Genetic Engineering Endangers Our Food Supply

By Susan Davidson

Have you been hearing or seeing the term GMOs lately? This acronym stands for “genetically modified organisms,” and it has entered our vocabulary as quietly, and pervasively, as GMOs have entered our food supply.

In writing this article I attempt to distill reams of information I have been sorting through over the last months. The issue of genetically modified organisms (also called GEOs, or “genetically engineered organisms”) in our food supply is complex, and the truth is that it’s not waiting in the wings.

GMOs are already pervasive in our supermarkets, even in our co-ops and health-food stores, and they have been thrust upon us without discussion or information.

The genetic modification of plants as it is practiced today defies natural law by breeding not within species, but between species: a fish gene is introduced into a tomato to give the fruit longer shelf life; a virus is forced into a soybean cell to confer herbicide tolerance; a soil organism is directed into a corn cell to birth a plant that is pest-resistant.

The genetic changes that bring these plants into life are permanently encoded in the germ plasm of all the original seeds’ descendants. This process, and the politics surrounding it, have enormous implications for sustainable agriculture and organic foods, as well as for issues regarding the consumer’s right to know. If you value clean foods and the many benefits and blessings of eating them, you’ll want to become informed about this crucial issue facing us right now. Get educated and join the discussion taking place on GMOs here in America. It’s important.

While genetic “modification” has been an agricultural practice for more than 100 years, it has traditionally involved cross-breeding two plants within the same species in order to create a hardier or better-tasting crop. The breeding of a new plant variety involved fine-tuning for the desired characteristics over the course of four or five plant generations, allowing the plant’s new genetic structure to stabilize before the seeds were released to market for wider cultivation. This careful directing of plant characteristics allowed for plant diversity and for adaptability within distinct bio-regions.

Modern genetic modification practices are much different. The GMOs now entering our food supply are coming from plants that have been created by a process called “biolistics,” whereby microbullets covered with the DNA of a foreign species are shot into cells of a “host” plant for the purpose of cross-breeding. Most cells thus assaulted die; the few that survive are propagated into plants for their seed, and from there a new plant form never before seen on earth is born.

While at first this interspecies breeding might seem harmless, the fact is that no gene controls only one feature of any organism – one gene within a living system expresses itself in many ways. The introduction of one gene from a living organism into another completely unrelated organism may result in a desired characteristic such as higher oleic oil content; however, it is unknown what other complex biochemical reactions are taking place in the still-stabilizing DNA of the new plant that might not be desirable for human physiology.

At the forefront of agricultural genetic engineering is Monsanto, the chemical company that gave the world DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and rBGH. Monsanto, and its colleagues such as DuPont, Dow, and Novartis, have all in recent years created “life sciences” divisions as they enter the world of agribusiness. Monsanto has been particularly aggressive in its pursuit of agbiotech dominance, not only in terms of developing genetically engineered seed but also in acquiring seed companies.

In the past four years Monsanto has purchased outright or acquired controlling stock of some of the largest seed companies in the world, positioning itself to control the availability and distribution of seed stock worldwide. You might have heard of Monsanto’s desire to patent the Terminator seed – a seed engineered to destroy its own embryo. The Terminator seed would render seed-saving by farmers (and gardeners) impossible. Should Monsanto control the commercial distribution of seed in the future, we might all be planting sterile seed each spring.

Very little testing is being performed on genetically engineered seed and their resulting crops before they are released to market – the burden of proof of safety lies with the chemical companies producing this seed stock – and the USDA, the FDA, and the EPA have shifted or bypassed regulatory standards in their zeal to support these firms and their new technologies.

The FDA currently does not require labeling of genetically engineered foodstuffs; the consumer right to know is only enforced by the FDA when it deems that the food has undergone a “qualitative change” by virtue of an ingredient or a process. The FDA has thus effectively stated that willfully manipulating a plant’s genetic structure by mating it with a species that would not naturally be a viable breeding partner, thereby creating a new life form, does not constitute a qualitative change to the plant itself. Go figure.

Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network

The Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network (VT GEAN) is a group of individuals and organizations that includes consumers, farmers, gardeners, business owners, chefs, environmentalists, seed dealers, students, and parents. Together they are working at the grassroots to educate concerned citizens about genetic engineering and our food supply and to build local alternatives to the industrial food system. Members of VT GEAN are organizing panel discussions about genetic engineering around the state, creating presentations for junior high and high school students, entering floats in their 4th of July parades, and collaborating with other organizations on Buy Local campaigns, to name some of the activities this dynamic grassroots group is involved in.

There are also bills in both the Vermont Senate and the House of Representatives dealing with agricultural genetic engineering. The bills, S.79 and H.247, call for a two-year moratorium on planting GMO seeds while an advisory group studies all the potential impacts of GMOs in Vermont. Vermont can take a leadership position on this issue by instituting the moratorium, and by requiring seed labeling and determining issues of liability. With countries around the world closing their borders to GMOs, and citizens throughout the U.S. demanding labeling of GMO food products, Vermont’s farm economy can only benefit by marketing its products as GMO-free.

The main points of the bills are:

A two-year moratorium on planting GMO seeds and plant parts, with an advisory group set up to look at the economic, environmental, and health impacts of GMOs

A seed labeling provision so that farmers know what they are buying (some farmers have unwittingly bought and planted genetically engineered seeds). This may seem odd given the moratorium, but moratoriums end and the seed labeling provision would continue as long as the law stays on the books.

A product labeling section stating that any food sold in Vermont that contains GMOs would need to be labeled as such.

A requirement that seed dealers and farmers selling or growing GMOs notify the Vermont Department of Agriculture. This provision will enable the state to track how much GMO is being grown in Vermont and provides the means for neighbors to find out from the Agriculture Department where GMOs are growing. With this information organic growers will know if they need to create buffers to maintain the certification of their organic crop, and consumers can choose which farm stands to buy from.

Liability protection for farmers who grow GMOs, making the seed companies liable for any lost marketing opportunities on the part of the farmer growing GMOs and neighboring farmers whose product becomes “contaminated” due to genetic drift.

If you support the measures described in these bills, let your legislators hear from you. To get involved with one of the most important issues facing the public today, or to take part in the exciting (and fun) work of a grassroots group, contact VT GEAN coordinator Susan Davidson, 802/388-4415.

Of the new crops being created by genetic engineering (sometimes also called transgenics), of particular and immediate concern to health-conscious consumers is soybeans. One such product, called Roundup Ready soybeans, can withstand unlimited doses of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Monsanto’s exclusive patent on Roundup expired in 2000; with Roundup Ready seed, Monsanto has developed a means for keeping growers dependent on its herbicide while promising (but not always delivering) a higher yield. Farmers who buy Roundup Ready seed sign a contract stating that they will use Roundup exclusively for their weed control, and that they will not save seed from the crop for replanting.

In 1995, when Roundup Ready soybeans were still in development, Monsanto successfully petitioned the EPA to raise the safe and allowable levels of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) in soybeans from 6 parts per million to 20 PPM – what was considered “safe” for human consumption in 1987 was more than tripled eight years later. Because the soybean can withstand unlimited doses of Roundup, use of the herbicide has increased in many fields where these soybeans are planted. In 1997, 15 percent of America’s soybean crop came from Roundup Ready seed; by 1998 that figure was up to 38 percent. Currently, Monsanto has supplied Roundup Ready seed for nearly 60 percent of the American crop. The company’s stated goal was to control 100 percent of the soybean crop in America by the year 2000.

Because the FDA does not require identification of transgenic crops, Roundup Ready soybeans and non-transgenic soybeans are mixed in post-harvest handling. That is how genetically engineered soy and its byproducts have been making their way into our foods over the course of the last five years. This infiltration affects vitamins, salad dressings, substitute meat products, and all other foods that use soybeans, soybean oil, lecithin, or soy protein isolates in their processing. Infant formula is made from soybeans. Soybean hull are mixed into animal feed.

Other current genetically modified crops include field corn spliced with a gene from the only naturally occurring pesticide available to organic farmers, Bacillus thuringiensis. This “improved” corn is designed to kill corn borers after their first nibbles on a plant. There is widespread concern that Bt corn will encourage resistance within corn borers while destroying other beneficial insects (such as lacewings and monarch butterflies), leading to pestilence overrun, undermining integrated pest management systems, and rendering Bt forever ineffective for organic farmers.

Another transgenic crop of concern is BXN cotton, engineered to be resistant to the herbicide bromoxynil and so allowing for the herbicide to be sprayed over the top of the crop instead of at its base. A biochemical by-product of this new cotton that helps the plant to detoxify the herbicide carries toxicity comparable to the herbicide itself. Cottonseed oil is used widely as a human food and cooking additive, and the slash from cotton is also added to animal feed. As well, cotton comes into direct contact with a woman’s bloodstream when she uses a tampon. Such risks have gone largely unmeasured.

There are other serious issues besides human health concerns implicit in this genetic engineering of plant life. A monoculture – the exclusive cultivation of one plant variety, such as Roundup Ready soybeans – is distinctly vulnerable to wholesale crop failure, specifically because of its lack of genetic diversity. Blight within a monoculture is likely to wipe out the entire crop; in the case of soybeans, such blight would threaten the world’s food supply. The potato famine in Ireland occurred within a monoculture,

Another grave concern is gene drift, the cross-pollination of transgenic crops with nontransgenic plants, which is likely to upset the balance of natural populations and create strains of super-hardy weeds and insects (resulting in the need for even stronger herb and pesticide remedies). On the social front we are at a moment in history when control of agricultural practices may be passed from farmer to corporation, at the levels of both agribusiness and subsistence farming, making the world’s food supply and the health of the soil beholden to a few very powerful chemical companies.

Finally, there is the fact of Monsanto’s systematic suppression of information critical of genetic engineering. In December 1997, two investigative journalists from the Fox television network were fired for finally refusing to rewrite their story on the pervasive use of rBGH in Florida’s milk supply, following pressure on the network from Monsanto. The contract for the book Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food was canceled by the original publisher after receiving threats by Monsanto; the already-printed copies were destroyed. This book, an excellent discussion on the issues surrounding transgenics by Marc Lappe, Ph.D., and Britt Bailey, was bravely picked up by a new publisher, Common Courage Press. The September/October 1998 issue of the British magazine “The Ecologist” was destroyed by its printer, wary of a libel suit.

If GMOs are so safe, both for human health and for the environment, why has Monsanto attempted to stifle public discussion? Such actions preempting criticism or debate do not portend good things about these agricultural technologies being developed and tested in relative secrecy and entering our food supply without identification.

For all of this unbridled embracing of genetic technology by multinational corporations and the U.S. government, a counter-movement is growing. Some European countries, notably Switzerland and Denmark, have opposed producing, importing, or selling transgenic crops from the beginning. Some countries are now requiring the labeling of transgenics while others are debating closing their borders to transgenic food imports, despite heavy pressure from the United States.

Strong consumer opposition in Britain led to a statement by Iverson’s, one of the UK’s largest processed-food manufacturers, that they would no longer use genetically modified ingredients in their products. This statement was immediately followed by a similar promise from Nestle and Cadbury. As well, five leading supermarket chains in the UK have declared that their brand-name products will no longer contain GMOs. This change of policy has come about as a result of consumers raising their voices about their right to make informed choice.

Awareness about this important issue is growing in America. Already we are cultivating genetically engineered soy, cotton, corn, rapeseed (canola), potatoes, tomatoes, and squash, and there are many other plant varieties in development. Given the accelerated pace at which genetic engineering technology is moving, those who believe a more prudent and public approach is warranted need to speak up now, and help to educate others. If you value “clean” food and your right to choose those foods, if you are concerned about ecological balance and sustainable farming practices, if you love to garden and want to have a wide variety of seed choice or the ability to save your seed, or if you feel inherently opposed to forced breeding between species, it is important to make your views known and your voice heard.

Susan Davidson is an editor and writer who lives in Middlebury. She coordinates the Vermont Genetic Engineering Action Network, a grassroots encouraging pubic discussion of agricultural genetic engineering.

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