Genetic Engineering may have Problems(long)

Rcjohnsen rcjohnsen at
Thu Feb 17 00:01:16 EST 2000

	             				   LAX REGULATION,
								          HIDDEN INGREDIENTS,
           with               				 AND A PLETHORA OF
	               							   MAKE THIS BRAVE NEW
									     TECHNOLOGY A BAD BET.
								by John Grogan and Cheryl Long
In Organic Gardening  Jan/Feb Issue 2000                                   
  A NEW MILLENNIUM IS DAWNING, and with it a new age. For the first time,
humans are able to manipulate the very fabric of life, shuffling the genetic
deck that controls every aspect of every living organism in ways that nature
never intended. 
• It began in 1971 with a microscopic bacterium that was genetically altered to
devour oil spills. Today, less than three decades later, a powerful,
profit-driven industry, comprised largely of the same companies that have made
their fortunes in chemical pesticides, has sprung up around this new science. 
Genetically engineered crops cover an estimated one-quarter of all cropland in
the United States: about half of all the soybeans and cotton grown, and a third
of all corn.
   This science of tinkering with nature in the hope of improving upon it is a
heady business. By splicing genes and dicing DNA, scientists may someday cure
dreaded diseases and create powerful vaccines. But what offers such promise in
the tightly controlled laboratories of medicine raises deeply troubling
implications in the open fields and yards of the world's farms and gardens.
With regard to genetically altered life-forms, once a mistake is made and
released into the environment, there is no certainty it can ever be undone.
    Here at Organic Gardening, we know such a highly unnatural technology would
never have a place in our definition of organic gardening, but we have resisted
a rush to judgment. Monsanto, DuPont, and other major corporate players in the
emerging genetic engineering market have argued that their products hold the
power to feed the world while cutting pesticide use and curbing erosion.
    Yet the more information we gather, studies we read, and scientific debates
we monitor, the more convinced we become that those claims are overblown at
best and that the science of biotechnology is lurching forward far too rapidly
and with neither adequate study nor precaution. The lack of rigorous,
independent study and government regulation heightens our concern.

A RISING CHORUS of scientists, academics, and ethicists is voicing alarm at
this exploding, and largely uncharted, technology.Jane Rissler, Ph.D., a former
biotechnology regulator with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who is
now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says, "We're skeptical of the
benefits of this technology, and we're concerned about the risks. We think
there are better alternatives to solving challenges in agriculture, and the
public should have a say in how the technology is used and developed."
    The public's say is critical. Consumers have no way to know when they are
eating genetically altered foods. That's because the Food and Drug
Administration has chosen not to classify alien genes as food additives and
therefore does not require that they be listed on food labels. A bag of corn
chips, for instance, must disclose that salt has been added, but it need not
reveal that the corn itself has been genetically manipulated to contain its own
pesticide. At a minimum, shouldn't shoppers have a right to make informed
    "Labeling is the first step, because it gives people the right to choose,"
says Richard Wolfson, Ph.D., the Canadian chairman of the Consumer Right to
Know Campaign, an umbrella organization for numerous groups that are calling
for mandatory labeling and long-term testing of a genetically engineered foods.
"Without labeling, there no way to trace any health effects, and there is no
way to protect consumers."
    Around the world, protests continue to mount against these genetically
modified "Frankenfoods," as they have been dubbed. The European Union has
banned virtual all genetically altered corn imports, effectively freezing out
all U.S. corn until recently because modified varieties were not separated from
the rest of the crop. The cost to  American farmers was about $200 million in
1998. Japan is demanding labeling of genetically engineered foods  Americans
have been far more willing to accept such foods without question, but that is
now changing. Two lawsuits demanding labeling have been filed against the FDA,
and last spring, Congress received half a million signatures on petitions
calling for labeling of gene-altered foods. Several other campaigns are now
under way.  In addition to not requiring labeling of these foods, the FDA does
not demand testing of them. It requires only the manufacturer's assurance that
they are safe. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA have
no comprehensive testing requirements.
    "There is no meaningful, scientifically credible process across all federal
government agencies to evaluate the hazards of genetically engineered
organisms," says Suzanne Wuerthele, Ph.D., an EPA risk-assessment expert. "The
bottom line, in my personal view, is that we are confronted with the most
powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed
with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences."
    Here are 10 reasons why all of us should be troubled about the rapid
proliferation of genetically engineered foods.

[l1SUPERBUGS: Of the 50 or so genetically engineered plants currently cleared
by the government for use, most fall into two basic categories: plants

 "The bottom line, in my personal view, is that we are confronted with the most
powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed
with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences.

to include their own pesticide, a toxin produced by the BT (Bacillus
thuringiensis) bacterium, and plants engineered to survive weed killers,
including the so-called  Roundup Ready soybeans and cotton.
    BT is a natural and highly effective pesticide that has long been used by
organic growers to control caterpillars and other pests. But what organic
farmers and gardeners use sparingly, biotechnology has introduced into each
cell of every genetically engineered plant, from the roots to the pollen to the
chaff plowed under after harvest. Because of BT's ubiquitous presence in
millions of acres of crops, even  the industry's own scientists concede that it
is just a matter of time—as little as 3 to 5 years—before BT-resistant insect
strains evolve. Directives that farmers interplant these BT-carrying crops with
nonmodified varieties is expected to merely delay the inevitable. And when the
inevitable happens, organic growers will lose a powerful pest control, and
conventional growers will return-to chemical pesticides unless, of course,
biotechnology can come up with yet a new generation of pest-immune crops.

The French-Fry Test

We asked four major fast-food chains a simple question: "Do you use genetically
engineered potatoes in your french fries?"


Arby's     		YES: "Approximately 10 percent of  Arby's potato
products are genetically engineered."

Burger King   NO: "Our french fried potatoes do not include any genetically
modified ingredients."

McDonald's    	UNKNOWN: We called six times over the course of a month, and
none of our calls was returned. Hmmm.

Wendy's    		UNKNOWN: Not one of our seven calls was returned.
Double hmmm.

           —Elizabeth Coleman

    Besides, although there is no evidence that BT-carrying crops hurt humans,
there is something unsettling about eating food that is itself a pesticide
registered with the EPA. Unlike conventional pesticides, the built-in BT bug
killer cannot be washed off; it is in every bite.

[2] SUPERWEEDS: Scientists also warn that some herbicide-tolerant crops are
cross-pollinating with wild cousins and could create herbicide-resistant weeds.
Another threat, according to Dr. Rissler, is that some genetically engineered
crops themselves, bred to resist insects and other natural controls, could
become invasive, spreading  beyond their fields and choking out natural

[3] POLLEN DRIFT: Organic farmers could lose their certification and face huge
financial losses if their fields are contaminated by wind-borne pollen from
neighboring  genetically modified crops. Even nonorganic farmers are at risk
for problems. In Canada, Monsanto accused canola grower Percy Schmeiser of
patent infringement after the company allegedly found genetically engineered
Roundup Ready canola plants in Schmeiser's fields. Schmeiser claims he never
planted any Monsanto seeds. After mediation efforts failed last summer, he
filed a $10 million lawsuit against Monsanto claiming libel trespass,and
contamination of his fields

Two Mind-Sets, Two Visions of Sustainable Agriculture

public-relations guy after I objected to his company's genetically engineered
"I guess it's okay with you if people starve," said a botanist I deeply respect
and with whom I have carried out a fervent argument about genetic engineering.
   Accusations like these astonish me. I'm an organic farmer; I'm not in favor
of pesticides. I've spent decades working to end hunger; it is not okay with me
that anyone starves. I believe that my two accusers and I are working toward
exactly the same goal—feeding everyone without wrecking the environment. We
would all label that goal "sustainable agriculture." But we must be making
radically different assumptions about what that goal looks like and how to get
there from here.
    The idea that if I oppose genetic engineering, I must favor pesticides
arises from a belief that those are the only two choices. But I see other
choices. Plant many kinds of crops and rotate them instead of planting the same
one or two crops year after year, which makes a perfect breeding ground for
pests. Build up ecosystems above the ground and in the soil so natural enemies
rise and fall with the pests, searching and destroying with a specificity and
elegance that neither chemicals nor engineering can match.
    These are pest-control methods based not on chemistry or genetics but on
ecology. They work. I know. I use them. I know dozens of organic farmers who
use them—small- and largescale growers in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and
West, producing apples, lettuce, potatoes, strawberries, broccoli, rice,
soybeans, wheat, and corn.
    The claim that we need genetic engineering to feed the hungry must be based
on two assumptions: first, that more food will actually go to hungry people;
and second, that genetic engineering is the only way to raise more hod. More
food is not needed. We already grow enough to nourish everyone. The problem is
what we do with that food. If just one-third of the grain and to animals would
go to humans instead, we could prevent many of the 24,000 deaths per day
worldwide due to hunger.
    Where, when, or if more food is needed, there are ways to produce it that
don't require biotechnology or chemicals. Folks with an industrial-ag mind-set
assume that organic agriculture would cut yields. Not only is there no evidence
for that assumption but there are numerous studies to the contrary.
    One of the latest appeared in the journal Nature last year its summary
opens like this: "In comparison with conventional high-intensity agricultural
methods, organic alternatives can improve soil fertility and have fewer
detrimental effects on the environment. These alternatives can also produce
equivalent crop yields to conventional methods." Imagine what yield could be if
even one-tenth as much research were put into organic farming as has been put
into chemicals or genetics.
    I assume the world works by the laws of ecology, economics, and human
nature. Ecology says that monocultures breed pests; that chemicals upset soil
ecosystems and kill off natural predators; that crops with pesticide in every
cell will induce pest resistance; and that we haven't the slightest idea what
the ecological or evolutionary consequences of genetic engineering will be.
   Economics says you can never have a sustainable market if you produce
something consumers fear, and you hide critical information about what it
contains. Because industrial agriculture has violated that law and lost the
trust of consumers, the market for organic produce is growing in North America
and Europe by 20 to 30 percent per year, even with a price premium. It now
totals more than $9 billion.
    Human nature says the more that growers can own and control their land and
seeds and knowledge, the more inventive, adaptive, and equitable agriculture
will be.
    Acceptance of those laws shapes my vision of sustainable  agriculture. I
picture healthy ecosystems and healthy human beings working together in
thriving, close-knit communities. I picture farmers who make more use of
knowledge and people than of chemicals and seeds they can't breed for
themselves. I picture fewer supermarkets and more farmers' markets; less
packaging and more freshness. The principle of one of my favorite organic
farmers permeates this system: "I'm not growing food; I'm growing health."
    To those who do not believe such a vision is possible, I can only say it is
alive and growing. I know. I live in this vision.  I have friends all over the
world who live in it. Come see. OG

Donella H. Meadows, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at
Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. She is director of the
Vermont-based Sustainability Institute.

  "This issue isn't just about the safety of our food and our environment; it's
about every citizen's responsibilities—to each other, to future generations, to
the survival of all species."

[4] HARM TO WILDLIFE: Cornell University researchers made headlines when they
announced laboratory research showing that monarch butterfly larvae died after
eating milkweed dusted with genetically engineered corn pollen containing the
BT pesticide. Milkweed, the monarch's primary food source, commonly grows
alongside corn. Researchers in Europe have made similar discoveries involving
ladybugs and green lacewings, both beneficial insects. Yet another study,
reported in 1997 in the British publication New Scientist, indicates that
honeybees may be harmed by feeding on proteins found in genetically engineered
canola flowers.

[5]HARM TO SOIL: Microbiologists at New York L I University have found that the
BT toxin in residues of genetically altered corn and rice crops persists in
soils for up to 8 months and depresses microbial activity. And in another
study, scientists in Oregon tested an experimental genetically engineered soil
microbe in the laboratory and found it killed wheat plants when it was added to
the soil in which they were grown.

[6]HUMAN HEALTH: Even as the biotech industry and government regulators have
assured us that there is no reason to worry, a growing body of evidence
indicates that genetic engineering can cause unintended changes to our food,
making it less nutritious or even harmful. For example, a study in a 1998-99
issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food indicates that compared with nonmodified
soy varieties, genetically altered, herbicide-tolerant varieties may contain
lower levels of potentially beneficial plant estrogens. Another study, reported
in a 1996 article in the International Journal of Health Services, warns that
milk produced from cows injected with Monsanto's controversial genetically
engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH) contains higher levels of a growth
factor that may be linked to increased risk of both breast and 
gastrointestinal cancers in humans. Americans have been drinking unlabeled
BGH-produced milk for years, but it has always been banned in Canada and

[7] HIDDEN ALLERGENS: The foundation of genetic engineering is DNA, which
directs the production of proteins. Proteins are also common sources of human 
allergies. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, then, can it
turn a nonallergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some
people? Yes, reported researchers in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)
in 1996. The case involved an attempt by the Iowa-based biotech seed company
Pioneer Hi-Bred International to change the protein content of soybeans by
adding a gene from the Brazil nut. When researchers tested the modified soybean
on people with sensitivity to Brazil nuts (but no sensitivity to soybeans),
they found it triggered an allergic reaction. Based on those findings, the
company shelved development of the soybean. But, wrote the author of an
editorial in the same NEJM issue, "the next case could be less ideal, and the
public less fortunate."

[8] RELIGIOUS AND MORAL CONSIDERATIONS: People who choose not to eat animals
for religious or moral reasons face an almost impossible task with many
genetically engineered foods. When cold-hardiness genes from flounder are
spliced into tomatoes, or genes from chickens are added to potatoes for
increased disease resistance, are those vegetables still, purely speaking,
vegetables? And without mandatory labeling, how can people who object to eating
any trace of meat know what they are getting?

[9] ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE: Genetic engineers use antibiotic marker genes to
help them transfer genetic coding from one life-form to another. But some
scientists worry that this process could compound the already serious problem
of antibiotic resistance in humans. Government scientists in Britain warn that
the antibiotic  resistance introduced into humans from genetically modified
foods could render established medical treatments for such infections as
meningitis and gonorrhea ineffective.

[10] INDENTURED FARMERS: Because genetic engineering research is so expensive,
it is largely controlled by for-profit corporations whose primary goal is 
return on investment, not public good. These corporations are rapidly buying up
seed companies and gaining control of entire food-production systems and
educational-research facilities. Farmers who use this patented technology,
meanwhile, are prohibited from the time-honored tradition of saving seed to use
the following season. They are forced into a costly cycle of corporate

FOR THESE AND OTHER REASONS, we at Organic Gardening believe the risks of
genetically engineered foods vastly outweigh any benefits. Biotechnology may
indeed prove to be to the twenty-first century what the steam engine was to the
nineteenth century and what the computer was to the twentieth. But nothing
inherent in this technology assures that the changes will be good. The biggest
concern is not what society knows about genetic manipulation but what it does
not know. History, from DDT to Love Canal, has been strewn with the inadvertent
consequences of "progress." It would be the height of hubris to assume that
tinkering with evolution, in all its complexity, could have no unforeseen
   The results of 50 years of chemical-based "high-tech agriculture have made
clear that we must rethink the way we grow food. The answer, we believe, lies
in a return  sustainable, organic growing practices. Biotechnology merely the
next rung on the chemical-farming ladder, providing yet another artificial tool
to help perpetuate the  shortsighted and unsustainable practices of monoculture
agriculture. Monsanto says its herbicide-tolerant crop reduce the need for
tilling, preventing erosion. But smart  organic practices—employing cover
crops, mulches, and other natural techniques—control erosion just as
efficiently without the use of dangerous chemicals, and they create healthy
soil in the process.
    Traditionally, farmers have had the closest connection to the natural
world, and the deepest understanding of human dependency on the diversity of
wild plants and  animals. Yet genetic engineering, like the generation of
chemical-based solutions before it, perpetuates an agricultural model far
removed from nature.
    Today, the conventional farmer sits upon a giant tractor, inside an
air-conditioned cab, moving through huge fields of a single crop. If the birds
stop singing, will he hear  the silence? If the monarch butterflies stop
fluttering over the milkweed in the fencerow, will he even notice?
    Our children and grandchildren have just one future Are we willing to risk
it? G

Let Your Voice Be Heard

IF YOU ARE CONCERNED about the rapid introduction of genetically altered
products into our environment and food supply, speak out. In Europe, grassroots
protests have spurred several multinational companies to discontinue the use of
genetically engineered products there. But those same companies continue to
offer such foods in North America, where opposition is less vocal
To contact your local congressional representative and U.S. senators, go to

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