.” 2004: 2pp. Brazzil Online Magazine. 10 June 2004. www.brazzil.com/2004/html/articles/jan04/p102jan04.htm.
Cummins, Ronnie. “Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops: Why We Need a Global Moratorium.” 2004: 7pp. Organic Consumers Association. 11 June 2004. www.purefood.org/GEFacts.htm.
Delori, Jacques, web ed. “backgrounder: Biotechnology Policy.” 2002: 2pp. Union of Concerned Scientists. 12 June 2004. www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/biotechnology/page.cfm?pageID=342.
Delori, Jacques, web ed. “backgrounder: Risks of Genetic Engineering.” 2002: 5pp. Union of Concerned Scientists. 12 June 2004. www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/biotechnology/page.cfm?pageID=346.
Delori, Jacques. “Questions and Answers on Gone to Seed.” 2004: 3pp. Union of Concerned Scientists. 12 June 2004. www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/biotechnology/page.cfm?pageID=1339.
Drucker, Steven M. “Why Concerns About Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Food Are Scientifically Justified.” 2004: 7pp. Alliance for BioIntegrity. 13 June 2004. www.biointegrity.org/health-risks/health-risks-ge-foods.htm.
Ho, Mae-Wan. “The Hazards of Genetically Engineered Food.” 1996: 5pp. The Activist Website. 14 June 2004. www.users.westnet.gr/~cgian/gehazards1.htm.
Leu, Andre. “Glyphosate: A review of its health and environmental effects.” 2002: 4pp. Organic Producers Association of Queensland. 13 June 2004. www.geocities.com/opaq2001/glyphosate.htm).
Natural Law Party of the United Kingdom. “Scientific Facts Demonstrating the Need for An Immediate Worldwide Ban.” 2002: 4pp. Natural Law Party of the United Kingdom. 14 June 2004. www.natural-law-party.org.uk/ukmanifesto/geneticengineering4.htm.
Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology. “Liver Changes from GE Food.” 2003: 1p. Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology. 13 June 2004. www.psrast.org/liverchang.htm.
Rowland, Joe. “GMO Testimony.” 2000: 3pp. AG Biotech InfoNet. 13 June 2004. www.biotech-info.net/JR_testimony.html.
Shiva, Dr. Vandana and Afsar H. Jafri. “Failure of the GMO’s in India.” 2003: 19pp. Mindfully Website. 13 June 2004. www.mindfully.org/GE/2003/India-GMO-Failure-Shiva31may03.htm.
Suurkala, Dr. Jaan, ed. “The Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Reasons to Expect Hazards and the Risk for Their Appearance.” 2000: 11pp. Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology. 15 June 2004. www.psrast.org/defknfood.htm.
Research compiled while serving as the Research Associate for Oakland Institute, 2004.
(C) 2009 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.