NEED SOMETHING TO READ OVER THE XMAS HOLIDAY? PRINT THIS OFF & SEND THE URL TO YOUR FRIENDS AS AN EXTRA XMAS PRESENT!
Clearly-written comprehensive article from Claire Robinson, providing a very well-referenced intro to:
*lack of evidence of GM food safety
*lack of disclosure of evidence
*GE vectors and promoters
*unpredictability of effects
*horizontal gene transfer
*selling the benefits
*the truth about the claimed agronomic "benefits"
*the truth about the claimed environmental "benefits"
*feeding the world?
*breeding crops with the "benefits" without any use of GE
The case against genetically engineered food
By Claire Robinson
[an opposing article by Elizabeth Whelan links off this one on the NutriNews site]
Claire Robinson is a freelance writer and lecturer specializing in health, environment, education and political and social issues in the United Kingdom.
Genetically engineered food: Who needs it? The multinational biotechnology companies, backed by bought-and-owned politicians, would like us to think we all do. They are spending millions of dollars of private and taxpayers’ money on public relations drives convincing us that we will be worse off unless we embrace genetically modified food.
But an increasing number of consumers worldwide aren’t convinced. We’ve had a tough education in the ways of the food industry and its "regulators" in government in the form of one food contamination horror story after another. So when they told us GM foods were safe, we replied, "Show us the evidence."
They could not. According to British food safety expert Dr Richard Lacey -- one of the few scientists who had the foresight to see the United Kingdom’s bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) crisis coming -- "There is insufficient evidence to support a belief that genetically engineered foods are safe. I am not aware of any study in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that establishes the safety of even one specific genetically engineered food, let alone the safety of these foods as a general class."
Philip Regal, a biologist in the College of Biological Sciences and professor of ecology, behavior and evolution at the University of Minnesota, agrees. He says he is not "aware of even one such peer-reviewed, professionally published study which has detailed scientific criteria for testing and evaluation and gone on to demonstrate that even one particular genetically engineered food is reasonably certain to produce no harm when eaten by a human being."
Regal continues, "Rather, it is my considered judgment that the evidence to date, in its entirety, indicates there are scientifically justified concerns about the safety of genetically engineered foods and that some of them could be quite dangerous. Further, in the absence of reliable toxicological tests, it is not possible to determine which of these new foods are dangerous and which are not."
As of October, 18 years after GE foods were released onto world markets, a computer-aided search yielded just seven peer-reviewed, published studies on their health effects. Two are by scientists working for Monsanto, the GE and agrochemical giant. Two are from the laboratory of Professor Arpad Pusztai, a former research scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland until he was fired for going public with his doubts about the safety of GE potatoes. As Pusztai said recently, "this is a very poor record for an industry which claims to save man from starvation in the 21st century.".
Even more worryingly, several of these seven studies, far from showing the safety of GE foods, raise safety and toxicological questions that remain unanswered.
Europe’s wakeup call: the story of the GE potatoes
Just because industry and government spokesmen constantly parrot the line that GE foods have been thoroughly tested and proven safe, it doesn’t mean it’s true.
Arpad Pusztai was an enthusiastic supporter of GE technology until he carried out an experiment in which GE potatoes were fed to rats. What he found alarmed him. The rats fed GE potatoes suffered stomach lesions suggestive of viral infection. They also suffered immune depression, reduced absorption of nutrients, reduced organ weights and brain shrinkage. No such problems were found in control groups fed non-GE potatoes of the same type.
Take it from one who knows. Pusztai was an enthusiastic supporter of GE technology until he carried out an experiment in which GE potatoes were fed to rats. What he found alarmed him. The rats fed GE potatoes suffered stomach lesions suggestive of viral infection. They also suffered immune depression, reduced absorption of nutrients, reduced organ weights and brain shrinkage. No such problems were found in control groups fed non-GE potatoes of the same type.
Pusztai went public with his findings on British television, with approval of the Rowett. Within days, the biotech brigade stormed into action. Pusztai was fired and gagged, under threat of losing his pension. Trumped-up charges were brought to try to discredit Pusztai -- a world-respected biochemist who has authored 300 published studies in peer-reviewed journals and written or edited eight scientific books -- to ensure that his findings were never taken seriously.
These included the accusation that Pusztai had fed the rats raw potatoes that were poisonous -- in fact, different groups of rats were fed raw and cooked potatoes of GE and non-GE type, and only with the raw GE or cooked GE potatoes did problems occur. Other critics said the rats’ health problems were caused by a shortage of protein, though all groups including the non-GE fed rats received the same amount of protein.
Another claim was that the design of the experiment had been faulty. But Pusztai already had published 40 other nutritional papers with the same design whose findings had been accepted by industry. In addition, the GE potato study design had won a massive research grant of 1.6 million pounds ($2.3 million U.S.) of taxpayers’ money over 27 rival proposals after peer review by the experts of the British government’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. It’s hard to disagree with Pusztai’s verdict that "the reason the paper was not accepted this time was because the message was not approved of."
Pusztai says: "Despite all assurances by politicians, no rigorous tests of GE food have been carried out on animals or humans. Without published evidence, all assurances that GM food is no danger to public health are of no scientific value."
A shortened version of Pusztai’s results were finally published in the Lancet, but only after the editor, Dr Richard Horton, announced he had received threats from an eminent scientist that he would lose his job if he went ahead with publication.
But the FDA says GE foods are safe”¦
We are told the United States has the strictest regulatory system in the world. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says GE foods are as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts.
In fact, the FDA consensus on the safety of GE foods isn’t all it seems. Secret FDA documents made public as a result of a lawsuit reveal that the FDA’s own scientists warned that GE foods are different from conventional foods and pose unique risks. These include the presence of unexpected allergens, toxins and carcinogens.
But FDA bureaucrats, under a directive from the White House to foster the biotech industry, disregarded their own scientists’ warnings. The secret documents show that they approved the first GE food to be submitted to them, Calgene’s Flavr Savr® tomato, in spite of its failure to pass toxicological tests. Lesions were found in the guts of some of the rats fed the GE tomato -- oddly enough, similar to those found in Pusztai’s rats. The FDA’s pathologists said Calgene had not provided any evidence to clear the Flavr Savr® tomato of blame for these lesions and recommended further studies. No such tests were ever done. The Flavr Savr® tomato was the first and last GE food to be independently safety tested by the FDA.
The lie of substantial equivalence
The biotech industry has persuaded the FDA that GE foods do not need to be safety tested because they are "substantially equivalent" to their non-GE counterparts. Substantial equivalence is not a scientific definition. The concept was invented by the biotech industry to enable companies to get their products to market as quickly as possible in order to recoup development costs -- without the need for rigorous testing. Under U.S. law, any new food additive must be proven safe before it can be released. But new genes -- in spite of the fact that they can create profound and unpredictable changes in the GE plant -- are not considered to be an additive. If the companies provide data showing that their GE food has roughly the same amount of protein, fat, starch, etc. as a non-GE equivalent food, then it is deemed to be substantially equivalent to the non-GE food and to be as safe.
The shortcomings of this approach are obvious. It cannot spot unexpected toxins or allergens in the GE food. Such toxins and allergens may show up in rigorous toxicological tests such as those begun by Pusztai, but these are not being done.
As an example of the inadequacy of the "substantial equivalence" dogma, we can look at a favorite health staple, soybeans. Soybeans have at least 16 proteins that can cause allergic reactions. In one study, a major allergen, trypsin-inhibitor, which can block the absorption of nutrients and retard growth, was found to be 26.7 percent higher in GE giant Monsanto’s GE Roundup Ready soybeans than in non-GE equivalents. Trypsin-inhibitor can block the absorption of nutrients and retard growth, so perhaps it is not surprising that the GE-fed rats did show slower and reduced growth. The study also found other significant differences in the levels of some nutrients and a fatty acid. Yet this study was presented to the FDA purporting to show that the GE soy was substantially equivalent to the non-GE type -- and FDA fell for this example of industry doublethink! The GE soy was duly approved for market on the basis of "substantial equivalence."
The same GE soy was also found to increase milk fat in cows. It is also believed to have higher levels of phytoestrogens linked to reproductive abnormalities in mice, rats and ewes as well as humans. Women with estrogen-induced breast cancer, pregnant women and children may be particularly susceptible to phytoestrogens.
Most of the "studies" that are presented to government regulators by the biotech industry as proof of safety are neither peer-reviewed nor published. Because they are classed as "commercially confidential," it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to them. An increasing number of independent scientists are challenging the quality of the "research" behind the GE drive.
At least the soy studies were peer reviewed and published and thus open to scrutiny by other scientists and the public. Most of the "studies" that are presented to government regulators by the biotech industry as proof of safety are neither peer-reviewed nor published. Because they are classed as "commercially confidential," it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to them. An increasing number of independent scientists are challenging the quality of the "research" behind the GE drive.
As an example, Chardon LL, a GE maize intended for animal feed, is claimed by its manufacturer, Aventis, to be not "materially different" from current commercial varieties. The maize is currently being held up from marketing approval in the United Kingdom by scientists and activists who have invoked a little-used law to challenge its acceptance for sale. They have forced a public hearing at which the feeding safety studies carried out by Aventis have been scrutinized by independent scientists.
The scientists, from the University of Bristol’s department of clinical veterinary science, told the hearing that they had found "a failure to investigate suspicious trends" in the death of chickens fed the GE protein which would be expected to be in the maize. Bizarrely, the GE protein was not even extracted from the maize in question. It was isolated from canola, even though a GE insertion will express differently and produce different effects in different host plants. This point has been called into question by Pusztai and Friends of the Earth.
Ten male broiler birds out of 140 (7.14 percent) who were fed the GE protein in a small trial died compared to five (3.57 percent) who died in the control group. This, they said, suggested "either a fault in the study or a real direct effect of diet and should act as a spur for further investigation."
The Bristol scientists also questioned the methods and conclusions of the Aventis study. They said that the nutrition tests done by the company were "inadequate" and "not of a standard that would be acceptable for publication in a scientific journal."
The GE protein (extracted from canola, not maize) also was tested on rats. Notably, as Pusztai has pointed out, no results of examination of the gut tissues were carried out. This is in spite of the fact the main target of a GE food will be the gastrointestinal tract, and that there are three published feeding studies in which the experimental rats or mice fed GE foods showed lesions in the gut.
Pusztai also points out that the GE protein-fed rats showed a significantly lower weight gain than control rats. This shows that this feed -- intended, remember, as feed for livestock -- had a poor "feed conversion efficiency." In animal nutrition, careful consideration of feed conversion efficiency -- the amount of weight the animal puts on in relation to the amount of fodder the farmer feeds him -- is, as Pusztai says, "one of the Ten Commandments." In the laboratory, feed conversion efficiency is a first step in identifying any possible anti-nutritional or toxicological effects. Once the fodder is marketed, feed conversion efficiency can be a vital factor in the financial viability of a farm. So any differences in feed conversion efficiency between a GE strain and a comparable non-GE strain should be investigated and an explanation sought before it is released onto the market.
Yet Aventis’ study concluded that "there were no differences that could be attributed to the treatment of the test article [GE protein]." Period. Thus substantial equivalence has become a dogma that, in practice, means that any differences in composition or nutritional effects noted in GE-fed test subjects are simply ignored.
To many campaigners, though, the most shocking aspect of this story is not that it drives a coach and horses through the dogma of substantial equivalence. It is not even that the study raises safety questions about the maize, serious though that is. It is that this story -- like the fiasco of the recent contamination of the U.S. corn crop with an unapproved GE corn, Starlink -- was brought to light not by government regulators, and not by the companies responsible, but by Joe Public.
Similarly, the Starlink contamination, now thought to affect scores of products, only came to light because lay members of consumer groups thought to have some taco shells tested by a lab. The Aventis study never would have been scrutinized by independent scientists if Friends of the Earth hadn’t gone to the time, trouble and expense of arranging the review. Even some of the more worrying aspects of the published Padgette study on GE soy were not made public until a campaigner unearthed the details.
The rBGH scandal
The sad history of suspect science continues with other GE products now in the U.S. food chain. Millions of Americans drink milk from cows treated with Monsanto’s genetically modified Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH or rbST), injected into cows to increase milk yield. Monsanto claims that milk produced in this way is "substantially equivalent" to milk from untreated cows and therefore does not need to be labeled. In fact, the company has aggressively opposed labeling and has sued two dairies that labeled their milk as coming from rBGH-free herds, forcing the dairies out of business. Studies show, however, that rBGH causes excessive suffering and illness in cows and that it increases an insulin-like growth factor, IGF-1, in their milk. Raised levels of IGF-1 are linked to breast and prostate cancers in humans.
Despite intense lobbying from Monsanto, Canada and Europe have refused to approve rBGH. In Canada, the approval process was plagued with allegations of conflicts of interest among regulators, cover-ups and harassment of whistle-blowers. Six Health Canada scientists testified to a labor board that they were pressured by their employers to approve the hormone despite their concerns that it was not safe. They also said they were ordered not to speak publicly about their findings.
How did the hormone get past the U.S. regulators? At the time the FDA formed its rBGH policy, its deputy director of new animal drugs was Margaret Miller, a former Monsanto scientist who had worked on the company’s rBGH "safety studies." And a reviewer for rBGH in FDA’s office of new animal drugs was Suzanne Sechen, who had done several Monsanto-funded studies on the drug. Former Monsanto lawyer Michael Taylor wrote for the FDA its guidelines that virtually prohibit dairy corporations from giving information on use of rBGH on product labels.
U.S. government documents released by the Sierra Club of Canada showed that the study that led to the approval of the hormone in the United States actually found that 30 percent of the rats given the drug reacted with increased levels of antibodies and lesions and cysts in their thyroid glands.
‘Americans have been eating GE foods for years, and I can’t see a pile of bodies’
Proponents of GE foods say that Americans have been eating GE foods for years and no problem has come to light. To hear this astonishingly unscientific statement from the mouths of scientists beggars belief. The truth is that no harm can be found as long as nobody is looking. No controlled human feeding experiments on GE food have been done. And industry has ensured that in the United States and Canada, GE foods are not segregated or labeled. Even in Europe, which mandates labeling, it is believed that widespread contamination through lack of segregation at source means that GE ingredients often escape labeling. If problems occur, the line of traceability (as with the Starlink contamination) simply is not there.
Insofar as traceability does exist, the news is not good for GE foods. In 1989, a batch of the amino acid food supplement l-tryptophan produced with GE bacteria killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled at least 1,500 with a rare illness. Minute amounts of a new toxin were found in the GE batch that had not been found in previous batches not made with GE bacteria.
The U.S. government slapped a ban on all l-tryptophan, in spite of the fact that natural (non-GE) versions of the supplement had been consumed for years without ill effects. They also did their utmost to exonerate the GE manufacturing process from blame. But since the company destroyed the GE bacteria after the story broke, we probably shall never know the truth.
Critics of GE point out that the cause was only spotted because the disease was so novel that a surge in the number of cases stood out. If the ill effects caused by the l-tryptophan had been more common, such as cleft palate or cancer, the culprit probably would have remained hidden. Because of the dogma of substantial equivalence, no toxicological testing of the GE-manufactured l-tryptophan was required, so the new contaminant escaped detection.
Is GE food inherently more risky than non-GE food?
Several hundred scientists have signed a statement saying that they believe GE foods pose unique risks to health and the environment that have not been investigated, and they are calling for a moratorium on further releases. One of their main areas of concern is the vectors and promoters used in all GE foods.
Vectors and promoters are bits of disease-causing viruses and bacteria that are used to ferry the transgene into the host plant and force it to switch on (express). They are designed to overcome the natural species barriers that, in traditional breeding, prevent a cross-species transfer, for example, between a monkey and a soybean plant, or between a fish a strawberry plant. Traditional breeding allows breeding only between close relatives such as donkeys and horses. In genetic engineering, species barriers are overcome and "cross-breeding" between different species is possible.
GE vectors and promoters circumvent the host plant’s natural tendency to repel foreign invaders. This process, scientists point out, results in random insertion of the transgene into the host’s DNA, with unpredictable results, including mutations, new viruses, cancers and increased antibiotic resistance.
The Cauliflower Mosaic Virus promoter used in most GE foods on the market has come under particular suspicion. Pusztai has called for tests to be carried out on the CaMV promoter. He believed that it might have been the cause of the apparent gut abnormalities suffered by his GE-fed rats, which had the characteristics of viral infection. Studies suggest that the CaMV promoter is active not only in plants but also in animals. The form of the virus used in GE is not the same as the natural form, which has safely evolved by the side of man for centuries. It is a form of "naked DNA" stripped of the protein coat that helps our bodies to recognize it as an invader and restricts it to its usual hosts. It is unstable and prone to recombine with other viruses or with the DNA of other organisms.
Breeding ignorance into food
What’s the problem with a future of GE food, genes tweaked this way and that to enhance desirable traits?
Genes expressing new proteins have never been in the human diet before, so the effects on health are not known. And as we’ve seen, nobody seems about to do the tests to find out.
With living plants and animals, one gene does not equal one characteristic. We talk about "the gene for herbicide resistance" or "the gene for intelligence" but genes work in complex relationships with one another and with their environment. These relationships are so poorly understood that the field of GE has produced one nasty surprise after another.
For example, a gene that conferred herbicide resistance in soy also affected its production of lignin, needed to make the stems robust. So GE herbicide-resistant soy plants split in hot weather due to lack of lignin. GE salmon grew faster but also turned green and became deformed.
GE cotton bolls mysteriously dropped off in the field before they could be harvested. President Bill Clinton’s pronouncement about the decoding of the human genetic code, "Today we are learning the language in which God created life," is accurate only insofar as a child who has learned to write the letters of the alphabet can be said to understand Shakespeare.
GE ensures that our current ignorance of which genes do what and how they interact with the environment will be enshrined forever in the gene pool of our food crops. There’s no going back. Will we still think 50 years from now that it’s a good idea to engineer a pesticide or a spider venom into our food plants? We’d better not change our minds on this one, because once these things are released, we’re stuck with them. Even nuclear pollution decays with time, but genetic pollution replicates, spreads to wild and cultivated relatives and moves between species.
How GE genes spread
The biotech industry’s "solution" to the problem of spreading GE genes is to engineer plants with the "terminator technology" in which plants are programmed to produce sterile seeds. That way, the theory goes, they can’t cross-pollinate, and the GE genes stay put. One wonders if they have heard of a concept called horizontal gene transfer, which covers the many ways that genetic material can be exchanged between species other than by cross-pollination. This can involve infection of different species by bacteria and viruses, insects or birds feeding on the GE material or inhalation of GE pollen or dust by humans -- or simply by direct incorporation of "free" DNA.
The viral vectors used in GE are designed to enable genes to cross species barriers. The research on viral DNA should give us pause for thought before we allow the large-scale release of these substances into the environment and into the food chain.
*Viral DNA fed to mice reaches white blood cells, spleen and liver cells via the intestinal wall, and is incorporated into the mouse cell genome 
*When fed to pregnant mice, viral DNA ends up in cells of the fetuses and the newborn animals, suggesting that it has gone through the placenta as well. The study’s authors say: "The consequences of foreign DNA uptake for mutagenesis birth defects;and oncogenesis cancer;have not yet been investigated"
*Professor Hans-Heinrich Kaatz from the University of Jena has shown that GE genes can be taken up via pollen by the gut bacteria of bees.
*German research has shown that soil bacteria may take up GE genes, including the antibiotic resistant genes used in GE.
Does anyone recall the techno-fixes that scientists told us in the 1950s were mankind’s salvation? Nuclear power, DDT, heavy dosage X-rays for pregnant women and to fit children’s shoes. In the 1980s, in Europe, the next generation of scientists told us that feeding dead cows to living cows was another great idea. Now we’re living with the fallout from risky technologies that seemed like a good idea at the time: poisoned land, poisoned people, escalating cancer rates and people with "mad cow" disease. We feel bad about these things. But imagine how much worse we’d feel if we knew that we, our children and our children’s children would have to live with those consequences forever.
So when the biotech industry promises us a new wave of GE "nutrifoods" engineered to contain more of a certain fat, vitamin or protein, we’d better make sure that our knowledge of what’s desirable in nutrition never changes from this day forth. Think of the discoveries we’ve made about what types of fats are harmful and what types are useful, and think how often in the past 50 years we’ve added to or contradicted previous theories. It’s hard to think of a single nutrient that hasn’t at different times and by different bodies been slated as a potential toxin and lauded as the next new anti-cancer treatment. Then think of the current state of nutritional knowledge. Imagine that this state of partial knowledge is written into the language of life -- with consequences that no one, however clever he thinks he is, can predict or alter.
Do the benefits of GE justify the risks?
Even some pro-GE scientists, if you ask them politely and off the record, will tell you that GE foods carry unpredictable and serious risks. They justify the risk by pointing out the great benefits that GE foods and crops are supposed to bring. They dismiss a precautionary approach as unscientific and unwarranted.
This strategy is in line with the advice of PR company Burson Marsteller, whose job it has been to persuade the public to accept GE foods. BM told the biotech industry to stay off the "killing fields" of public health and environmental risk, as these were arguments the industry could not win. Instead, industry should focus on the "benefits" of GE. This involved using "symbols -- not logic: Symbols are central to politics, because they connect to emotions, not logic”¦ Bioindustries need to respond ”¦ with symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and self-esteem."
The biotech industry has taken this message to heart, stressing the articles of faith of GE:
*GE crops reduce pesticide use.
*They encourage wildlife.
*They increase yield and can "feed the world."
The facts are less attractive. Just two genetically engineered traits accounted for the nearly 40 million hectares of GE crops planted in 1999. The majority (71 percent) were engineered to be tolerant to the companies’ own patented broad-spectrum herbicides, while most of the rest were engineered with Bt-toxin to kill insect pests. A university-based survey of 8,200 field trials of the most widely grown GE crops, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, revealed that they yielded 6.7 percent less and required two to five times more herbicides than non-GE varieties.
This has been confirmed by a more recent study in the University of Nebraska. Yet other emerging problems have been identified: erratic performance, disease susceptibility, Bt-toxin resistant pests, unexpected deaths of beneficial insects feeding on GE crops, herbicide-resistant superweeds arising from stray GE genes and poor economic returns to farmers.
But, says the biotech industry, farmers wouldn’t buy the seeds if they weren’t great performers. Unfortunately, the idea of a future in which farmers are free to choose the best seeds is illusion. Increasingly in the United States and Canada, farmers who visit their grain seed store find that they only have a choice between GE seeds and more GE seeds. Farmers who are steering clear of GE seeds because they farm organically or want to cater to the European market for non-GE crops report that they have been forced to stop growing soy or maize for lack of non-GE seeds. The global seed industry is now controlled by a handful of companies dedicated to selling seeds that they can patent and own. Many of these seeds are chemical junkies, dependent on the companies’ patented herbicides.
Feeding the world?
The biotech industry, in an effort to force us to embrace untested GE foods, is playing the "guilt" card. We are told that GE foods can feed the starving millions in the Third World.
This cynical move has been roundly condemned by charities working with farmers in developing countries, including Christian Aid, Action Aid and Oxfam.
They point out that people go hungry in developing countries not because there is a shortage of food, but because they are too poor to buy the food that is available and because they no longer own land to grow food for their families. At the height of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, crops were grown there on prime agricultural land for export to the United Kingdom as livestock feed. And while millions go hungry in India, the Indian government is holding massive grain surpluses in store.
Governments of poor countries have formed an unholy alliance with Western agrochemical companies to push farmers into growing cash crops for export rather than to grow food to feed their communities. Why? The governments want to pay off debts to the rich countries, and the companies want to sell patented seeds and chemicals. The cash crops are monocultures (where just a single crop grows), which encourage pests and disease, which in turn force farmers to use high chemical inputs, which in turn kill "weeds." In traditional farming systems, the "weeds" growing among the staple crops were the green vegetables (such as mustard greens in India), which provided diversity in the diet and prevented vitamin deficiency.
Expensive, chemical input-hungry GE crops are not the answer to world hunger. That’s not to say farming has to stay put in the dark ages. Dr. Jules Pretty has gathered research from hundreds of projects across the developing world showing that yields have been doubled and trebled using largely organic methods.
These methods also encourage a diversity of food crops, prevent vitamin deficiency and guard against pests that can wipe out monocultures. They do not bring with them the tragic legacy of pesticide-poisoned populations, depleted soils, polluted water and First World dependency that have marked out many of the developing nations’ experiments with chemical farming methods. In other words, modern organic farming methods are sustainable. GE crops are merely an extension of the chemical farming systems now discredited in both affluent and developing countries.
Golden rice: Gift or Trojan horse?
In a desperate move to win back their lost credibility, the biotech companies have promised to give away GE "golden rice," engineered to contain higher levels of vitamin A, to Third World countries to prevent blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the warnings that several respected scientists have issued about the toxicological dangers of isolating a single nutrient and concentrating it in a staple food. Let’s also disregard the fact that everyone has differing needs and tolerances for different nutrients and that engineering large amounts of one nutrient into a staple food that everyone will eat regardless of individual need may be a dangerous form of forced mass-medication.
Let’s just ask the simple question: Is GE "vitamin-enhanced" rice the best way to cure vitamin A deficiency? On the risks versus benefits scale, how does it compare with enabling farmers to feed their own families and communities with a traditional diversity of crops, including green vegetables rich in vitamin A? And since organically grown food has been found to contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients than conventionally grown food -- without environmental degradation, chemical dependence and pesticide poisoning of workers -- might modern organics be the way forward?
And if we are really fixated on getting a single nutrient into a staple crop, how does GE golden rice compare with the many indigenous varieties of red rice naturally rich in vitamin A?
This last question is one that the biotech companies don’t want you to ask. Since the massive groundswell of opinion away from GE food in Europe, plant breeding centers have revealed that they can breed crops with the touted GE "benefits" using traditional breeding methods. Broccoli with extra cancer-preventing nutrients, salt-tolerant cereal, tomatoes high in immune-boosting lycopene and soy that grows in chilly climates -- all have been developed without GE. A researcher for a major plant breeding center confessed on condition of anonymity that the center had developed crop plants by traditional cross-breeding methods for 40 years and could continue to do so easily without any need for GE.
A minimal amount of research among Third World experts (the farmers!) and aid agencies working with them reveals that nature provides a huge variety of indigenous crops that grow in saline soils, survive drought and tolerate acid soils. Such crops can form a valuable part -- but only a part -- of an ongoing program of restoration of depleted soils. They are most successful when used within a holistic approach to disease and pest prevention, which offers more sustainability and self-sufficiency to farmers than Western high-tech "magic bullet" approaches.
Such holistic methods include restoring the health and vigor of the soil by incorporation of plenty of organic matter, and avoiding monocultures, which deplete the soil of nutrients and offer a feast for pests. In one study, Chinese scientists virtually eliminated a rice disease and increased yield simply by planting several traditional varieties of rice in a paddy. The control monoculture plot of a high-yield modern variety had more disease, needed more poisons and yielded less. For an astonishing roster of plant diseases resulting from monoculture, see Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey in their book "Against the Grain".
The Chinese study is echoed by a vast collection of research by Pretty at the University of Essex, which showed that Third World farmers were able to double and treble yields using largely organic practices.
In the Third World, many natural supercrops and sustainable farming methods were swept aside in the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and ’70s, which favored modern cash crop hybrids bought from Western seed companies. But the lost supercrops and intelligent farm practices can be brought back -- if they are not forgotten once more in the GE hype.
There is no doubt that world hunger is a problem that must be solved. It can be done -- with a large dose of political will, using solutions that respect traditional knowledge, produce safe food and empower farmers. It cannot be done with risky short-term techno-fixes that render poor farmers serfs to Western corporations.
By the way, the fear that propels the GE bandwagon -- that we need GE to feed the ever-increasing numbers of hungry mouths in the Third World -- may be a construct of the fevered corporate imagination. The World Health Organization says we currently have enough food to feed the world one and a half times over -- it’s political instability and poverty that prevent fair distribution. And a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reveals that the world can feed itself until at least 2030 without the use of GE.[54 ] GE was not factored in because of ongoing doubts about agricultural performance, safety and consumer acceptance. The same report predicts that world population growth is decelerating so fast that the per annum increase is expected to be just 0.3 percent in 2050.
GE is not about better crops, better health or feeding the world. It is about patenting and private ownership of what used to be a common good: the entire food chain. Monsanto executive Robert Fraley spelled it out for us when he said about his company’s buying up of small seed companies, "What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies -- it is really a consolidation of the entire food chain."
In everyday English, this means the company intends that there will not remain a single crop seed on Earth that is not engineered, owned and patented by it.
Do we need GE? If we take a cool look at the "problems" that GE is supposed to solve, time and again, we find that either the "problem" isn’t a problem, or that there is a better and safer solution.
1 Declaration under oath of Dr. Richard Lacey, M.D., Ph.D., Civil Action No. 98-1300, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Alliance for Bio-Integrity et al vs. Donna Shalala et al, published at www.biointegrity.org.
2 Declaration under oath of Philip Regal, Ph.D., Civil Action No. 98-1300, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Alliance for Bio-Integrity et al vs. Donna Shalala et al, published at www.biointegrity.org.
3 See "Chardon LL Hearing: Transcript of Proceedings, Day 14, Tuesday, Oct. 24, published at http://www.maff.gov.uk/planth/pvs/chardon/001024.pdf.
4 See "Chardon LL Hearing: Transcript of Proceedings, Day 14, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000, Novotel Conference Centre, London," published at http://www.maff.gov.uk/planth/pvs/chardon/001024.pdf.
5 Ewen, S.W.B. and Pusztai, A. (1999). Effects of diets containing genetically modified potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine. The Lancet 354, 1353-1354; see also http://plab.ku.dk/tcbh/PusztaiPusztai.htm and http://www.freenetpages.co.uk/hp/a.pusztai/.
6 Laurie Flynn and Michael Sean Gillard, "Pro-GM scientist threatened editor." The Guardian, Nov. 1, 1999. Read article at http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/rs.htm.
7 The documents can be viewed at www.biointegrity.org.
8 The Flavr Savr® documents can be viewed at www.biointegrity.org.
9 Padgette, S., N. Taylor, D. Nider, et al. 1996. "The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seed is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans." Journal of Nutrition 126: 702-716. For an interesting deconstruction of the findings of this study, see the AgBiotech Info Net site at http://www.biotech-info.net/buried_data.html.
10 Hammond, B.G., Vicini, J.L. Hartnell, G.F., Naylor, M.W., Knight, C.D., Robinson, E.H., Fuchs, R.L. and Padgette, S.R. (1996). The feeding value of soybeans fed to rats, chickens, catfish and dairy cattle is not altered by genetic incorporation of glyphosate tolerance. Journal of Nutrition 126(3) 717-26.
11 See Oekoinstitut Freiburg: Reply to the Statement made by the Bundesministerium fur Gesundheit (Ministry of Health of the German Federal Republic) on Dec. 5, 1996, in respect of the importation of genetically engineered glyphosate-tolerant soybeans from the company Monsanto, 1997.
2 Dibb, S. (1995). Swimming in a sea of oestrogens -- chemical hormone disrupter. The Ecologist 25, 27-31.
13 See "Chardon LL Hearing: Transcript of Proceedings, Day 14, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000, Novotel Conference Centre, London," published at http://www.maff.gov.uk/planth/pvs/chardon/001024.pdf.
14 John Vidal, "Scientists question safety of GM maize risk test," The London Guardian, Nov. 4, 2000.
15 See "Chardon LL Hearing: Transcript of Proceedings, Day 14, Tuesday, Oct. 24 2000, Novotel Conference Centre, London," published at http://www.maff.gov.uk/planth/pvs/chardon/001024.pdf.
16 Barbara Keeler, "Buried Data in Monsanto’s Study on Roundup Ready Soybeans," AgBiotech Info Net site at http://www.biotech-info.net/buried_data.html.
17 For the tale of how two U.S. investigative reporters were fired by Fox News after refusing to change their story on rBGH to make the hormone appear safer than their evidence suggested, visit http://www.foxbghsuit.com.
18 For a summary of published studies and government reports showing that BGH harms the health of cows and that milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1, see Epstein, S., The Politics of Cancer Revisited. New York: East Ridge Press, 1998, pp600-627.
19 For a summary of the story of the Health Canada scientists, visit Dr. Richard Wolfson’s Genetically Manipulated Food News site at http://home.intekom.com/tm_info/rw00502.htm#01.
20 Ferrara, J, "Revolving doors: Monsanto and the Regulators," The Ecologist 28:5, September/October 1998, 280-285.
21 McIlroy, A. "News Cover-up alleged at Health Canada. Were pushed to approve drug, scientists say" The Globe and Mail, Canada, Sept. 17, 1998. The article is posted at http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/gmocarto.htm.
22 L. R. B. Mann, D. Straton & W. E. Crist. "The Thalidomide of Genetic Engineering". Soil & Health (NZ), August 1999.
23 See www.i-sis.org.
24 Ho, M-W., Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? Bath: Gateway Books, 1999, 43; see also Wahl, G.M., de Saint Vincent and DeRose, M.L. (1984). Effect of chromosomal position on amplification of transfected genes in animal cells. Nature 307: 516-520.
25 Ho, M-W., Genetic Engineering, Dream or Nightmare? Bath: Gateway Books, 1999 (note 37); Ho, M.W., Traavik, T., Olsvik, R., Tappeser, B., Howard, V., von Weizsacker, C. and McGavin, G. (1998). Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10, 33-59; Traavik, T. (1999a). Too early may be too late, Ecological risks associated with the use of naked DNA as a biological tool for research, production and therapy, Research report for Directorate for Nature Management, Norway.
26 Burke, C, Yu X.B., Marchitelli, L.., Davis, E.A., Ackerman, S. (1990). Transcription factor IIA of wheat and human function similarly with plant and animal viral promoters. Nucleic Acids Res 18, 3611-20.
27 For a collection of studies and articles from independent sources on the agronomic problems of GE crops, see http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/gmagric.htm.
28 Bremner, M., GE: Genetic Engineering and You. London: HarperColllins, 1999, p32.
29 Schubbert, R., Rentz, D., Schmitzx, B. and Doerfler, W. (1997). Foreign (M13 DNA ingested by mice reaches peripheral leukocytes, spleen and liver via the intestinal wall mucosa and can be covalently linked to mouse DNA. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 94, 961-6.
30 Doerfler, W. and Schubbert, R. (1998). Uptake of foreign DNA from the environment: the gastrointestinal tract and the placenta as portals of entry, Wien Klin Wochenschr. 110, 40-44.
31 Doerfler and Schubbert, 1998, (note 48), p. 40.
32 Barnett, A. (2000). "GM genes 'jump species barrier." The Observer, May 28, 2000.
33 Gebhard, F. and Smalla, K. (1999). Monitoring field releases of genetically modified sugar beets for persistence of transgenic plant DNA and horizontal gene transfer. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 28, 261-272.
34 Burson Marsteller, Communications program for Europabio. January 1997.
35 See "GM crops threaten skylarks," London Guardian, Sept. 1, 2000.
36James, C. (1998,1999). Global Status of Transgenic Crops, ISAAA Briefs, New York.
37 Benbrook, C. (1999). Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper No. 1, Idaho.
]38 Coghlan, A. "Splitting Headache". New Scientist, Nov. 20, 1999.
39 See http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/gmocarto.htm for a vast collection of reports and studies from independent sources on GE crop failures and unexpected negative effects.
40 Selling suicide: farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries. Christian Aid, 1999.
41 Astra-Zeneca and its Genetic Research: Feeding the World or Fuelling Hunger? Action Aid, 1999.
42 Genetically Modified Crops, World Trade and Food Security. Oxfam GB Position Paper, November 1999.
43 See http://biotech-info.net/Biotechnology_not_answer.html.
44 Pretty, J.N. (1995) Regenerating Agriculture. Earthscan: London. Cited in Genewatch Briefing No. 3, August 1998 at http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/brief3.html.
45 Smith, B.L., Organic Foods vs. Supermarket Foods: Element Levels. Doctor’s Data Inc., P.O. Box 111, West Chicago, IL, 60185-9986. Journal Of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 45, No. 1, 1993, 35-39. See also Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Australia research at http://www.netspeed.com.au/cogs/Article1.htm. See also research commissioned by the U.K. Soil Association from University of Copenhagen, at http://www.purefood.org/newsletter/organicview21.cfm and reported at the Association’s conference Jan. 8, 2000.
46 Patricia Reaney, "Super-broccoli plants bred to prevent cancer," Reuters newswire, May 24, 2000. also at: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/broccoli.htm
47 Dr. Belinda Clarke of the John Innes Centre, "Science on the Doorstep," Eastern Daily Press, Oct. 26, 2000 [also at: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/40.htm]
48 Susan Clarke, "What’s the Alternative?" Sunday Times "Style" section, Oct. 22, 2000.
49 Paul Solman, "Soybeans promising for farmers in U.K.: A new, GM-free breed of seed is offering growing opportunities," Financial Times, July 27, 2000.
50 See "Selling Suicide", a report by Christian Aid (1999), at http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/reports/suicide/naturesharvest.html.
51 Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "Simple Method Found to Vastly Increase Crop Yields," New York Times, Aug. 22, 2000.
52 London: Earthscan, 1999, p100.
53 See article at http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/article2.htm. See also Dr. Pretty’s books, The Living Land: Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe. London: Earthscan, August 1998; and "Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance. London: Earthscan, 1995.
54 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agriculture: Towards 2015/30, Technical Interim Report, April 2000. For a summary, see www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/faoreport.htm. For the full report, see http://www.fao.org/es/ESD/at2015/toc-e.htm.
55 Shiva. V. "Monsanto’s expanding monopolies," The Hindu, May 1, 1999.