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FOOD FIGHT

International protests mount against genetically engineered crops

By Martin A. Lee

 

The next time you’re invited to dine at the White House, beware. You’ll be eating genetically altered edibles.

Despite persistent concerns about the safety of such foods, our ‘what, me worry?’ president will entertain guests by serving pan-seared genetically-modified super-salmon (which grows three times faster than normal salmon), Texas-style pudding made with gene-tampered Star Link corn (even though it has not been approved for human consumption), and other dubious delicacies.

“These are traditional Texas recipes, but with a special twist,” explained White House chef Daniel Arreido, who also indicated that the Bush family likes to drink milk containing rBGH, a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.

According to several environmental and science groups, rBGH may be linked to human breast, colon, and prostate cancer. This artificial bovine growth stimulant is banned in Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada, but not in the United States, where it is widely employed by dairy companies to pump up milk production and profits.

When Bill Clinton was president, it was hardly a secret that his administration favored agricultural biotechnology as potential cash cow for U.S. corporations. But the clout that the genetically engineered (GE) food lobby wields in George W. Bush’s cabinet tops anything that came before.

Several current cabinet members have ties to Monsanto, the dominant firm in the burgeoning biotechnology industry. Monsanto contributed money to the Senate election campaigns of Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman were officers or directors of companies that are now owned by Monsanto, which controls 80 percent of the global market for transgenic seeds.

Bush’s choice for deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Linda Fisher, was a chief lobbyist and political fundraising coordinator for Monsanto. And the revolving door keeps spinning between Monsanto and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which functions more as an arm of the biotech industry than a regulatory agency. Oversight of the biotech business has been so lax that a federal judge recently ruled that GE food is legally “unregulated.”

Manipulating genes – the blueprints of a living organism – is inherently a high-risk endeavor that could have unintended and unforeseen negative effects. Given the serious ecological and human health dangers that could arise from genetically engineered life forms, it makes sense for regulators to err on the side of caution. Indeed, that’s the ostensible mandate of the FDA – to apply the precautionary principle when approving new food products and pharmaceuticals. When it comes to bioengineered foods, however, the FDA has done just the opposite.

Just a decade ago, there was virtually no genetically modified food available for consumers. Now it’s a challenge to find something to eat that doesn’t contain GE ingredients. Roughly 70% of the food sold in U.S supermarkets has been genetically altered, thanks in no small part to the FDA, which acknowledges that it has been operating under an explicit government policy “to foster” the biotechnology industry since 1992. That year, the FDA declared GE foods to be “substantially equivalent” to normal foods and, therefore, exempt from special pre-market testing – a determination that many of the FDA’s own scientists strongly disagreed with.

While labeling GE foods is mandatory in the European Union and several Asian countries, the FDA adamantly opposes such a practice. Without labels, people in the United States can’t tell if they are eating gene-finagled foodstuffs, which have been foisted on consumers without their knowledge or consent. Current FDA guidelines “deny Americans the right to know what is in our food, while protecting the economic interests of biotech corporations,” says Food First, an Oakland-based organization, which has called for an immediate moratorium on the commercial use of GE seeds and foods.

A vast, reckless experiment is underway with unknown but possibly devastating consequences, and we are the guinea pigs. No one is certain about the long-term health implications of eating foods fortified with insecticide implants and other alien genes – and that’s why many people are worried. Tinkering with nature could irretrievably alter existing species, wreak havoc on diverse wildlife, and set off vexing ecological problems such as herbicide-resistant super-weeds, which have already begun to sprout on farmland planted with transgenic crops from Monsanto.

Monsanto’s biotech crops are genetically tailored to tolerate the Monsanto herbicide Roundup – a move calculated to enable the company to sell more of its widely used, super-toxic Roundup. The sales pitch promised that Roundup Ready seeds would allow farmers to spray herbicides that would destroy most weeds but leave the crops largely intact.

Monsanto claims that growing its gene-jimmied variety of Roundup Ready soybeans, for example, puts fewer pesticides into the environment. But a new study by Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center in Sandpoint, Idaho, found that reliance on Monsanto’s Roundup to kill weeds in bioengineered soybean fields has led to increased herbicide use, as some weeds inevitably become impervious to Roundup.

Benbrook’s study, “Troubled Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans,” asserts that American farmers are employing an average of 11.4 percent more herbicides on Monsanto soybean crops compared to conventional soybeans. Sixty percent of this year’s U.S. soybean crop, roughly 40 million acres, has been sowed with Monsanto’s genetically engineered seeds.

Other companies have developed transgenic plants that produce their own internal pesticides – usually by inserting the bacteria bacillus thuringiensis (“Bt”) gene – but there are problems with this approach, as well. Bt crops can have an adverse impact on beneficial insects and soil microbes, while engendering a mutant breed of pesticide-resistant bugs.

Windblown pollen from Bt produce that settles on natural vegetation near transgenic fields can also be fatal to non-target organisms. This was confirmed by scientists at Cornell University, who examined the complex interaction between genetically altered corn and monarch butterflies. Their research showed the toxic effect of Bt corn pollen when applied to milkweed, which grows near cornfields and which monarch butterflies eat. Nearly half of the monarch larvae that fed on the Bt corn died – the biotech version of collateral damage – while none of the caterpillars that ingested non-Bt corn pollen were poisoned.

“We simply do not understand the genome-ecosystem relationships well enough to make confident estimates of the ecological impact of new structures,” asserts Arjun Makijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (http://www.ieer.org/) in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Makijani warns that bioengineered life forms threaten to could disrupt the
delicate balance of nature and its evolutionary process.

About 25% of the corn currently harvested in the United States is Bt corn. What might happen once a genetically modified product like Bt corn has been introduced into the environment on a wide scale? “We should expect some nasty surprises,” says Makijani.

StarLink, a variety of corn genetically altered to include a protein that can protect crops against several insects, was only deemed suitable for animal feed, not for people, due to concerns that it could cause allergic reactions. But StarLink inadvertently entered the world’s food supply last year, triggering a massive recall of about 300 corn products. While acknowledging that nearly a half billion bushels of corn in storage nationwide contain StarLink, Aventis denies that it poses a health risk to humans.

The StarLink fiasco highlights how difficult it is to control biotech organisms once they are released into the ecosystem. Genetic pollution – whether by human error or wind-driven caprice – is inevitable, as modified plants transfer engineered traits while cross-pollinating with native species in nearby fields and storage facilities. But a gene spill, unlike an oil spill, can’t be cordoned off and contained. “It’s like a genie in the bottle. Once it’s out, you can’t put it back,” says Doug Parr, author of a Greenpeace report, “Genetic Engineering: Too Good to go Wrong?”

“There is very little appreciation,” says Parr, “of the inherent unpredictability of the science of genetic engineering. Already there are too many cases of things going wrong.”

The promiscuous movement of GE organisms across the landscape sparked a legal showdown in Saskatchewan, Canada, where a farmer was recently convicted of patent infringement after Monsanto’s genetically engineered canola plants were found growing in his field. The court ordered the farmer to pay Monsanto several thousand dollars in damages, despite his insistence that he never used any seeds from the biotechnology giant. Pollen from the modified canola plants had drifted onto his property from a neighboring farm and, astonishingly, he was held liable.

According to a report issued this month by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition, experimental field crops threaten to contaminate land cultivated by traditional farmers, who often lack information about where test plots of genetically engineered crops are growing. The report, “Raising Risk,” notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has authorized 30,000 field tests of gene-altered organisms since the late 1980s. The report also indicates that more than 60 percent of all GE field tests conducted during the past year utilized secret genes classified as “Confidential Business Information,” which means that the public cannot access crucial information about experiments being conducted in their communities.

Another disturbing aspect of the brave new world of biotechnology involves species jumping by genes used to modify crops, a process that can cause bacteria to mutate. Dr. Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a respected German zoologist, found evidence that foreign genes inserted to modify oilseed rape had transferred to bacteria living in the guts of honeybees. This discovery is highly significant because it suggests that genes spliced into bioengineered organisms could contaminate all kinds of bacteria – including beneficial bacteria that live inside the human digestive system.

Kaatz’s four-year study lends credence to fears that gene-altered life forms could pose major health hazards. Biotech critics also point to studies indicating that GE foods can cause allergic reactions, irritate the digestive track, and compromise immune systems.

But Monsanto and other biotech boosters insist there is no cause for alarm. They maintain that Americans have been eating GE produce for more than five years without anyone being sickened by these provisions – complaints of headaches and indigestion not withstanding.

As it stands, there has been precious little research on the epidemiological effects of genetically modified foods because money is generally not available for such studies. The USDA spends only one percent of the funds allocated to biotech research on risk assessment, a paltry $1.2 million a year. And independent academic research in this area, while sorely needed, is not encouraged at budget-strapped universities that increasingly rely on the largesse of big corporations, including those in biotech sector, which are not eager to support studies that might cast aspersions on their products.

Responding to critics who denounce genetically modified crops as “frankenfoods,” the biotech industry launched a three-year, $50 million public relations campaign in April. Aimed at gaining public trust, the PR campaign depicts biotech companies as misunderstood and under-appreciated do-gooders who are trying their best to feed a hungry world. Sponsored by the newly formed Council for Biotechnology Information, the PR juggernaut has rolled out TV commercials and print ads – and the Council says up to $250 million may be spent on this effort.

Desperate to showcase their goodwill, gene-tweaking advocates are hyping “Golden Rice,” a new product doctored in the labs of Syngenta, a European firm, to generate extra beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. The biotech lobby is touting this tampered foodstuff as something akin to a miracle medicine, a cure for millions of poor children who would otherwise go blind from vitamin A deficiency. But the humanitarian message doesn’t square with the fact that a four-year-old kid would have to at eat more than two dozen bowls of Golden Rice every day to get the minimum daily allowance of vitamin A, as stipulated by official U.S. nutritional standards.

Critics of the biotech industry dismiss the notion of gene-adjusted organisms as a quick fix for global hunger. The world is already capable of producing enough to feed all humanity, asserts Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First. Moreover, even if the problem was mainly one of production, experimental trials cited in a recent study by the USDA Economic Research Service have shown that GE seeds do not increase crop yields.

The true causes of hunger, according to Food First, are unequal distribution and lack of access to food because of poverty. “Seventy-eight percent of countries reporting child malnourishment export food,” says Mittal, who points out that her native India, home to one third of the world’s 800 million hungry people, has a food grain surplus of 42 million tons. But the surplus is not reaching those who need it. Why should it be any different for gene-altered rice?

There are 210 varieties of wild rice in India. How many of these will survive the large-scale invasion of gene-tinkered rice controlled by a solo seed source? In addition to discouraging the implementation of sound integrated pest management practices, biotechnology promotes genetic uniformity and crop monoculture in rural areas. It’s well known that single-crop farms are more vulnerable to pathogens and insect pests.

A worldwide network of grassroots movements and non-governmental organizations contends that the real goal of the biotech industry is not to banish hunger but to reap huge profits by fostering farmers’ dependence upon patented GE seeds, which are monopolized by a handful of private companies. Biotech opponents charge that these giant, transnational corporations are pirating genetic resources from the developing South, a practice that threatens global food security, according to Henk Hobbelink of Genetics Resources Action International.

After working out the genetic composition of an indigenous resource, or modifying it in a laboratory, biotech firms have claimed the plants, seeds, and even the harvested crops as their intellectual property. Not surprisingly, big business is keen on reproducing only those plants that are most lucrative. Critics fear that an increasing number of plant varieties will be lost or simply shut away in genetic banks if private companies hold exclusive rights over them.

Resistance to biotechnology is growing, particularly in poor countries such as India, where several experimental GE plots were set on fire during a “Cremate Monsanto” campaign waged by an association of 10 million landless peasants. The Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil has made stopping Monsanto soybeans a top priority. And farmers in Thailand have taken a strong stand against genetic engineering while participating in a “Long March for Biodiversity.”

Opposition is also strong in Europe, where bioengineered products are unpopular. In 1999, anti-biotech activists destroyed all the field trials of genetically modified trees in England. The seeds of a consumer revolt may have taken root in the United States, where support for biotechnology is eroding, according to recent public opinion polls. A survey by the FDA shows overwhelming U.S. public support for labeling GE foods.

Last weekend, a thousand protesters, some dressed as genetically engineered ears of corn or monarch butterflies, converged at the world’s largest biotechnology trade show in San Diego, where industry leaders hailed the rapid spread of genetically modified crops across the globe. Over 100 million acres of the world’s farmland are now planted with bioengineered seeds – 25 times more than four years ago. In addition to corn and soybeans, GE crops on the market include potatoes, squash, papaya, and tomatoes armored against disease. Bioengineered wheat and super-salmon is in the commercial pipeline. Gene-altered substances have even turned up in organically grown foods sold at health food stores.

Irate organic farmers are considering a class-action lawsuit against the biotech industry that would seek damages for the contamination of natural foods. But a successful legal challenge might take years. And if it ever went to the Supreme Court, the case could be decided by the likes of Clarence Thomas, a former lawyer for Monsanto.

Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens. His column, Reality Bites, appears in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on Mondays.


editorials  ~ Moongate