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Genetically Engineered Food? You Make the Call!

by James A. Riddle

What is genetically engineered food?

Genetically engineered food is food that is produced from genetically engineered crops or livestock. Genetic engineering is a process whereby genes from one organism are spliced into the DNA of another organism, creating a new organism that is not possible through traditional breeding methods. Genes from different species, or even different kingdoms, are inserted into host organisms to create traits not found in the original host organism, such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance. Genetically engineered foods are not labeled.

This paper discusses some of the impacts of genetically engineered crops, and highlights the environmental, economic, and societal concerns associated with GE crops and foods.

Science now shows that GE crops have unanticipated ecological impacts:

* Research at Cornell and Iowa State Universities has confirmed that Bt corn pollen kills Monarch butterflies and other lepidoptera. This impact on non-target species was not predicted prior to the release of Bt corn. Every cell of the Bt corn carries the Bt toxin, and the plant itself is a registered pesticide.

* Research in Europe shows that GE crops damage beneficial insects, including lacewings and ladybugs. Beneficial insects that prey on aphids which have consumed Bt toxins have lower survival and reproduction rates than those which feed on healthy aphids. This impact was not researched or anticipated prior to release.

* Toxins from genetically engineered Bt crops accumulate in the soil, killing organisms and altering soil ecology, according to research at New York University. The GE Bt toxin was found to exude from the roots of living Bt corn plants. After 234 days, the toxin had not degraded. The research abstract concludes "there may be a risk that non-target insects and organisms in higher trophic levels could be affected by the toxin." This is a huge issue, and was previously unanticipated.

* Genetically engineered Bt toxin is significantly different from the topically applied Bt sprays which have been used by organic growers for 50 years. Topical Bt must be digested by an insect and react with enzymes and digestive acids in order to be toxic. Left on plants, it degrades under UV light in a matter of days. GE Bt is an active toxin found in every cell of the altered plant. It is not dependent on digestive enzymes and acids to become actively toxic, and it does not degrade in UV light.

* It is inevitable that the planting of insecticidal GE crops, such as Bt corn, cotton and potatoes, will result in pesticide resistant pests, because the GE toxins are present in every cell of every plant at all times. Any biologist or entomologist knows that this is a recipe for resistance. As insects develop resistance, conventional growers will need to apply more and stronger insecticides, and organic growers will likely lose access to a previously effective, selective, least-toxic, and natural pesticide.

* Research in Canada shows that herbicide resistant canola cross-pollinates with wild and domestic relatives, creating "superweeds" which are resistant to herbicides.

* The effects of altering one gene on the host genome, and on the ecosystem into which the organism is released, are unknown.

* And despite what the biotech industry would like us to believe, farmers are spending more on pesticides than ever before. Genetic engineering has not resulted in a decrease in pesticide use.

GE crops are bad for the U.S. economy:

* US corn exports to Europe dropped by 96% in 1999 because we cannot provide non-GE corn.

* US soybean sales to Europe dropped from $2.1 billion in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 1999.

* Genetic engineering is part of a failed farm policy which is driving farmers off the land. The USDA predicts corn prices below $2/bu through at least 2001 and soybean prices below $5/bu through 2004.

* Major buyers in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Mexico don't want GMO crops.

* Domestic buyers, including Frito-Lay, Gerber, Heinz, Seagrams, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, North America's largest potato processor, and the entire sugar industry want non-GE crops.

GE crops are having a negative impact on family farmers:

* GE seeds cost more, yet may yield less. 40 research plots in 1999 showed that Roundup Ready soybeans yielded 4% less than non-GE varieties.

* The November 1, 1999, issue of Chemical and Engineering News reported that DuPont and Monsanto together own 73% of the seed corn companies in the U.S. Novartis, Dow, and Cargill own most of the rest. In the face of this concentration, farmers have few planting choices, and most of the best genetics are bundled with GE traits.

* For corn farmers, the share of a farmer's gross income spent on seed and chemicals has risen from 9.5% in 1975 to 16.9% in 1997. For soybean farmers, the share spent on seed and chemicals has risen from 10.8% to 16.3%. * Over 30 patents have already been issued for Terminator and Traitor technology, which is designed to produce crops which have sterile seed, making farmers chemically dependent and preventing them from saving their own seeds. This is the most transparently greedy and ecologically dangerous GE technology of all.

* Farmers who plant GE crops must sign licensing agreements allowing biotech companies unlimited access to their farms. The farmers don't buy the seed - they only lease the right to grow it.

* Farmers who save their own seeds are subject to investigation, harassment, and litigation by biotech companies. Farmers are encouraged to "turn in" their neighbors, if they suspect they are saving seeds.

* Farmers whose crops have been subjected to genetic drift have even been investigated and accused of saving GE seeds without having signed licensing agreements.

* Farmers are being exposed to unprecedented economic and environmental risks, with no protection from biotech companies. Farmers who plant GE crops may be liable for contamination of neighboring non-GE and organic crops due to genetic drift. Biotech companies carry no insurance to cover these damages. Insurance companies claim genetic engineering is an "unquantifiable risk."

* Genetic pollution is another unanticipated consequence of GE technology, especially for wind and insect pollinated crops such as corn, canola, potatoes, and squash. Genetic drift is a huge issue for organic growers, since genetic engineering is prohibited by all organic standards in the world, and consumers expect organic foods to be free of GE ingredients.

* The development of GE-free labels is not the answer to protect consumers. It places the burden on farmers and consumers who want to avoid genetic engineering, rather than on the corporations who profit from the technology. Corporations and producers who profit from GE technology must bear the burden of segregating and labeling GE products.

* Unless GE products are tracked and labeled, a moratorium must be imposed. A moratorium on the planting of GE crops would present a huge economic opportunity for farmers and processors in non-GE zones, since the world is demanding non-GE products.

Genetically engineered foods are being rejected by consumers:

* The British and Portuguese Medical Associations are calling for a global moratorium on the planting of GE crops.

* Research in Great Britain has shown that rats developed intestinal growths when fed GE potatoes.

* Research in Great Britain also shows that incidences of soy food allergies have increased corresponding with the sale of Roundup Ready soybeans.

* GE crops contain antibiotic resistance marker genes, bacteria genes, and virus genes. None of these genetically engineered substances have ever before been part of the ecosystem or the human diet.

* Germany has banned all planting, growing, and selling of GE corn produced by Novartis, based on research published in Freiburg, Germany, that showed the GE corn can cancel out the effect of antibiotic treatments for illnesses because the corn has been modified to resist certain antibiotics.

* GE crops have been rushed to market without proper testing, and with no labeling. The regulatory process has been shrouded in secrecy and conflict of interest. The Food and Drug Administration ruled in 1992 that GE crops are "substantially equivalent" to regular crops and foods, and do not have to be safety tested or labeled, even though they contain unique, altered genes, and can be patented.

* The FDA's own researchers found that genetic engineering could have unpredictable consequences, and urged caution, yet their objections were overruled. To this day, there is still no sound science which proves GE crops are safe for the environment or human health. * 81% of respondents want genetically engineered foods to be labeled. A January 2000 MSNBC poll showed identical results.

* The Mexican Senate has unanimously passed mandatory labeling legislation.

* The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan already require genetically engineered foods to be labeled, a right recently confirmed by the United Nations BioSafety Protocol agreement.

Genetic engineering raises a host of unanswered questions:

* What are the long term impacts of increased Bt toxins on soil ecology?

* How can genetically engineered toxins be removed from the environment once they have been introduced?

* What are the impacts of one spliced gene on a target organism's genone? What are the impacts on the ecosystem into which the transgenic organism is released?

* What are the impacts on livestock which consume GE proteins? Why do cows, when given the choice between GE corn fodder and non-GE fodder, consistently choose the non-GE feed?

* Why do farmers complain about burning lungs after breathing Bt corn dust?

* Could there be a relationship between GE crops and frog mutations?

* Organic farming, which takes care of the earth, is the fastest growing sector of agriculture, with tremendous domestic and international consumer demand. How much public money is spent on organic research and promotion versus genetic engineering research and promotion?

* Are University and government researchers encouraged to conduct "public interest" research, or are they funded to conduct "corporate interest" research?

* Is research suppressed if the findings contradict the claims and agendas of biotech companies?

* Just because something can be done, does that mean it should be done? We can kill bugs with DDT, and kill plants with Agent Orange, but that doesn't mean it's smart.

* Shouldn't sound science be used to establish a product's safety before it is released into the environment and placed in the food chain?

For more information on genetic engineering, contact:

Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology - 

Organic Consumers Association -  

Food First -  

Institute for Ag and Trade Policy -  

Union of Concerned Scientists -  

General information -   and 

Presented by:

James A. Riddle Organic Independents/Organicworks! Rt. 3 Box 162-C Winona, Minnesota, USA, 55987-9514 Ph/Fax: 507-454-8310 E-mail: 

James Riddle is an organic grower, inspector, and policy specialist from Winona, MN. He has been an organic inspector for 14 years, and was founding president of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association. He has trained hundreds of organic inspectors worldwide. Mr. Riddle is co-author of several organic texts, including the Organic Trade Association's American Organic Standards. He has been a member of the U.S. delegation to the Codex Commission on Food Labeling for 4 years, and he chairs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force. Mr. Riddle has a degree in Biology from Grinnell College.


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