Hazards of Genetically Engineered
Foods and Crops
by: Ronnie Cummins
Campaign for Food Safety & Organic Consumers Association
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 genefoods, 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 drops, 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 unpredlctable-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 60 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 510
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 and 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 or allergens in foods (or create entirely
new toxins) in unexpected ways, by switching on genes that produce
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.
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.
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
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, ecoli, campylobacter, and enterococci. EU authorities
are currently considering a ban on all GE foods containing antibiotic
resistant marker genes.
Increased Pesticide Residues
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 RhonePoulenc-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" 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
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
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 bio-pesticides. 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 Pathogens
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.
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?
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 never
more 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.
The genetic engineering and patenting of animals reduces living
beings to the status of manufactured products. 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?
Organic Consumers Association6114 Highway 61Little Marais,
MN 55614email - firstname.lastname@example.org://www.organicconsumers.org
and http://www.purefood.orgThe Organic Consumers Association is
affiliated with the Campaign for Food Safety