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Genetically Altered Food: Myths and Realities

by Rick Charnes, EarthSave Boston

"Up to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell, either for the host organism, or their neighbors....going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics."1

For those of us who follow a plant-based diet, this moment is truly a crossroads in history, a turning point from which we may never be able to turn back. The plant-based diet we have been following is under radical attack by a new class of foodstuffs never before seen on the planet. It is therefore incumbent upon us to truly understand the scope of this phenomenon in all its dimensions.

We are poised at a moment in time where we, as individuals and as a society, face a choice between two paths. One path is that we find the personal and political will to move forward to an environmentally sustainable, healthy and organic agriculture. The other path is that we follow the pied piper of big business-controlled biotechnology and genetically altered food into potentially uncontrollable disasters of a magnitude never before seen on our planet.2

The introduction of genetically altered (GA) food is part of a powerful series of interlocking political, economic and scientific mechanisms in our society wherein large corporations such as St. Louis-based Monsanto and Swiss-based Novartis have developed techniques to alter or disrupt the genetic blueprints of living organisms - plants, animals, humans and microorganisms - in order to secure patent and intellectual property rights. These firms then formally 'own' these new creations, the resulting 'transgene' foods, seeds, or other products, and then sell them for profit.

This is of great concern to EarthSave members, not only because of the health and environmental consequences of these technologies, but also because of their social and political ramifications. We understand that in order to have a healthy and sustainable plant-based diet, we need to radically democratize the food and agricultural policy of our society. We need to change these policies so that they are not based not on the needs of business with its constant need for profit, market share and growth, but rather on the health and environmental needs of all the planet's citizens.

The worldwide alarm about the safety of genetically altered food, both for human health and the environment, has reached a monumental pitch for those who care to listen. In the European Union and particularly Great Britain, citizens have stated clearly and forcefully that they simply do not want these foods grown in their countries or on their dinner table. On June 24, EU environmental ministers moved to implement the legal equivalent of a three-year moratorium on any new approvals of GE foods or crops. In response to huge consumer demand, many grocery chain stores in Britain have removed these foods from their shelves. In May, the prestigious 115,000-member British Medical Association (the equivalent of the AMA in the US) issued a report, which called for a moratorium on GE foods and crops. The BMA warned that the commercialization of untested and unlabeled gene-foods could lead to the development of new allergies and antibiotic resistance in humans. In third world countries such as India, farmers have been protesting against the loss of their independence and traditional farming practices entailed in this radical new form of agriculture. In the United States, the movement is only beginning, and I believe we in EarthSave have a vital and unique role to play in this.

What is genetically altered food?

Approximately 50% of all the soy and 38% of the corn acreage planted in the US this year is genetically altered. In addition, much of the canola oil in the US market is from genetically altered plants. Given the prevalence of these products in processed foods, unless you are eating all organically grown food chances are you're already consuming some of this food without knowing it. It remains unlabeled and typically not segregated from non-altered food, so if you are consuming vegetarian products containing any of these ingredients not labeled as organically grown, it is more than likely that some of what you are eating is genetically altered.

There are two common forms of genetic alteration of foodcrops. In the first, used frequently with soy, the plant is modified in order to be resistant to the Monsanto herbicide RoundupTM so that farmers can apply it to kill weeds without killing the young soy seedling. In the second, often used with corn, the plant is modified to contain within its genetic structure a pesticide called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).

We are told that these genetic modifications are made in order to reduce the amount of chemicals applied externally. Yet, in part because of the increasing resistance to these chemicals by pests, all indications so far are that these genetic modifications may in fact be leading to their increased use.3

Contrary to its proponents' sweet-sounding words, genetic engineering is a form of plant breeding radically different from anything that humans have ever practiced in our history.4 All prior forms of plant breeding have relied on the plant's natural mechanisms of reproduction. Only related species can be bred together in this fashion. With genetic engineering, however, genes from one species are synthetically inserted into a different species with which it could never breed in nature. Furthermore, traditional breeding always takes place on the species level, whereas genetic alteration is done at the level of the gene.

In order for this to happen, the natural species barriers of the recipient plant are deliberately overcome and broken down. This process is typically affected by a virus that acts as a 'vector' to overcome the plant's normal protective mechanisms and insert the new genes into the recipient, and then as a 'promoter' in order to turn on the functionality of these new genes in the recipient plant. This process is called 'gene expression.'

Health Risks

By altering the genetic composition of the plant genome (the entirety of the genetic structure of an organism), this process introduces new proteins into the human and animal food chains. This means that human beings are now consuming products that have never before been considered foodstuffs. There is concern that these new proteins could potentially cause toxic or allergic reactions,5 or other health effects. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to predict the allergenic potential of GA foods since allergic reactions typically occur only after the individual consuming the food is sensitized by initial exposure to the allergen.

There has already been at least one known health disaster regarding genetically altered products. In 1989 the Japanese company Showa Denko marketed a GA version of the supplement L-tryptophan. After the release an estimated 5000 people suffered from an outbreak of Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). It was initially reported that 37 people died, and 1500 were left with permanent disabilities.6

When gene engineers splice a foreign gene into a plant or microbe, they often link it to another gene, called an antibiotic resistance marker gene (ARM), that helps determine if the first gene was successfully spliced into the host organism. Some researchers warn that these ARM genes might unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environment or in the guts of animals or people who eat GE food, contributing to the growing public health danger of antibiotic resistance. Research from the Netherlands show that these antibiotic resistant marker genes from genetically altered bacteria can be transferred horizontally to indigenous bacteria in an artificial gut.7

One of the rationales offered by the federal government for its approval of GA food is the claim that it is "substantially equivalent" to non-GA food. This conclusion, however, was reached with inadequate study, and recent research has called it into question. A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe found that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogen compounds -- thought to protect against heart disease and cancer-were 12-14% lower in genetically modified soybeans than in traditional strains.8 It is important for EarthSave members to consider the number of vegetarian soy products on the market and to understand therefore how severe the threat is to the health of our plant-based diet.

Earlier in 1999, prominent front-page headline stories in the British press trumpeted scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosive research findings that GA potatoes, spliced with DNA from the snowdrop plant and the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMv), a commonly used viral promoter, are poisonous to mammals. When fed to rats, these GA potatoes, found to be significantly different in chemical composition from regular potatoes, caused highly significant reduction in the weight of many organs, impairment of immunological responsiveness and signs suggestive of viral infection.9

The biotech companies proclaim the benefits of the elements inserted via the genetic engineering process, such as herbicide resistance and insecticidal properties. Unfortunately, nature doesn't work as simply as these scientists might wish, as we must consider not only what is added via the GA process, but to the process by which it is added. One of the most alarming parts of Dr. Pusztai's research was that damage to the rats' stomach linings - apparently a severe viral infection - most likely was caused by the CaMv viral promoter, used by nearly all GA foods and crops.

Dr. Mae-Won Ho, Reader in Biology at the Open University in Great Britain and a Fellow of the US National Genetics Foundation, is of the opinion that the viruses used as vector and promoter for the new GA foods are the most dangerous aspect of the alteration process. Most typically used is the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus, which despite the name is actually present in many of the vegetables that make up our standard diet. However, there is a great difference between the CaMV we may eat everyday in vegetables and the promoter used in GA food. Ordinary CaMV cannot enter mammalian cells because its protein coat is specific to plant cells. In nature, a virus is typically ensheathed in a protein coat that enables the defenses of any species being invaded - whether plant or human - to recognize it as a foreign body. In order to overcome this natural protective process, however, the genetic engineers remove the protein coat, creating 'naked DNA' which is then unrecognizable as foreign by the recipient plant, which will then receive it and take it into its own genetic structure. The CaMV promoter used in GMOs comes in the form of this naked viral DNA and naked DNA of any sort is highly infectious.10

Viral DNA fed to mice has been found to resist digestion in the gut. Large fragments passed into the bloodstream and into white blood cells, spleen and liver cells. In some instances, the viral DNA may integrate into the mouse cell genome.11 Viral DNA is now known to be more infectious than the intact virus, which has a protein coat wrapped around the DNA.

Evidence is accumulating that DNA is not broken down rapidly in the human intestine as has been previously supposed, thus providing for the possibility that transgenes and antibiotic resistance marker genes may spread to bacteria in the gut.12

Because these viruses are capable of recombining and jumping species, we must be aware that we cannot rule out the possibly of their triggering a vast range of public health disasters.

Environmental Concerns

One of the most frightening aspects of the increasing acreage given over to GA crops is that the pollen from these plants can travel miles from their host via wind and insects and fertilize other non-GA crops or related weed species growing nearby.13 This has already happened with canola (known as oilseed rape in England)14 and sugar beet, creating the potential for superweeds.15 After touring the American Midwest, one farm analyst noted, "there are RoundupTM resistant weeds everywhere now."16 Furthermore, the genes inserted by the alteration process are more biologically vigorous and may be up to 30 times more likely to escape than the plant's own genes.17 We have already seen this process take place with disastrous results with other 'exotic' and invasive species such as kudzu in the south, zebra mussels in our waterways, etc.

Even organic food is threatened. Some 87,000 bags of organic corn chips manufactured by Wisconsin-based Terra Prima had to be destroyed when a Dutch importer discovered genetic contamination that had apparently blown over via pollen from a nearby GA plot in Texas where the corn was grown.

In some of the most publicized American research to date, Cornell University scientists reported recently that 44% of monarch butterfly larvae died within four days when fed milkweed (their exclusive food) that had been dusted with pollen from GA corn, while all the caterpillars fed normal corn pollen survived.18 British research has shown that beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings are negatively affected by feeding on GA crops, which are supposed to only affect 'target' insect predators.19,20 Study has begun on the effects on the rest of the food chain, as birds and other wildlife then feed on these insects that have consumed the GA crops. Fear of his has led English Nature (the British Government's wildlife advisor) to warn that the introduction of GA herbicide tolerant crops "could be the final blow for species like the skylark, the linnet and the corn bunting."21

As these novel organisms enter and gradually saturate the biosphere, there is grave concern for the effect on soil microorganisms upon which many other organisms depend.22 When applied externally, Bt remains active only a few days in the environment. However, when engineered into the genetic structure of the plant, a recent study found it to be active in the nearby soil at least eight months later.23 Bt toxins are engineered into a wide range of transgenic plants already released into the environment and this build-up in the soil may have a devastating influence on pollinators and other beneficial insects.24

EarthSave's Unique Role

The biotech companies insist that this radical food technology is needed to feed the world's growing population, and in their many advertisements tout biogenetic food as the solution to world hunger. Of course we have all heard this propaganda before, years ago during the Green Revolution. Delegates from 24 African nations responded to recent pro-biotech advertisements with the following statement:

"We...strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."25

World hunger is not a problem of technology or insufficient production, but primarily one of unequal distribution and economic inequality. As farmers lose their land and move to the cities, they also lose their food-independence and begin to rely on money, often in drastically short supply for many in the third world, in order to buy food that they formerly grew themselves. The accelerating corporatization and concentration of agriculture, in which big business is playing such a large part, is hastening this process, thereby actually increasing the problem of hunger.

The new seeds offered by the biotech companies are not legally the property of the farmer who only leases them from the company. The farmer may not legally re-plant his own seeds, a measure insisted upon by the industry in order to protect its intellectual investment. As happened during the Green Revolution of the 1960s, however, this further commodification of the entire food system will increasingly tend to favor wealthy and larger landowners, further marginalizing poorer farmers and throwing even more off the land, therefore only contributing more to the hunger problem.

Though considering the drumbeat of propaganda one would expect otherwise, there is very little evidence that GA crops produce larger yields. Research has shown mixed results, with some studies revealing approximately 5%-10% lower yields for GA soybeans.26 The biotech companies are also fond of insisting that organic agriculture produces yields too low in order to feed the world in adequate amounts. This is highly questionable, as test plots in several countries have shown organic agriculture producing equal or greater yields than chemical or genetic agriculture. Furthermore, we can only speculate what organic agriculture could produce if more than a paltry 1% of USDA research funds were allocated to this superior form of agriculture.27, 28

I believe, however, that we in EarthSave have a particularly vital role to play as the public debate about genetically altered food sharpens in this country. Those who follow a plant-based diet understand that one of the most healthful and environmentally sustainable ways for more food to be made available is for our global civilization to begin to make the slow, inexorable shift, along with the tremendous dislocations and resistance it will entail, towards a plant-based diet and agriculture. As the percentage of animal foods in the human diet gradually decreases over time, we as a society will be able to utilize the substantial grain and legume acreage throughout the world for human rather than animal consumption. When accompanied by necessary changes in the political and economic institutions that hold these structures of animal agriculture in place, tremendous amount of foods can be freed up, thus rendering irrelevant the genetic engineers' primary argument.

I am convinced that this is a very powerful response to the misleading information put out by the biotech companies regarding GA food. Because of this, I hope that local chapters and the international organization will take our knowledge of the importance of a plant-based diet and use it in a comprehensive way to help the growing movement against GA food and agriculture.

Political Perspectives

Given the immediate threat to the quality of our diet, many of us now see the importance of taking up this issue not only as a matter of personal dietary choice but as something requiring political education. After educating ourselves in a serious way about this, a number of us who once shied away from politics are finding that we simply have no choice but to engage this issue in both the personal and political realms.

Our opposition to the genetic engineering of food is not based on any generalized antagonism to science but rather on a skepticism of an outdated but commercially profitable reductionist science that can only understand the whole in terms of its pieces, reduced to readily quantifiable entities such as genes. There has been developing for quite some time in the scientific community a more rigorous and advanced understanding of the complex webs of life of which our human food and agricultural systems are but a part. This more modern science is coming to a recognition of the marvelously subtle interactions between genes and the entire organism, and between genes and the environment. The science of genetic engineering of food, on the other hand, relies on antiquated notions of genetic determinism, in which it is falsely believed that there is an easily discernable one-to-one correspondence between a gene and a trait. It is a science generated to serve the needs of business, and it is primarily to serve these needs that these extreme new foods were developed.

We find it repugnant to see private companies create new life forms only to reduce them to nothing but commodities on the global marketplace. We must stand up and say loud and clear wherever we can: the needs of business for profit, market share, return on investment and protection of intellectual property rights must always be subservient to the health needs of human beings and the natural environment. When there is a clash of these two realms - and this seems inevitable - we will always stand up for the latter.

Ethical and Spiritual Views

We in the Boston chapter have spent a great deal of time studying these issues and the reductionist science, ideology and economic structures that lead to these technologies. We see in the genetic alteration of food crops not only an extremely serious hazard to health and to the natural environment, but also an affront to the wholeness and integrity of life upon which we base our understanding of the world. We understand and honor the intricate connections between the evolution of the plant kingdom and our own human evolution. We are concerned about the effects that this radical modification of the genetic structure of plants will have on current and future human, as well as other earthly, life.

Considering the redesigned genetic code of life which we are now taking into our bodies, we understand now that what is involved here is in effect a fundamental remaking of the human being and its future evolutionary path. There is no recalling these organisms once they are released into the biosphere; they become a permanent part of our world as long as the earth is capable of supporting life. The process is biologically irreversible.

We reject a worldview that sees nature as something to be picked on, picked apart, analyzed, spliced, recombined, deconstructed and reconstructed according to our human desires of the moment. This is not a psychologically healthy ideology by which we choose to live our lives, nor is it conducive to maintaining a nourishing emotional and spiritual climate for children and adults. We believe it leads to a constant tendency to see the world as being at one's beck and call, as ours to use in whatever way we see fit.

We are particularly concerned about what kind of religion or spirituality can survive this assault on the integrity of life, this forceful penetration of human analytical knowledge into the most minute and sacred arenas of life. Most religions have based themselves on some human sense that we are part of a whole, which is greater than ourselves. This sensibility naturally inspires awe, humility, gratitude and appreciation. If our food, our climate, and all of life begins to carry an easily recognizable human imprint, what effect will that have on our spiritual lives?

The memory, the 'feeling' of the entire universe lies within us. When we sit down to eat, we take in not only physical nourishment but also a sense of the connection to all of evolution, to all of natural and human history, through the DNA inherent in every species that we eat and therefore transform into our bodies, minds, hearts and souls. Every act of eating is an affirmation of that evolution, of that connection. It plays a part in how we physiologically and psychologically understand and sense ourselves as natural beings, as expressions and creatures of the earth. One might speculate that the artificial food we've been eating up till now has been a major factor in the breakdown of that sensibility. It's not entirely unreasonable, then, to suggest that the new genetic alteration of our foodstuffs would be a quantum leap in the breakdown of that connection.

When we said in the 60s that "we are stardust, we are golden," one way we might understand this is to acknowledge that our DNA contains the "memory" of our entire natural history, from the creation of the universe to the beginnings of organic life on earth to the evolution of humanity.

When we eat healthy food and take the DNA of other creatures into our bodies, we ritually and physically enact the story of that evolutionary and environmental journey. Will the artificial restructuring of the DNA in our food rupture that connection in ways that we can't now even begin to imagine?

The earth with its myriad species is a thing of beauty, elegance, grace and balance. It offers itself to us for our pleasure, joy and nourishment when we learn to listen and watch carefully. The genetic engineering of food represents a radical step backwards, a devolution of the human species and the planet, a step leading to unknown health disasters and environmental havoc.

With our understanding of the value of a plant-based diet we in EarthSave have in our hands a profound tool we can use to help the world think and act our way out of this challenge. Using this tool might require an expanding of our focus on our traditional concern with encouraging dietary choice. It may require us to help people see the importance of making a political analysis of the situation as well as to ask the spiritual questions now posed to us by the biotech revolution and the genetic alteration of our food supply. Let us as individuals and an organization find the personal and collective courage to do so.


References

1 From Wald, George, 'The Case Against Genetic Engineering', in The Recombinant DNA Debate, Jackson and Stich, eds. P. 127-128; reprinted from The Sciences, Sept./Oct. 1976 issue)

2 Speculations after reading Ho, M.W. and Tappeser, B. (1997). Potential contributions of horizontal gene transfer to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. In Transboundary Movement of Living Modified Organisms Resulting from Modern Biotechnology: Issues and Opportunities for Policy-Makers (K.J. Mulongoy, ed.) pp. 171-193, International Academy of the Environment, Switzerland.

3 Kleiner, Kurt, (1999). "Field of Dreams", New Scientist, July 10, 1999.

4 See Antoniou, Michael, "Breaking the Chain", Living Earth: The Magazine of the Soil Association, No.197 Jan-March 1998.

5 Ho, Mae-Wan et al, Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease vol 10, 33-39, 1998.

6 L.A Love et al, "Pathological and immunological effects of ingesting l-tryptophan and 1,1'-ethylidenebis (l-tryptophan) in Lewis rats", Journal of Clinical Investigation, Vol 91, March 1993, pp. 804-811.

7 MacKenzie, D. (1999). Gut reaction. New Scientist 30 Jan., p.4.

8 Lappe, Marc (1999). Alterations in Clinically Important Phytoestrogens in Genetically Modified, Herbicide-Tolerant Soybeans, Journal of Medicinal Food 1: 4. July 1, 1999.

9 Leake, C. and Fraser, L. (1999). Scientist in Frankenstein food alert is proved right. UK Mail on Sunday, 31 Jan.; Goodwin, B.C. (1999). Report on SOAEFD Flexible Fund Project RO818, Jan. 23, 1999.

10 Report on a Meeting of Molecular Biologists called by Michael Meacher, British Minister for the Environment, on March 31st 1999. Report prepared by Angela Ryan. See http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/artindex.htm

11 Schubbert, R., Lettmann, C. & Doerfler, W. (1994). Ingested foreign (phage M13) DNA survives transiently in the gastrointestinal tract and enters the bloodstream of mice. Mol. Gen. Genet. 242: 495-504; Schubbert, R., Renz, D., Schmitz, B. and Doerfler, W. (1997).

12 See Ho, M.W., Traavik, T., Olsvik, R., Tappeser, B., Howard, V., von Weizsacker, C. and McGavin, G. (1998). Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 10, 33-59 and refs. therein.

13 The risk of crop transgene spread. Nature, 380, March 7, 1996.

14 Brookes, M. (1998). Running wild, New Scientist 31 October; Snow, A. and Jorgensen, R. (1998). Costs of transgenic glufosinate resistance introgressed from Brassica napus into weedy Brassica rapa. Abstract, Ecological Society of America, Baltimore, Aug. 6, 1998.

15 Mutant weeds raise fear of disaster for farmers. Dobson, R. Sunday Times (London), May 26, 1996.

16 "When The Corn Hits The Fan," Sprinkel, Steven, An ACRES, USA Special Report, Sept. 18, 1999, P.O. Box 8800, Metairie, Louisiana 70011.

17 Bergelson, J., Purrington, c.B. and Wichmann, G. (1998). Promiscuity in transgenic plants. Nature 395, 25.

18 John Losey, et al., "Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae," Nature 399: 214, May 20, 1999; L. Hansen and J. Obrycki.

19 Hillbeck, A., M. Baumgartner, P.M. Fried and F. Bigler. 1998. "Effects of transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis corn fed prey on the mortality and developmental time of immature Chrysoperla carnea (Neuroptera Chrysopidae)" Env. Entomol. Vol 27 pp 480-487.

20 Birch, A.N.E., I.E. Geoghegan, M.E.N. Majerus and J. Allen. 1997. "Interactions between plant resistance genes, pest aphid populations and beneficial aphid predators" SCRI Annual Report, 1997 pp 68-72

21 "Government Wildlife Advisor urges caution on Genetically Modified Organisms - The New Agricultural Revolution" English Nature News Release. 8 July 1998.

22 The effects of genetically engineered micro-organisms on soil food-webs. Holmes, M.T., Ingham, E.R. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (Supplement), 75, 97, 1994.

23 "When Biotechnology Crops and Their Wild Cousins Mingle," New York Times, Nov. 5, 1999, p. 22, reporting on a study by Dr. Guenther Stotzky, soil microbiologist at New York Univ.

24 Crecchio, C. and Stotzky, G. (1998). Insecticidal activity and biodegradation of the toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki bound to humic, acids from soil, "Soil Biology and Biochemistry 30", 463-70, and references therein.

25 African Scientists Condemn Advertisement Campaign for Genetically Engineered Food: Call for European Support, Gaia Foundation Press Release, 3rd August, 1998.)

26 Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998, Dr. Charles Benbrook, Ag BioTech InfoNet Technical Paper Number 1, July 13, 1999 Available at: http://www.biotech-info.net/herbicide-tolerance.html#soy.

27 Ho, Mae-Wan, "One Bird - Ten Thousand Treasures," p. 339, The Ecologist, vol. 29, no. 6, October 1999, article about organic farming in Asian countries.

28 Warwick, Hugh, "Cuba's Organic Revolution", p. 457, The Ecologist, vol. 29, no. 8, December 1999.