GE News

Fall 2002

Perspectives on Genetic Engineering
Engineered Genes in Human Gut
Biopharm Crops Will Contaminate Food Supply
Illegal Genetically Engineered Starlink Corn Contaminates Food Aid
U.S. Media Opinion Pages Present Biased View of Biotech
What’s Out There?
Genetic Contamination Spreads
Commoner Contradicts Simplistic Genetics

Perspectives on Genetic Engineering

“Genetically engineered crops were created not because they are productive but because they’re patentable. Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence farmers to feed themselves, but toward feeding more livestock for the already overfed rich.”

– Amory and Hunter Lovins, quoted in BioDemocracy News #38, Feb. 6, 2002, at

“Corporations should set up blind trusts, etc., administered independently by scientific peers not financially tied to these corporations or to the governments, and from which independent research could be financed. The public must understand that for independent scientific advice they will have to release scientists from their servitude to ‘big business’ by also funding them from the public purse. In this way most research that can influence the future of humankind will be done ‘openly, transparently and inclusively.’”

– Dr. Arpad Pusztai, “For the Common Good,” Resurgence, Sept./Oct. 2001.


Engineered Genes in Human Gut

The first known trial in the world of GE foods on human volunteers has shown that engineered genes can end up in the human stomach, where they may promote resistance to antibiotics. When British scientists studied bacteria in stool samples taken from colostomy bags, they found that some bacteria had taken up antibiotic resistance marker genes from GE food. Geneticist Michael Antonio of King’s College Medical School in London said, “To my knowledge they have demonstrated clearly that you can get GM plant DNA in the gut bacteria. Everyone used to deny that this was possible … It suggests that you can get antibiotic marker genes spreading around the stomach which would compromise antibiotic resistance. They have shown that this can happen even at very low levels after just one meal.” Activists have long sought a ban on the use of antibiotic resistant marker genes in GE foods for this very reason. (“GM Genes Found in Human Gut,” by John Vidal, The Guardian, July 17, 2002; at,2763,756666,00.html)


Biopharm Crops Will Contaminate Food Supply

Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of U.S. consumer and environmental groups, has called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prohibit a new class of genetically engineered food crops that threatens to contaminate the food supply. In a letter to the USDA, the coalition called for an end to open air cultivation of crops engineered to produce prescription drugs or industrial chemicals. The new crops, already planted in over 300 field trials at secret locations throughout the United States, include plants that produce an abortion-inducing chemical, growth hormones, a blood clotter, and trypsin, an allergenic enzyme.

“Just one mistake by a biotech company and we’ll be eating other people’s prescription drugs in our corn flakes,” said Larry Bohlen, Director of Health and Environment Programs at Friends of the Earth, a member of the coalition. Two-thirds of the trials are in corn; the rest in soy, rice and tobacco. The crops are grown mostly in Nebraska, Hawaii, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico but in other states as well.

The USDA has primary authority for experimental biopharm crop cultivation. USDA keeps all drug and chemical crop sites secret from the public and neighboring farmers, hides the identity of the drug or chemical in most cases, and condones biopharm companies’ preferred practice of “anonymously” planting these crops without identification, security measures or notification of neighbors. Joe Jilka of ProdiGene, speaking of his company’s corn engineered to produce a pig vaccine (TGEV), seems more concerned about theft than public safety: “…the best way to secure it is to grow it just like any other corn. In other words, the anonymity of it just completely hides it. You know, our TGEV corn grown [sic] was up here by Story City right by the interstate, and no one could have ever seen it.”

USDA’s gene confinement measures are intended to “minimize” rather than prevent contamination. The few environmental assessments conducted by the USDA are of poor quality and show a disturbing willingness to bend the rules. For instance, a trial of alfalfa engineered with industrial enzymes was allowed to proceed despite the presence of non-engineered alfalfa “within 200 yards of the test site,” less than the accepted isolation distance. The USDA approved the field trial plan over the objections of the Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture. USDA is not qualified to evaluate the health risks of biopharm crops, allows commercial use of biopharm plant products, and is too understaffed to exercise adequate on-the-ground oversight, for the most part allowing companies to regulate themselves.

An expert committee of the National Academy of Sciences strongly criticized the USDA for these and other regulatory lapses and deficiencies. The Academy also warns: “…it is possible that crops transformed to produce pharmaceutical or other industrial compounds might mate with plantations grown for human consumption, with the unanticipated result of novel chemicals in the human food supply.” Chris Webster of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals is quoted by Environmental News Service as saying, “We’ve seen, on the vaccine side, where modified live seeds have wandered off and have appeared in other products.” (“Secret U.S. Biopharms Growing Experimental Drugs,” ENS, July 16, 2002)

Corn, a prolific pollinator, is the primary crop engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals and chemicals. ProdiGene, the company with the most plantings of drug and chemical-producing plants, projects that 10% of the corn crop will be devoted to biopharm production by 2010. The coalition report, however, suggests that existing methods of pharmaceutical production (in labs, in plant or animal tissues or in plant, animal, bacterial or yeast cells) may be more cost effective and safer than field testing. StarLink corn, planted on less than 1% of total U.S. corn acreage, contaminated corn seed stock and hundreds of food products with a potentially allergenic protein, despite regulations intended to contain it.

Far from supporting containment strategies such as buffer areas, Anthony Laos, ProdiGene’s CEO, wrote to farmers in 2001 that: “We will be dealing with these distances until we can gain regulatory approval to lessen or abandon these requirements altogether.” Some companies also propose extracting drugs or chemicals from plants, then selling the remainder of the crop for other uses. Incomplete extraction could introduce drugs or chemicals into food or feed.

The coalition’s report, “Manufacturing Drugs and Chemicals in Crops: Biopharming Poses New Threats to Consumers, Farmers, Food Companies and the Environment,” and other background materials may be found at

Source: GE Food Alert press release, July 11, 2002. Manufacturing Drugs and Chemicals in Crops Fact Sheet, July 2002.


Illegal Genetically Engineered Starlink Corn Contaminates Food Aid

The Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), a citizens’ group in Bolivia, announced in June that a sample of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) food aid tested positive for the presence of StarLink genetically engineered corn, a variety not approved for human consumption due to health concerns. The group expressed outrage that more than a year after StarLink was found in the U.S. food supply it has appeared in food aid. It criticized USAID and the World Food Program and demanded that genetically engineered crops not be sent as food aid to countries that have not formulated biosafety regulations. It also emphasized the critical need to protect the birthplaces of corn from genetic contamination.

StarLink was not approved for human consumption due to a finding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the insecticidal protein the corn was engineered to produce exhibits “characteristics of known allergens.” Possible health effects of this category of allergen include nausea and anaphylactic shock, but are not known due to a lack of adequate testing by government and industry. StarLink contamination was originally found by Friends of the Earth and the Genetically Engineered Food Alert coalition in taco shells manufactured by Kraft Foods.

As a result of the contamination, the U.S. government recalled over 300 food products, and more than 200 people reported illnesses that possibly were related. The EPA concluded one year after the discovery that no level of StarLink could be determined to be safe for human consumption. The manufacturer of the corn, Aventis, has been mired in multiple lawsuits and has sold its agricultural biotechnology division to Bayer.

The sample sent for testing by FOBOMADE also contained two other types of engineered corn not approved in the European Union (EU) – RoundUp Ready and BtXtra, both produced by Monsanto.

In Guatemala, Colectivo Madre Selva, a citizens’ group, tested a sample of seed sent as food aid and found three varieties of engineered corn not approved in the EU – Liberty Link produced by Aventis and Monsanto’s BtXtra and RoundUp Ready.

Centro Humboldt, working with other members of the Network for a GMO-Free Nicaragua, obtained samples of seeds from different parts of the country. One sample contained 3.8% of a genetically engineered variety approved in the United States and the EU, and three samples of a corn and soy flour blend contained Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready corn.

“It is unacceptable that the children of Nicaragua are consuming genetically modified products that come masked as food aid. It is well known that baby food companies in the U.S. and Europe do not use genetically modified products,” said Julio Sanchez of Centro Humboldt.

Food aid with genetically modified seed may result in cultivation of genetically engineered corn in the regions that are considered the birthplaces of corn, creating a form of biological pollution that cannot be recalled. Commercial imports of corn seed for food to Mexico have been reported recently as a likely pathway threatening native Mexican varieties.

Source/contact: Friends of the Earth, 1025 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005; phone (202) 783-7400; fax (202) 783-0444; email [email protected]; Web site


U.S. Media Opinion Pages Present Biased View of Biotech

Thirteen of the largest Newspapers and magazines in the United States have all but shut out criticism of GE food and crops from their opinion pages, according to Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. The Food First report, “Biotech Bias on the Editorial and Opinion Pages of Major United States Newspapers and News Magazines,” found an overwhelming bias in favor of GE foods not only on editorial pages, but also on op-ed pages, a forum usually reserved for a variety of opinions. In fact, the report found that some newspapers surveyed did not publish a single critical op-ed on GE foods and crops, while publishing several in support.

“It is a great disservice to the American public when the media filters out critical viewpoints on issues that are central to our times,” said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy. “This is an issue where there is significant difference of opinion among both scientists and the general public,” she said, “and those differences must be represented in the media if the public is to be able to exercise its democratic right to make informed decisions about new technologies.”

The report investigated 11 newspapers and three weekly news magazines between September 1999 and August 2001. Out of 40 op-eds, 31 supported GE foods and crops while only seven were critical. Two op-eds argued for labeling of GE foods. Newspaper editorials were united in supporting GE foods and crops and only diverged on the issue of labeling.

The report found that the arguments presented in support of GE crops could be grouped into several general categories:

* GE crops are good for the environment, or genetic engineering will create a world free of pesticides.

* We must accept GE crops and foods if we are to feed the poor in the Third World, because they offer the best way to boost agricultural productivity.

* No viable alternatives exist to GE crops and foods.

* GE crops are here to stay, so we should just accept them.

* The public already accepts GE, so what is all the fuss about?

* Trust scientists, they know best.

The report points out that these are essentially the same arguments used by the biotechnology industry’s advertising campaigns, and that an overwhelming lack of attention is paid to widely expressed doubts concerning these arguments. Such concerns include:

* GE crops in and of themselves may represent significant risks to the environment. In addition, the reduction of insecticide use in so-called “Bt-crops” may be short-lived, and herbicide-tolerant crops may lead to increased, rather than decreased, use of hazardous pesticides.

* The productivity-enhancing potential of GE crops may be greatly overstated; in fact for some crops, such as soybeans, evidence of reduced yields exists. Furthermore, GE crops may be unlikely to be appropriate for, adopted by or useful for poor farmers in the Third World.

* A significant body of research demonstrates the proven potential of integrated pest management (IPM), sustainable agriculture, agroecology, policy reform, and other alternatives in boosting productivity, protecting the environment and addressing hunger. This potential in many cases may be greater than that of GE crops and foods.

* Potential health-risks of GE foods for consumers may not have been evaluated adequately before the approval of these products.

(Summaries of these arguments were posted at: and

The papers surveyed were: The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Houston Chronicle, Newsday (New York), The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. The weekly news magazines were Time, Newsweek, and The Economist.

The report is based on searches conducted on the Nexis database using the search term “bioengineered foods or genetically modified foods or genetically engineered foods or biotechnology.” The findings were reduced to “editorial or op-ed or opinion or commentary.”

Look for an HTML copy of the report can be found at:

Sources/contacts: Pesticide Action Network Press Release, May 3, 2002; Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618; phone (510) 654-4400; fax (510) 654-4551,


What’s Out There?

The biotech industry claims that GE acreage increased 18% in 2001 over 2000 amounts. BioDemocracy News #39 (May 9, 2002; counters that this alleged increase is based on U.S. government subsidies and below-market-cost dumping of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean seeds in Argentina.

The United States, Canada and Argentina grow 96% of GE crops; China grows 3 percent. Soy and corn account for 82% of global acreage; cotton and canola for 17% (2000 figures). Seeds from Monsanto comprise 91% of all GE crops.

The Christian Science Monitor says that biotech companies are now narrowing their focus to major crops, such as corn, soybeans, oilseeds, cotton and wheat, because of consumer skepticism and tighter regulation worldwide. (“No Bumper Crop of Genetically Altered Plants,” Aug. 30, 2001)

While the range of commercialized crops may be shrinking, the Pesticide Action Network says that thousands of field tests have been authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Between 1987 and 2000, 29,000 field tests were authorized, and more than 60% of these contained genes classified as “Confidential Business Information.” These tests pose serious threats to neighboring farms and the environment, say two groups, Genetically Engineered Food Alert and the State Public Interest Research Groups. (“Thousands of Field Tests of GE Crops Across the U.S., Pesticide Action Network Updates Service, June 16, 2001; see also “Raising Risk: Field Testing of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S., at


Genetic Contamination Spreads

In November 2001, University of California researchers Ignacio Chapela and David Quist published a paper in Nature saying that GE corn had polluted non-GE corn in Southern Mexico – despite a Mexican ban on planting GE corn. The article was criticized by the biotech industry, and editors retracted part of the story. Nature did not retract the conclusion that widespread genetic pollution of traditional corn varieties occurred in Mexico; it questioned, instead, whether altered DNA constructs were “fragmenting and promiscuously scattering throughout genomes.” In April, the Mexican government said that traditional corn varieties had been extensively contaminated by engineered DNA.

Another study, by Alison Snow and coworkers at Ohio State University, showed that genetic traits passed from cultivated to wild radish could persist for at least six generations, perhaps much longer, and become a permanent part of the weed population. She suggested that biotech companies not develop GE radish varieties with traits that could be passed on to weeds, since “the result may be very hardy, hard to kill weeds.” (“Genes Passed from Crops to Weeds Persist for Generations,” Environmental News Service, Aug. 13, 2001)

A study for the European Commission by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies in May 2000 concluded that GE and organic farming could not coexist in many cases because of contamination by the GE crops. It said that commercialization of GE canola, maize and potatoes would increase costs of farming between nine and 41 percent. The study was given to the European Commission in January 2002 and was leaked to Greenpeace. (“Suppressed Study Shows Engineered Crops Raise Costs,” Environmental News Service, May 21, 2002)


Commoner Contradicts Simplistic Genetics

Prominent biologist Dr. Barry Commoner published an article in Harper’s Magazine in February in which he said that the biotech industry relies on an old theory that one particular gene codes for one particular protein that affects a particular inherited trait. Commoner cited studies showing that a single gene can create a variety of different proteins and result in more than one inherited trait. He pointed to the Human Genome Project, which found that the number of genes that humans have is insufficient to account for the inherited differences between people and other animals or plants. He said that studies show that a plant’s own genes can be disrupted in transgenic plants, and that government regulation of this industry is not sufficient to detect such disruptions.

Commoner’s article is part of The Critical Genetics Project that he and molecular geneticist Dr. Andreas Athanasiou have established at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York.


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