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What's wrong with GE foods?

Sound Consumer | April 2003

by Cameron Woodworth

(April 2003) — From Frankenfish that grow four times faster than normal to animals and plants designed to produce experimental drugs, biotech engineers are tinkering with the fundamental building blocks of life. In the process, biotech companies are corrupting many of the common foods we eat and creating worrisome new health and environmental risks. They're also posing a perilous threat to the organic foods industry.

What's coming to market
Today, just eight years since the advent of GE crops, an estimated two-thirds of the processed foods on supermarket shelves contain some genetically engineered (GE) ingredient. By far the largest class of genetically engineered crops is herbicide resistant — soybeans and corn engineered to withstand heavier doses of the herbicide Roundup® or even to manufacture their own pesticides.

Genetic engineers also are experimenting with a dizzying array of radical new genetically altered creations, ranging from fish that glow in the dark to pre-plucked chickens that grow without feathers. The featherless chickens are designed to save chicken producers the cost of plucking feathers.

But the most frightening new class of genetic engineering is pharmaceutical crops — usually corn — designed to produce vaccines, medicines and other pharmaceuticals. These "foodaceuticals" or "biopharms" reportedly are being grown in more than 300 secret locations nationwide.(1)

The biotech and pharmaceutical industries are joining together to create pharmaceutical crops because pharmaceutical companies can save loads of money growing medicines and vaccines in corn and other vegetables rather than manufacturing them in chemical labs. Corn, soy, rice and tobacco are being genetically manipulated to produce drugs meant to act as vaccines and contraceptives, to induce abortions, generate growth hormones, create blood clots, and to produce industrial enzymes.

In so doing, they have some observers worrying that we may one day learn that Viagra is in our corn flakes.

Bad track record
So far, pharmaceutical crops remain in the experimental stage. But already, biotech companies are developing a track record of snafus that is undermining the public's faith in genetic tinkering. Three years ago, farmers mixed StarLink corn, unapproved for human consumption, with regular corn, leading to a product recall that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In 2002, ProdiGene, a small Texas biotech company, paid an estimated $2.8 million to buy and destroy soybeans contaminated by an experimental corn plant engineered to produce medicine. Federal regulators caught the snafu barely in time — just before the soybeans were released into the food supply. Early this year, federal regulators discovered that genetically mutated research pigs, created by scientists at the University of Illinois, may have been making their way onto the nation's dinner tables for a year or more.

The incidents have pitted two long-time allies — the biotech industry and the conventional food industry — against each other. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, long a cheerleader for the biotech industry, said it was "deeply concerned by ProdiGene's reported conduct." Karil Kochenderfer, GMA's environmental director, told reporters "We strongly urge the biotech industry to direct its substantial research capabilities into investigating the use of nonfood crops for the development of pharmaceuticals."

In addition, the National Food Processors Association urged the federal government to halt planting gene-altered crops for pharmaceuticals until Washington, D.C. imposes tougher regulations to prevent future incidents. "There should be no testing of this kind unless you can get 100 percent confinement and containment. The risk is too high," said Rhona Applebaum, NFPA's senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Many people believe that the U.S. government is doing a poor job of regulating genetically engineered foods and is unduly influenced by powerful biotech companies. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, maintains that genetically engineered foods are "substantially equivalent" to their conventional counterparts and, therefore, require no special government testing. The FDA instead relies on biotech companies to inform the agency voluntarily if there is a problem — akin to letting the fox watch the henhouse.

The FDA's policy on rBGH (a genetically engineered growth hormone used by the dairy industry), in fact, was crafted by Michael Taylor, once an attorney from a firm representing Monsanto, one of the largest biotech companies. Taylor joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, developed the policy on rBGH, then returned to Monsanto. There are dozens of examples showing a so-called "revolving door" between the biotech industry and government regulatory agencies.(2)

A threat to food security
Among the most worrisome aspects of genetically engineered crops is their pervasiveness across the American landscape and their tendency to drift to neighboring fields. Already, some organic farms have been contaminated by pollen drifting from genetically engineered crops nearby. Researchers report that some organic foods contain traces of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As Arran Stephens, president of Nature's Path Foods, notes, "You cannot build a wall high enough" to prevent genetic pollution of wild and organic crops.

A European Union report last year found that some genetically altered crops — especially corn — are highly likely to crossbreed with organic or wild plants. These findings have environmentalists worried that genetically mutated crops may bring unwanted genetic changes to organic and wild plants. The organic food industry has yet to figure out how to protect itself from genetic drift. The problem is likely to increase in coming years.

"We never really thought all this through," said Charles Hurburgh, director of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative and an Iowa State University professor. "Who would have known 10 years ago that this would have been an issue? There was no reason for this to be on the radar screen at the time."

Even some biotech advocates concede that the strategy of huge biotech companies such as Monsanto is to so permeate the nation's food supply with genetically engineered ingredients that's impossible to turn back the clock to a world where the food is more pure. "The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GMOs] that there's nothing you can do about it, you just sort of surrender," Washington, D.C. biotech industry consultant Don Westfall told the Toronto Star last year.

Environmental, health problems
Environmentalists have long been concerned about the environmental effects of genetically engineered foods, ranging from the rise of "superweeds" to the loss of biodiversity. Recent studies are giving weight to these concerns. Last November, a University of North Carolina team found that genetically engineered plants can pass on the same level of toxicity to insects even when the plants are crossbred with natural, non-genetically engineered plants. The study "shows that GM crops can irreversibly pass on their genes to wild plants and contaminate our natural heritage," Greenpeace spokesman Benn Alyffe says. "Once we release genetically modified crops there's no going back. The genie is out of the bottle."

In the lab experiment, oilseed rape (canola) containing an anti-pest gene was cross-pollinated with its natural relative, birdseed rape. Five of 11 resulting hybrids "expressed the insecticide produced by the gene at levels similar to the GM parent and were highly toxic to insects," according to New Scientist magazine. This kind of threat to biodiversity threatens the very basis of good nutrition and food security.

Significant concerns over human health were raised last July with the discovery that genetically modified DNA material from crops is finding its way into human gut bacteria. Researchers at the University of Newcastle in northern England — in a study commissioned by Britain's Food Standards Agency — said that an herbicide-resistant gene from GM soy was found in three of seven test patients. Industry officials had long insisted that DNA from genetically altered food couldn't migrate to human gut bacteria.

The new British study suggests that antibiotic marker gene DNA could transfer into bacteria in the human digestive system. If so, bacteria in the human body may develop immunity to the antibiotics serving as marker genes in the biotech crops. As a result, the effectiveness of medicinal antibiotics may be reduced. All genetically engineered crops currently being grown commercially contain these antibiotic marker genes.

Eating GE food also could increase the risk of stomach and colon cancers, according to a leading expert in tissue diseases, Dr. Stanley Ewen, a consultant histopathologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. Ewen points to the so-called cauliflower mosaic virus, which is used as the most common "promoter" (or tiny engine) to drive implanted genes to express themselves.

Ewen co-published a report in 1999 showing rats fed GE potatoes developed a thickening of the stomach lining, which later became inflamed. The rats showed stunted growth, depleted immune systems and damaged internal organs. Ewen believes the cauliflower mosaic virus could act as a growth factor in the stomach and colon, encouraging the growth of polyps. The faster they grow, the more likely they are to be malignant.

As for the three-quarters of the GE crops bred for herbicide resistance (Roundup Ready® corn and soy among them), little media ink has been devoted to two new studies indicating Roundup is a hormone disruptor and associated with a statistically significant increase in human birth defects. Roundup also is linked to a 300 percent increase in neurodevelopmental (attention deficit) disorders.(3) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined years ago that Roundup threatened 74 endangered plant species.

These factors have critics wondering what other health and environmental surprises may be in store for this very young and poorly understood experiment. There are no long-term studies either on the environment or human health.

What you can do
For all these reasons, PCC has been a strong advocate of the National Organic Standards, which prohibit genetic engineering in food. As a consumer-owned organization, PCC supports mandatory labels on GE foods as a way for consumers to know what is and isn't genetically altered and to maintain the right to an informed choice. Short of labeling, see the colored boxed insets to help you detect potential GE ingredients (Help in reading labels for GE corn and soy" and U.S. crops authorized to be genetically engineered (GE).

PCC also supports The Campaign To Label Genetically Engineered Foods as a way for people to get involved and make a difference. The Campaign's focus is to pass Congressional legislation that would require genetically engineered foods to be labeled. It's a highly popular idea — 93 percent of Americans support labeling, according to a 2001 ABC News survey — but Congress, which is lobbied heavily by the biotech industry, so far has resisted the peoples' will.

Genetically engineered food labeling bills are expected to be introduced this spring by Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Send letters to Congress and tell others to do the same. Letters from the public are one of the most important tools to convince Congress to act. Sample letters can be found on The Campaign's Web site, www.thecampaign.org, along with additional information.

The Campaign also is leading a new effort called "Save Organic Wheat!" (www.saveorganicwheat.org) to protect organic wheat from GE wheat, which biotech companies hope to start growing commercially in the next few years. Secret GE wheat trials reportedly are occurring in many fields across the country, including Washington State.

Cameron Woodworth is communications director for The Campaign To Label Genetically Engineered Foods.

  1. Rachel's Environment and Health News #751, Sept. 5, 2002
  2. See Edmonds Institute http://www.edmonds-institute.org/door.html
  3. Environmental News Service, Washington, D.C., July 16, 2002

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