Who's Afraid of GMOs? Me!
By Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA
In your article, "Who is Afraid of GMOs?" (by Lindsey Partos, foodqualitynews.com, 6/06/2005), the author tries to persuade us that genetically modified (also known as GMO, GM, GE, and biotech) foods can feed the world's hungry and that foes of this technology are selfish, greedy idealists who abet the starving of millions of people. In fact, the foes of genetic crops are the heroes who are fighting greedy, huge agribusiness interests that are slowly destroying our environment and exposing us all to uncertain dangers for their own gain.
Instead of focusing on the (yet) uncertain health risks and accepting by faith that GMO food can better feed the hungry, the author should have zeroed in on the scientifically unsubstantiated safety issues and the clear environmental dangers of GMO crops. The lack of evidence of harm to date may simply be the result of a lack of resources to look at potential problems from GMOs.
Is the world truly hungry because of a lack of patented genetically modified crops? No. In fact, the world produces more food than needed.
Starvation and malnutrition are very real problems, but they are caused by unequal distribution of wealth, not by food scarcity. According to the United Nations World Food Program, there is currently more than enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet an adequate and healthy diet. The reason that approximately 800 million people go hungry each year is that they don't have access to food by either being able to afford it or grow their own. Biotechnology, by turning living crops into "intellectual property," increases corporate control over food resources and production. Rather than alleviate world hunger, biotechnology is likely to exacerbate it by increasing everybody's dependence on the corporate sector (large patent-holding multinational biotech corporations angling for their next quarterly profit) for seeds and chemicals. We have already seen how well for-profit commercial interests have done to reduce hunger that is largely due to people being poor or to their living in remote areas.
Reuters reports: "The U.N.'s world food body favours caution in the use of biotechnology because of fears about its effects on health and the environment." The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that although genetically modified crops could help combat world hunger, they also raised concerns about their implications for animal and human health and the balance of ecosystems. Qualifying these worries as "legitimate," the agency said it was vital to consider the pros and cons of each new genetically modified organism (GMO). "The FAO favours a system of evaluation based on scientific methods which would objectively determine the advantages and the risks linked to each GMO."
In 2001 the Royal Society of Canada - that nation's highest scientific authority - reported that there was insufficient research into the potential allergic effects and toxicity of genetically engineered foods. The Society said that GMO foods could cause "serious risks to human health."
James Cox in USA TODAY has said, "European mistrust of GM foods is largely a reaction to events of the past decade, particularly Britain's Mad Cow disease and last year's dioxin chicken and Coca-Cola scares in Belgium. Health officials were slow to react and initially understated the risks to the public." Could that be happening here with genetically modified organisms?
Do GMO Crops Lower Chemical Use?
While it is true that a few food crops are bio-engineered to produce their own pesticides or herbicides, these traits have been demonstrated to transfer to weeds and insects, making their effects very short term. One study, reported in 1997 in the British publication New Scientist, indicates that honeybees may be harmed by feeding on proteins found in genetically engineered canola flowers.
Some of the compounds used in GMO plants as natural insecticides are used in organic farming. so the chronic use of them in GMO crops constantly exposes insects to them, robbing organic farmers of the use of similar compounds as pesticide resistance makes these compounds worthless. This class of GMO crops may lower pesticide applications, but the gain is temporary and diminishing. The same mechanism applies to implanted herbicides, also creating resistant strains.
More notable are the herbicide-resistant GMO crops that actually encourage farmers to use more chemicals. This is true for the bulk of the GMO corn and soybean crops. Yet the author ignores this dominant type of GMO. Much of the proposed reduction in chemical use is non-existent in today's real-life GMO agriculture, still mostly a promise trotted out for public relations campaigns. The GMO companies made the public relations mistake of first putting out products that require larger applications of their own chemicals before releasing the ones that require less chemicals, cementing the idea that they are self-serving and selfish, without regard for the environment. Greed seems to have overcome caution with the aid of a compliant, uncritical regulatory climate.
An analysis of 8,200 university research trials revealed that farmers planting Roundup Ready soybeans are using two to five times as much of the herbicide as farmers growing conventional varieties. Dr. Chuck Benbrook, who reported the results of the studies, said nobody is testing the crops for increased residues of Roundup. The EPA, always helpful, has raised the allowable residue limits for Roundup on forage crops.
Nutrient Differences in GMOS
A statement in the medical journal The Lancet stated, "The Monsanto analyses of glyphosate-resistant soya showed that the GM-line contained about 28% more Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, a known antinutrient and allergen."
Marc Lappe, researcher and author of the book "Against The Grain", discovered that the phytoestrogen levels are lower in genetically engineered soybeans.
Crop Yield and Quality
Biotech companies boast that genetically engineered crops can increase yields and solve world hunger. But new research reveals that genetic engineering may in fact reduce crop productivity, according to university studies.
A two-year study by the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources found that Roundup Ready soybeans produce 6 percent less yield than their conventional counterparts, and 11 percent less than high-yielding conventional crops. Dr. Roger Elmore, an agronomist who headed the study, says his team grew five different varieties of Monsanto genetically engineered soy plants along with their closest conventional relatives and the highest-yielding traditional varieties in four locations around the state. "The numbers were so clear," he says of the reduced yield of the biotech crops. "It was not questionable at all." Conventional soybean lines yielded 57.7 bushels per acre, while Roundup Ready soybeans produced only 52 bushels per acre.
Research at the University of Georgia in 1999 showed that Roundup Ready soybeans exhibited an unintended 20 percent increase in lignin, making them overly woody and causing stem splitting in high heat, resulting in crop losses in the South of up to 40 percent.
In 2000 the Journal of Cotton Science reported that biotech cotton is more susceptible to a nematode, a serious insect pest in cotton. Historically, cotton was bred to be nematode-resistant. New biotech varieties have suffered increased nematode infestation and damage. There is a potential to accidentally weaken desirable traits in plants because of the unpredictable side effects of gene manipulation. Textile manufacturers also reported that a decline in cotton quality over the past years coincided precisely with the widespread use of genetically modified cotton.
Unresolved Safety Issues
The changes found in organisms fed GMO foods are troubling, if preliminary. One study, reported in 1997 in the British publication New Scientist, indicates that honeybees may be harmed by feeding on proteins found in genetically engineered canola flowers.
In 2002, British scientists at the University of Newcastle discovered DNA material from genetically engineered plants in human gut bacteria. And Monsanto recently announced finding "unexpected gene fragments" in their Roundup Ready soybeans (their health effects are still unknown).
There are dangers from the gene transfer technology itself. The British Medical Association (BMA) has stated that "any conclusion upon the safety of introducing genetically modified materials into the UK is premature as there is insufficient evidence to inform the decision making process at present." The BMA does not feel there is enough evidence to make a decision of health and environmental safety regarding genetically engineered crops. They have very specific concerns about the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes. Since ALL genetically engineered crops currently in commerce contain these marker genes, there are significant concerns about human safety.
Genetic engineers use antibiotic marker genes to help them transfer genetic coding from one life form to another. The genes are designed for antibiotic resistance and antibiotics are used to destroy the cells whose genes were not successfully altered. But some scientists worry that this process could compound the increasingly serious problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The concern is that bacteria living in the gut of humans or animals could acquire antibiotic resistance from GMO foods eaten by the human or animal, possibly rendering treatments for infections ineffective. Using viruses to implant genes and gene fragments, the latter with unknown affects, also will activate dormant genes and deliberately set all gene switches to "ON", full blast. These switches normally are modulated over a range of settings between ON and OFF. This is not an effect that has even been studied, so we can't possibly know how this could affect our health over a lifetime.
However, there have been NO long-term safety studies on GMO foods that would assure safety. The absence of evidence of harm after exposing all Americans to these untested foods for almost a decade does not prove that they are harmless, because no one is required to test these products and there is no system to look for and report any suspected problems. The government decreed that GMO plants and foods are harmless unless proven otherwise, despite a total absence of published science at the time. Genetic damage to humans could take decades to manifest, making overt, immediate side effects extremely unlikely unless they increase the allergens in the plants. I would prefer to be in the control group in this experiment, thank you very much. But with pollen contamination and lacking mandatory labeling of GMO foods, no one really has a choice.
Organic foods are being contaminated by pollen drift from GMO crops, endangering this alternative form of agriculture and making even this food choice less than perfect. The expert Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin was quoted in a New York Times Magazine article saying, "There's no way of knowing what the downstream effects will be or how [genetic engineering] might affect the environment. We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organism develops from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don't get one rude shock after another."
Monoculture, also known as monocropping, refers to agriculture with only one variety of plant. Often combined with chemical farming, the results are a sterile, dead environment that does not adequately support plants or wildlife. The destruction of essential insect pollinator populations, either directly or by drastic changes to the ecosystem, has already resulted in crop losses in many states. Monocrops encourage insect infestation, plant diseases, drought, and other unforeseen variables; increasing costs to the farmers for seed and agricultural chemicals. This reduces habitat of beneficial insects and encourages devastating regional crop failures, while displacing traditional farming techniques.
Microbiologists at New York University have found that the BT toxin in residues of genetically altered corn and rice crops persists in soils for up to 8 months and depresses microbial activity. And in another study, scientists in Oregon tested an experimental genetically engineered soil microbe in the laboratory and found it killed wheat plants when it was added to the soil in which they were grown.
Ethical Concerns & Misc. Dangers
The FDA does not test for safety on these foods, because they have pre-defined gene-altering technology as no different than traditional crop breeding techniques. They ignore issues of food sensitivities, allergies, religious dietary needs, ethical choices (vegetarians), and religious objections to mixing species.
The dangers of medicines and chemicals produced by food plants has become a major issue lately, with giant brewer Anheiser-Busch threatening to stop purchasing grain from its home state of Missouri if it might be contaminated by pollen drift. Counties on the West Coast have referendums to ban GMO crops in their counties, to protect either exports to Japan or organic certifications. There have been several failures of farmers and GMO companies to control especially hazardous experimental GMO crops, with these unapproved plants getting into the food supply by mistake.
Regulation is haphazard and notification to the government of new GMO crops is voluntary under current FDA regulations.
People overwhelmingly are against putting animal or human genes into plants. Our own Department of Agriculture had a financial interest in the Terminator Gene that produces sterile plants. What if that gene escaped into the wild and contaminated the environment? These ethical implications are enormous and largely unexplored.
I agree with the author's call to do long-term studies on the safety of GMOs, but the minuses of their environmental and economic impact are quite clear to me.
Who is afraid of GMOs? I am. And so should anyone who digs deeper than the biotech industry's public relations campaign designed to promote their products using wildly optimistic - and still theoretical - benefits.
References available on request
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