Genetic engineering has become a topic of intense controversy, and with good reason. Genetic engineering involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into other, even completely unrelated, species to transfer a desired trait or character.
Scientists have very little understanding of how the tens of thousands of genes in DNA interact with each other, especially across species boundaries. Therefore, altering one gene could have countless effects on other genes, potentially resulting in any number of subtle, unpredictable, and unknown side effects.
In 2001, the Royal Society of Canada, Canada’s foremost scientific body, said that there was insufficient research into the potential allergic effects and toxicity of genetically modified (GM) foods and that they could cause “serious risks to human health.”
Completely ignoring the danger, the biotech industry continues to pressure regulatory agencies to allow these products onto the market more quickly. In fact, a staggering 75% of processed foods in grocery stores already contain genetically altered foods, according to a recent University of Richmond study.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reviewed more than 5,000 applications for biotech crop field trials without denying a single one, and hundreds of other GM products are in the process of being approved (truefoodnow.org). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has acknowledged that it has not established any regulation specific to GM foods. In effect, biotech companies are on the honor system, and potentially dangerous genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are innocent until proven guilty. Neither the FDA, USDA, nor the Environmental Protection Agency has done any long-term testing of GMOs in food or the environment (truefoodnow.org).
In place of this research, which would cost the biotech industry millions, the government has allowed corporations to make the environment and consumers be the test subjects, without their knowledge or consent. Unfortunately, this means that we will only find out about possible negative side-effects of GM foods after people begin to suffer from them.
A Threat to Public Health and the Environment
The lack of research on GMOs shows their potential dangers. For example, Dr. Arpad Pusztai, from the Rowett Research Institute, found that preliminary experiments had shown damage to the immune system and internal organs of rats that were fed genetically engineered potatoes. Twenty other leading scientists from 13 countries later signed a public statement confirming Pusztai’s findings (BBC, 2/12/99).
In 1989, when a Japanese company selling a sleeping aid called L-tryptophan started using genetically engineered bacteria in its production, within months thousands of people who took the supplement began to suffer from a new and extremely painful disease called eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. Thousands became ill, 37 died, and 1,500 were permanently disabled.
In 2000, Professor Hans-Hinrich Katz, a leading German zoologist, released research showing that genes used to modify crops can jump to other species. This means that the antibiotic-resistant marker genes in some GM food may spread into bacteria, creating “superbugs” that are immune to antibiotics.
The growth of antibiotic-resistant diseases is one of the greatest public health threats of the 21st century. For example, bacterial resistance to one antibiotic, Vancomycin, rose from 3% to 95% in San Francisco hospitals between 1993 and 1997, according to the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods.
Once GMOs escape into the environment (and they already have), they can never be retrieved. The GM genes are spread by hybridization, potentially wiping out entire species and creating new ones. This would irreversibly damage native ecosystems, affecting every other species in the food chain from soil microbes to humans.
Instead of reducing chemical use, one study of more than 8,000 field trials found that farmers who plant Roundup-Ready (RR) soy use two to five times more herbicide than non-GMO farmers (True Food Network). RR soy is designed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, so that farmers can use more herbicide on their crops to kill weeds more effectively. The problem is that weeds become increasingly resistant as more herbicides are used, forcing farmers to use even more herbicide than before, and this cycle repeats itself endlessly.
Of course, GMO corporations also produce herbicides (Monsanto, for example, makes Roundup), and this vicious cycle only means more profit for them at the expense of human health. Monsanto has already received permits for a three-fold increase in herbicide residues on genetically engineered soybeans in Europe and the U.S.
In 1998, African scientists at a United Nations conference strongly objected to Monsanto’s promotional GMO campaign that used photos of starving African children under the headline “Let the Harvest Begin.” These scientists said that gene technologies would undermine their nations’ capacities to feed themselves by destroying established diversity, local knowledge, and sustainable agricultural systems.
Biotechnology allows corporations to patent crops and gain exclusive rights over these crops as well as the pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals involved in production. In effect, this is privatizing food species, forcing poor farmers to buy the legal rights to plant crops that never used to be privately owned (Alive, February 1997).
Genetic engineering could actually lead to an increase in hunger and starvation. Biotech companies are still eagerly pursuing a genetic engineering technique named “terminator” technology that would render a crop’s seed sterile, making it impossible for farmers to save seeds for replanting and forcing them to buy new seeds every year. Half the world’s farmers rely on saved seeds, producing food for 1.4 billion people (truefoodnow.org).
The biotech industry is making massive profits from GM technology. Trade in GM food and crops is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Novartis, Zeneca, Aventis and DuPont. The more widely GMO crops are used, the more these corporations gain a monopoly over the world’s food production.
How Can They Be Stopped?
All food companies should be required to label all GM ingredients. Consumers have the right to know what is in the food they buy in order to make an informed choice about what they eat.
The biotech corporations do everything they can to prevent labeling regulations because they do not want consumers to have a choice in what they buy. They know that most consumers are wary of GM foods and would not buy them given the choice.
Until GMOs have been proven to be completely safe for people and the environment, there should be an immediate moratorium on GMO production. Nothing that has the potential to do so much harm should be “innocent until proven guilty.” There should also be fully funded research, independent of GMO producers, of all possible effects of GMOs on humans and ecosystems.
But even if the consumer and environmental movements proved victorious in pressuring the government to force the corporations to label or halt the production of GM foods, so long as the corporations are privately owned they will be forced by competitive market pressures to find loopholes in the new laws. Ultimately, protecting people and the environment will require taking the huge biotech corporations and agribusinesses into public ownership to be democratically run by workers and consumers.