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GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS:
TOO MANY UNKNOWNS

If you live in the US, more than half of the groceries in your shopping cart could contain the products of genetic engineering. Genetically engineered (GE) crops cover over 70million acres of US farmland, comprise half our soybean crop and a thirdof our corn, and fuel one of the most controversial economic, consumer,and health issues of our times. Some would even call it a moral issue,as profit-seeking agribusiness and zealous scientists continue to churnout new varieties of what some have called “Frankenstein foods.”

Certainly, humankind hasengineered food for centuries-through traditional plant breeding, a practice familiar to recreational gardeners whereby two plants are crossbred in order to create hybrid strains containing favorable traits from both original plants. In this way, prettier, more flavorful, or simply hardier plants can be formed. In recent years, however, biotechnology has upped the anteconsiderably, enabling scientists to inject genetic material forcibly fromone living thing straight into another. The term “living thing” is usedquite deliberately; while the crossbred species traditionally had to beclose-apples and pears, for example-it is possible today to blend genesfrom vastly different species.  Bacterial, viral, even insect or animal(including human) genes can be injected into other species. This practicebecomes a cause for concern more particularly when we are dealing withseeds and plants used for food sources, and therein lies the crux of the controversy over GE foods.

As the leading exporter of soybeans, and one of the primary producers of the world’s corn, wheat,and other grain supplies, the US has a multibillion dollar interest infortifying its agricultural output. There are many crop-ruining pests suchas insects, weeds, and viruses, as well as manmade hazards such as insecticidesand chemical weed killers. On the surface, therefore, the idea of either injecting a bacterium into a plant’s DNA or using a “gene gun” to propelgenetic material into a group of plant cells might seem like a scientifically sound and economically reasonable thing to do. After all, giving a tomatoa flounder’s genetic code might prolong its shelf life, and creating moreinsect-and herbicide-resistant plants might allow us to feed more peoplefor less money. Or so say the kingpins of agribusiness, biotechnology,and the USDA-as they nervously eye the nation’s export balance sheet.

Genetic engineering, however,has become a fiery trade issue, as other nations who have traditionally imported our grain and food products are coming to reject gene-altered food. In the UK, consumer pressure has forced leading supermarkets, restaurants,and even school cafeterias to ban GE foods. In Mexico, where corn is notonly a dietary mainstay, but a part of life and folklore, the country’s biggest tortilla maker has said it will stop importing genetically modifiedgrain. Mexico is, incidentally, the third largest importer of US food.Australia has shunned GE foods for much of its produce as well as its world-leading beef exports. Japan’s largest soybean company, Fuji Oil Co. Ltd., agreed in September 1999 to stop manufacturing GE soy protein products. The EuropeanUnion issued a moratorium on GE crops in June 1999. And several other countriesare avoiding imports of GE foods and seeds.

Altering the genetic structureof living organisms through biotechnology is a revolutionary technologywhose long-term ramifications are simply not yet known. Some of the risksinclude: disruption of the ecosystem and food chain leading to loss of biodiversity creation of new weed varieties that are resistant to existing chemicals genetic pollution which could weaken the vigor and fitness ofa species disruption of soil ecology and reduction of soil fertility water pollution through increased and long-term use of toxic, carcinogenic, and mutagenic agricultural chemicals crossbreeding between GE plants and wild relatives When genes are injected into another species, a “marker gene”is also included to determine if the gene splicing worked.

By accompanying the insertion gene, the marker gene, which usually provides instructions for antibiotic resistance, enables cells that have taken up the new DNA to survive whengrown in the presence of an antibiotic. In this way it can be ascertainedwhich cells have incorporated the new DNA. Cells which do not have thesegenes do not survive. Marker genes have the potential to produce unexpected results, such as making harmful bacteria in the environment resistant to antibiotics.

Most risky, perhaps, is the fact that once a new gene structure is released into nature, it cannotbe recalled. Therefore, new genetically modified life-forms will be unleashed forever-and they may be far from good.

One of the strongest voices warning of the hazards of GE foods is that of John Fagan,a molecular biologist specializing in genetic techniques in cancer research. Increasingly concerned about the dangers of genetic engineering to humansand to the environment, he decided in 1994 to take an ethical stand againstgenetic applications, returning a $613,882 grant to the National Institutes of Health, withdrawing grant applications worth another $1.25 million,and urging scientists to take safer, more productive research directions. Dr. Fagan has now become one of the major spokespersons calling for bettersafety and environmental assessment of GE foods, and he was gracious enoughto take the time to answer some of our questions concerning GE foods and our health.

Dr. Fagan, should webe concerned about GE foods?

Genetic engineering carriesa range of consequences when used in agriculture and food production. Theseoccur on human safety, environmental, social-cultural, and economic levels.But let’s focus for the moment on environmental and health concerns. Agricultural genetic engineering threatens to disrupt both our local and global ecosystems, diminishing biodiversity and disrupting the food chain. Recently the work of Dr. Pusztai and Dr. Ewen has shown that genetically engineered foods can be toxic. GE foods pose other dangers also to people who eatthem. Food quality and nutritive value can be altered, and food allergiescan also be a serious concern. Pioneer Hi-Bred, for example, used a brazil-nutgene to enhance soybeans but realized this would cause allergic reactionsin those nut-allergic people who ate the soybeans. Fortunately, Pioneer abandoned the soybean-brazil nut experiment when this finding came to light,but assessing allergens and toxins like these is a challenging undertaking,especially when unanticipated.

Soy products are used inmany processed foods, and constitute a large part of many vegetarian diets.Are you saying soy may not be safe either? 

Conventional soy is a healthy and nutritious addition to anyone’s diet, but 50 percent of theUS soybeans are genetically engineered, so this should indeed be a great concern to people who consume soy products.  Soy isn’t the only problem,however. Much of our corn and canola supply is genetically modified; canolaand corn oils are present in a large variety of processed foods. Laboratoryanalysis has detected GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in a vast arrayof processed foods presently sold in food stores.

In this field, our present regulatory system is woefully inadequate. There just hasn’t been any long-termtesting carried out on the effects of genetic engineering of food, andthe studies that have been conducted study only a piece of nature in isolation from the rest of the world. This limits the scope of the information brought to light by the experiment. Real-world applications of these tests mayyield quite different results. At this point in time, scientists just cannot adequately predict how genetic manipulations will influence cellular functioning,the behavior of the organism as a whole, and the ecosystem into which that genetically engineered organism will be introduced.

Furthermore, none of the GEfoods on the market today have been tested directly on humans. The humantesting normally required for a new food additive is not required for GEfoods, and the testing that has been done with laboratory animals is insufficient.I feel strongly that too little research in this area has been completed to assure that either current or potential future applications will besafe. There are just too many unanswered questions for us to be consumingthese foods on the scale we are now doing.

But doesn’t GE help agriculture?

Agribusiness seems to thinkGE makes sense, economically and agriculturally, although we are seeinga rise in farmer concern about GE crops, because of public alarm. Genetically engineering organisms for food production, however, offers, at best, partialsolutions to agricultural problems. This benefit/risk ratio is clearly not favorable and does not justify the widespread use of this strategy.As for its economic advances, the claim that GE crops yield more hasn’tbeen proven in studies that compare GE foods to the top hybrid crops developed through traditional breeding. I think a more fruitful directionthan GE biotechnology is truly sustainable agriculture.

Some critics of GE foodssay human beings are being used as guinea pigs, and indeed this analogyis apt when you consider the lack of long-term testing, and the fact thatGE food products are put on the shelves unlabeled for the unwitting consumerto buy.

Unwitting consumer?

Bear in mind that US food manufacturers are not obligated to reveal whether their products are genetically engineered. When you consider all aspects of genetically engineering plants for food production, it becomes clear that the only benefits of this approachare the economic rewards gained by the chemical companies who develop thesecrops.

Surely the FDA and other regulatory agencies are protecting our food supply!

Not much. Awareness is increasingin the US, but Europeans are more sensitive to food safety issues-due toBritain’s “mad cow disease” scandal and recent controversy in Belgium concerning dioxin-contaminated chickens. Consequently, FDA, EPA, and USDA policy ongenetically engineered crops is weak. What little research is presently being done on GE foods is not conducted by the FDA itself. The biotechnology company which is developing a new plant submits its own testing summaries to the FDA, and the FDA bases its approval on this information. You caneasily see the shortcomings of this procedure. Not only is the developer also the tester, but the consultation process between the companies andthe FDA is voluntary. The FDA has stated that certain food lines do nothave to be submitted for approval. A New York Times article recently speculated that the regulatory agencies may just be a “rubber stamp” for corporateagribusiness interests.

In the past, the FDA hasfailed to protect the public health on several occasions. DES (diethylstilbestrol)caused cancer in thousands of women. Thalidomide caused serious birth defects.The FDA approved the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides that mimicthe function of steroids and damage reproductive function in humans, livestock,and wild animals.

This is all rather terrifying.What can consumers do?

We do not need to wait forscientists to complete many more years of research and development. Consumerscan vote with their pocketbooks. We can purchase only certified organicfoods or foods that come from known nonbioengineered sources. There appearsto be a strong movement in this direction-demand for organic food is reportedlyincreasing at the rate of 20 percent per annum.

Scientists and agriculturalistsalso need to move forward much more slowly and methodically, and with greatercare. Toward this end, I advocate a moratorium on the large-scale implementation of any genetic technology that might, either intentionally or accidentally,lead to the introduction of genetically engineered genes into the globalgene pool of any species-humans, animals, plants, or microorganisms. This moratorium will provide a period during which research can be carried out to assess the safety and appropriateness of genetic technologies. It will also enable our leaders and the public to evaluate all options more systematically before adopting a new technology whose effects are irreversible. This approachhas already been implemented de facto in the European Union and more stronglyin the UK. I also call for the implementation of safer, more effective technologies such as the ones in sustainable agriculture.

Biotechnology experts estimatethat almost 100 percent of all food and fiber could be genetically engineered within the next five years. USDA-, EPA-, or FDA-approved GE products includecanola oil, chicory, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans and soy oil, squash,tomatoes, and dairy-including the half a million cows that are regularlyinjected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Some biotechnology items coming in the near future: Roundup Ready rice, Roundup Ready wheat,reduced-acidity wine grapes, higher-yielding corn, high starch contentpotatoes and beans, stress-resistant crops, and freeze-tolerant Atlanticsalmon.

I feel the real future infood production lies in further development of sustainable agricultural strategies, such as crop rotation, crop diversification, and natural pestcontrol methods. The objectives that scientists hope to achieve through genetic manipulations can be accomplished much more simply, safely, andcost-effectively through these strategies. The wide-scale implementation of sustainable methods can be initiated immediately. These methods canmeet or exceed the levels of productivity and food quality that genetic engineering aspires to provide.  Finally, at the very least GE food should be labeled in the US. A number of other countries have already initiated proposals to label these foods. All surveys indicate people wantlabeling so they can choose to buy or to not buy GE foods. This is importantto us because it’s our food supply.

You are a genetic scientist,but you speak out against genetic engineering. Why is this?

specialized in the genetic engineering approach to cancer research. I am still a molecular biologist with my own lab. I recognize and appreciate the value of this technology. It’s a powerful tool that can be used well or not well. What I’m urgingis a much stronger focus on food and environmental safety. It might bea little more expensive and time-consuming, but it will lead to greater consumer acceptance and confidence in the technology.  Taking a littlemore care now may save us from much future grief. This is my concern.

Genetic engineering can havepositive applications. It is used in medicine in the manufacture of drugs, hormones, and dietary supplements, and in the development of sensitive diagnostic tests for genetic defects. Such applications don’t involve altering the human genome, nor do they involve the release of genetically engineer edorganisms into the environment.  Therefore, the risks associated with these applications are much smaller than those associated with gene the rapyor agricultural genetic engineering.

Some Players

A list of the corporations involved in commercializing GE agricultural products as of June 1998:



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