|• Maine Consumers Refused Right to Know Food Ingredients
• Monsanto Goofs, Recalls Seed Containing Unapproved Gene
By Jean English
We are in the midst of a genetic revolution, with some new feat of genetic engineering being reported in the news every week or, sometimes, every day. While some supporters of genetically engineered foods would try to have us believe that this new technology is just traditional breeding at a faster pace, they are wrong. Never in traditional breeding, for example, could chicken and moth genes be incorporated into potatoes, flounder genes into tomatoes, or soil bacterial genes into herbicide resistant crops. Genetic engineering is not breeding, it is putting biochemical additives into our foods. These additives elicit strong public health, environmental, economic and ethical concerns.
Public Health Concerns
Genetically engineered foods may cause allergies. When a gene is added to a food, it usually adds a protein to that food, because genes code for proteins. All known food allergens are proteins. So, genetically engineered foods could be a public health concern and could even be life threatening for some people. A soybean that had had a Brazil nut protein incorporated into it, for example, was pulled because that protein could have caused an allergic reaction in sensitive people. Given our poor understanding of food allergies, we should be highly skeptical of genetic engineering.
Genes interact with one another in complicated ways that researchers don’t always understand. When Swiss researchers inserted a fly gene into fruit fly embryos in 1995, for instance, they got, to their surprise, fruit flies that had eyes on their wings, legs and antennae. When Texas researchers created a mouse that was missing a single gene, the mice were normal below the neck – but had no heads!
The Federal government is paying little attention to these public health concerns thanks to Dan Quayle’s 1993 “regulatory relief” policy, which lets industries decide which genetically engineered foods are potential threats and requires that only those that they perceive as threats need be brought before the FDA for review. The FDA only requires labeling on genetically engineered foods that contain genes from commonly allergenic foods, such as nuts, shellfish and dairy products. Ironically, if a company puts an additive such as sugar into a food, the food must be labeled as containing the additive; but if the company puts a gene into a food that makes more sugar, no label is required.
The major emphasis of genetic engineering of foods is on engineering herbicide resistant crops so that a company can sell both the engineered seed and the herbicide to farmers. This means that more herbicide will be used – potentially harming growers, groundwater, consumers and other organisms.
Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready soybeans are an example. Soybeans are the second largest agricultural crop grown in the United States and are a major staple worldwide. They are used in various forms in up to 60% of the food products found on supermarket shelves and are in many animal feeds. Roundup-Ready soybeans are resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), so growers can use more of the herbicide to control weeds.
The danger is that these soybeans could cross with weedy relatives or become weeds themselves and displace weedy relatives – not to mention the unknown effects on humans of the viral, bacterial and petunia genes that are incorporated into Roundup-Ready soybeans. In displacing weedy relatives, Roundup Ready soybeans may displace valuable germplasm.
Likewise, cotton, which already receives 50% of the pesticides used in the United States, has been engineered to resist the herbicide Bromoxynil – ensuring that even more herbicide will be used on this crop.
Foods are being engineered to resist insects, too. The NewLeaf potato contains 50% more of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin than is needed to kill 95% of the Colorado potato beetle population on it and will probably lead to resistance of beetles to Bt, one of organic and conventional growers’ best and safest defenses against these insects. This resistance will require that another technology be developed to control beetles. “It’s a continuation of that chemical treadmill,” University of Maine professor Stewart Smith told Maine Times, “and it probably even speeds it up.” In addition, ecological imbalances among insect species may result when plants are engineered to contain proteins that are toxic to one species but not another.
Genetically engineered foods are one more input for farmers, potentially increasing their costs. Greenpeace calls the Roundup-Ready soybean a “genetic experiment” that is “a gamble with the livelihoods of thousands of American farmers.” In 1996, American farmers lost some 20,000 acres of cotton because they planted a Monsanto-engineered cotton that they were assured would resist caterpillars. It didn’t.
A few corporations – notably Monsanto and Novatris – dominate the genetic engineering field because they have the size and money to develop these products. These multinational corporations are combining chemical, pharmaceutical, petroleum and seed companies in a way that is heading toward a monopolization of the world’s genetic resources. The Office of Technology Assessment has reported that biotechnology and genetic engineering will increase the trend toward larger farms at the expense of small and medium farms and rural communities.
In addition to health concerns, many consumers want to know what is in their food for philosophical or religious reasons. Some vegetarians and those who follow religious dietary laws want to know when animal genes are added to plants used as foods. Some want to support small farms and local communities rather than multinational corporations.
When animals are engineered to produce more meat, low-fat meat or to resist pests, we need to ask if we have the right to violate their genetic integrity or to patent “new life forms” – especially when the quality of life of those animals is reduced. Hogs engineered to produce low-fat meat, for instance, have poorly developed limbs and reduced mobility. When multinational corporations profit by patenting genetic treasures from third world countries – varieties that were selected by generations of indigenous peoples, for example – shouldn’t those peoples be compensated?
Do we have the right to drastically change evolution and to so thoroughly disrupt nature? What are the consequences of these changes? Regarding pesticides, over 6,000 formulations are approved for use in Maine, and some of these pesticides or their breakdown products are widespread in our waters and in our bodies. Genetically engineered organisms will likely follow the same path as agrichemicals – but faster – and unlike pesticides, genetically engineered organisms can multiply.
Poll after poll shows that consumers are wary of genetically engineered foods. A national poll by the University of North Carolina, for example, showed that 85% of Americans want genetically engineered foods labeled. What right do multinational corporations have to force these unlabeled foods on us?
What can you do?
Push for labeling. Let your state and federal representatives know that you want genetically engineered foods to be labeled as such. Consumers have tried twice to get labeling in Maine, and failed both times because some legislators support industry over consumers and because some think that the federal government should do this job. Ask your legislator about his or her stance on this issue, and make your stance known. Write to the FDA and demand labeling (Commissioner, FDA, 12420 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, MD 20857).
Let these officials know, too, that you want the “revolving door” between corporations and the federal government closed. “In the past,” reports Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly (6/5/97), “Monsanto has been able to [get a stream of genetically engineered products to market] partly because former Monsanto officials have become FDA officials, who have then been assigned to approve Monsanto products – in some cases, the products they worked on while at Monsanto.” Likewise, Marcia Hale, President Clinton’s assistant for intergovernmental relations, would be taking a “sweet” job with Monsanto, coordinating public affairs and corporate strategy in the United Kingdom and Ireland for about six months, reported the Washington Post (4/21/97). She will then return to work out of Monsanto’s Washington office to handle international and “other matters.”
Tell your grocers that you don’t want to buy genetically engineered foods, and ask them to tell you which foods aren’t engineered. Shop at farmers’ markets, food coops and farm stands where you can more readily ask growers and retailers about the purity of their foods.
Let your state university and department of agriculture know what research you want done. Much research that is funded by the public benefits private corporations rather than public interests. The USDA, for example, receives over 10 times as much public money for biotech research as it does for research into sustainable agriculture.
Buy organically grown foods. Right now, this is the only way you can know that your food does not contain viral, soil bacterial, petunia or other genes that have never been part of the human diet. Foods sold in Maine do not contain genetically engineered ingredients if they are MOFGA-certified organic.
Legislative Document 1078, An Act to Require Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods, was introduced to the Maine legislature last spring by Rep. Paul Chartrand, whose original bill would have required labeling of all genetically engineered foods and products containing them. An alternative that was discussed by the Agriculture Committee was to restrict the use of the Maine Quality Seal to products that do not include genetically engineered foods. Another alternative would have prohibited the use of genetically engineered foods in foods labeled as “natural” or “organic” – which MOFGA already does in its organic certification program.
None of these options passed because lobbyists for Monsanto, the National Food Processors Association, the Grocery Association of America, and others convinced at least part of the Committee that they were impossible to enforce. In addition, Harold Pachios, attorney for Monsanto, argued that NatureMark’s NewLeaf potato was a “natural” product since a naturally-occurring bacterium had been inserted into the plant. Food processors and the Feed Grain manufacturers opposed the bill because they don’t want to have to separate engineered from non-engineered foods. The bill requiring full labeling was deemed to be in violation of the Interstate Commerce clause that prohibits states from forcing companies to say something negative about their products on their labels.
Last March, Monsanto recalled 60,000 bag units of two types of canola seeds because one or both had the wrong engineered gene in them. This represents enough seed to plant 600,000 to 750,000 acres of land – and some of it had already been planted in Canada when the recall was announced.
Canola is grown for livestock feed and for oil that is consumed by humans and used in many nonfood products. Two canola genes resistant to the herbicide Roundup had been approved for planting, but only one was approved for livestock and human consumption. Somehow the other ended up in the seed bags, showing that Monsanto’s quality assurance programs and Canada’s biotechnology regulatory system (which is more stringent than that of the United States) failed. Such an error could have widespread effects, since canola oil is used in low-fat foods, pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, confectionary products, margarine and shortening, personal care products, lubricants, soaps and detergents.
This is not the first genetic “mistake” to have entered the environment. In 1989, a Japanese firm marketed an amino acid, L-tryptophan, which was produced from a genetically engineered bacterium. Unexpected trace contaminants – not all of which were ever identified chemically – appeared in the final product, and an estimated 5 to 10 thousand people in the United States fell ill with a new and exceedingly painful disease called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). At least 37 people died and thousands more were disabled. Something in the biotech-produced L-tryptophan attacked people’s immune systems. Their joints and muscles ached excruciatingly. Their limbs swelled. In many respects their disease resembled scleroderma.
Source: “Genetic Engineering Error,” Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly #549, June 5, 1997; Environmental Research Foundation, 105 Eastern Ave., Suite 101, Annapolis MD 21403-3300.