HAZARDS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD
by: Fagan, John, Ph.D.
Dr. John Fagan is an award winning molecular biologist and cancer researcher. After
receiving his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Cornell University,
he was employed at the National Institute of Health where he did research in genetic
engineering. Since 1984, he has received more than $2.5 million in grants from the
National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Health for research into the
identification of cancer susceptibility genes. He has authored more than 30 journal
articles on this subject published in prestigious scientific peer-reviewed journals.
From 1991 to 1995 Dr. Fagan was the recipient of a Research Career Development Award
from the National Cancer Institute. In 1994, he stunned the scientific community by
rejecting genetic research grants worth over $1.8 million because of increasing
concerns about the dangers of releasing genetically engineered foods and organisms
into the environment and the risks of germ-line genetic engineering in humans.
In the environmental and agricultural area, large numbers of genetically engineered crops have appeared, but safeguards have not been put in place to ensure that the environment will be protected. Even though germ-line genetic engineering and the links to cloning are serious risks, they are not immediate risks; whereas the risks associated with genetic engineering in agriculture are extremely immediate, and if we don't do something about it right now it will be too late. There are thousands of new genetically engineered foods being developed in the laboratories of companies and universities around the world, and within a few years at the most these things will be everywhere in our food supply without adequate safety testing or labelling, and if they aren't labelled we cannot really make a choice as to whether we're going to eat them. The effects of genetic engineering can never by recalled or contained. Once these new living organisms are released into the environment to reproduce, migrate and mutate, they are irreversible and irretrievable. Genes from bacteria, viruses and insects which have never been part of the human diet are being spliced into our food. No one really knows if they are safe.
Nobel Laureate George Wald has stated that "recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution. The results will be essentially new organisms, self-perpetuating and hence permanent. Once created they cannot be recalled".
NO RISK TECHNOLOGY The promoters of biotechnology tell us that this technology is completely safe, precise and controlled, and that there are no significant risks. We heard this same story when DDT was introduced in 1945, and described as "a powerful insecticide, harmless to humans". We now know that DDT can cause cancer, but at the time not enough research had been done to elucidate its problems. Companies that are developing genetically engineered foods are as enthusiastic about genetically engineered crops as they were about DDT, and in fact many of the same companies around the world who made DDT and other pesticides, like Monsanto (one of the largest toxic polluters in the U.S.) and DuPont etc, are the same ones that are making the genetically engineered foods. Should we be trusting their enthusiasm about this new technology when they don't have the scientific research to back up their claims that these things are good for us? Also, technology misfunctions. In genetic engineering, technology functions at the deepest level of living systems, the DNA blueprints that program our physiology, and when there are problems, there are serious consequences.
GENETIC ENGINEERING - A RANDOM MUTAGENIC PROCESS Genetic engineering reprograms the characteristics of the physiology by putting new genes into the DNA of an organism, or modifies the genes that are already present. We actually cut that DNA sequence, open it up, and pop the new gene in, but we can't control this insertion process at all. Somehow nature does it, and it does it in a completely random way, so it can be inserted anywhere within the DNA. This produces two results. If it is inserted between two genes, then you may have a success, a new protein is made, and the proteins made by the two surrounding genes are also made. But the problem is that the new gene could just as easily be inserted in the middle of this natural gene, and that will actually destroy the function of that gene, so that some essential protein will not be made and the cell can't function properly. So one of the serious problems of genetic engineering is that it can actually mutate the DNA of the organism and give rise to unpredictable changes. There is another reason why genetic engineering is imprecise and sloppy. When genetic engineers change a single gene, they expect it will have a single effect on the organism whether it is human or soybean or whatever, but genes interact with each other and this changes the whole system in ways that nobody, even somebody with 38 years experience with a Ph.D. and 150 scientific publications, is going to be able to predict or control because of the complexity of living organisms.
ALLERGIC REACTIONS FROM GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD Genetic engineering can actually result in unexpected allergens and toxins in food and reduced nutritional value. Pioneer Hybrid, a seed breeding company in the U.S., decided to remodel soybeans to give a more balanced protein by introducing a gene from Brazil nuts. It resulted in a soybean that had a balanced amino acid composition because it had more methionine in it. The problem was that after they had spent several million dollars and several years, they discovered almost by accident that this same protein caused the soybeans to be allergenic so that it was not safe to put on the market. Even so the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave Pioneer Hybrid permission to put it on the market. Pioneer Hybrid realized there would be a risk of cross contamination and litigation caused by people getting sick or maybe dying because allergic reactions are not always mild. So they did a very wise and ethical thing and wisely chose not to market this product.
TOXINS IN GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD The next story illustrates how toxins can be produced by genetic engineering, and it does not have such a happy ending. A Japanese company named Showa Denko had been producing the amino acid tryptophan for many years by extracting it from natural bacteria, and people had been getting good results with it. Tryptophan is used as a natural relaxant. They then had the great idea that if they genetically engineered these bacteria to produce tryptophan in larger amounts and more efficiently it would be more profitable for them. Because the laws in the U.S. are very sloppy about these things, they were allowed to put this on the market without any safety testing whatsoever. As a result within a few months, about 5,000 people became sick and 1,500 of those are still sick today. They were permanently disabled by the toxin in this tryptophan and 37 of them actually died. It is the opinion of many scientists that genetic engineering caused this bacteria to produce toxic tryptophan. A study published in Science (250, 1990) found that Showa Denko's tryptophan was contaminated with a "novel amino acid" not normally present in tryptophan.
REDUCED NUTRIENTS IN GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD There is an example of a genetically engineered food which had reduced nutritional value, and you may be familiar with it. The FLAVR-SAVR tomato was introduced several years ago, but it tasted so bad that they had to take it off the market. It was designed to be stored for at least six weeks and still look beautiful. This was called "extended shelf life", and it was done by destroying the product of one gene that is involved in the decay process. The problem is that the decay process is a complex one and involves more than one gene, so even though those tomatoes continued looking beautiful on the shelf, the decay process continued to occur inside the tomato and reduced the nutritional value.
TESTING The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically engineered foods to be tested. They have a voluntary program. Therefore there is a risk of hazardous foods reaching the market place, and because these foods are not labelled, we don't even have a choice as to whether to eat them or not. Essentially they are using us as guinea pigs instead of having these things carefully tested ahead of time.
LABELLING We need mandatory labelling of all genetically engineered foods. There is a good economic reason why they do not want to label these foods. They are afraid that if they are differentiated in the marketplace nobody will buy them. My point is that they should stand by their product. If they think it's so good, they should label it and let the market decide. Some soybeans have been genetically engineered and then mixed with soybeans that are natural. In the estimation of the FDA, they are indistinguishable and completely safe and there is no reason to treat them any differently. This is causing a big controversy in Europe and Japan because the people there want these things labelled, and they are very upset. The same thing is happening with canola. Genetically engineered canola is being blended with natural canola here in Canada and it turns out that the Europeans will not accept the Canadian canola, so in order for some of the Canadian grain brokers to fulfill their contracts this year, they had to go to Australia and buy Australian canola and ship that to Europe to fulfill their contracts. So in terms of international trade it is really creating ridiculous complications.
TESTS TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN NATURAL AND GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS There are scientific tests that can very sensitively distinguish between these foods by scanning the DNA of the organism. There are laboratories in Europe and one in North American that provide testing to those companies in the food industry that want to know. This is happening more and more in the natural food industry and hopefully it will happen in the mainline food industry as well.
ORGANIC CERTIFICATION Most of the organic certification organizations do not allow the farmers and companies to use genetically engineered seeds or products. Therefore, you can choose to eat organic food. Within the next few months you may be seeing on some food packages a little sticker that says Certified Not Genetically Engineered. You will be seeing this more and more in the natural food industry in the U.S. In other countries like Europe it will be in the mainstream. In the U.K. there is a whole supermarket line that will carry no product in their store that is genetically engineered and others are moving in the same direction. In the U.S., the mainstream food industry has mounted an attempt to do a hostile take-over of the organic industry with the help of the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They are trying to get genetically engineered food included under the organic classification. It is going to be a failure, but they are trying to do it.
ECOLOGICAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS Insects, birds and wind can carry genetically altered seeds and pollen into neighboring fields and beyond, creating new species. When the recombinant DNA strain intermixes with a natural strain in the field it produces results that no one can predict. In an article from Time magazine, ecological geneticist Norm Elstron of the University of California warns that "even rare genetic transfers to wild plants could have devastating effects. It will probably happen in far less than one percent of the product but within ten years, we will have a moderate to large scale ecological or economic catastrophe because there will be so many products released."
There will be reduced soil fertility and loss of species varieties that are environmentally or agriculturally important. There will be increased use of toxic carcinogenic, mutagenic agricultural chemicals. Approximately 57% of the genetically engineered crops are in fact engineered for herbicide resistance. It is estimated that this will triple the amount of herbicides used on crops resulting in more chemical in our food and water (Weed Technology, 6, 1994). This locks the farmer into the chemical agricultural paradigm and causes an increased use of these chemicals. Increased use of pesticides and herbicides will lead to increased pollution of our water, air, soil and in turn increase the incidence of cancer, birth defects and other diseases. Finally there will be the creation of new plant diseases, new pests and new weed varieties that are resistant to known antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides.
PRODUCTS ON THE MARKET IN CANADA Right now there are 30 genetically engineered products on the shelves in the U.S., maybe 10 or 12 in Canada, 16 in Japan and four in Europe. But there are hundreds of them in the research labs heading for our dinner plates in the next few years. In Canada at present there are genetically engineered tomatoes, corn and corn products like corn chips, cornstarch and corn syrup, potatoes, squash, soybeans and soybean products, cotton, canola and canola oil. Right now wheat and wheat-related grains like spelt are not available in genetically engineered forms (see website at end for updates). Within the next five to eight years, virtually every fruit, nut and vegetable that you eat, everything in the grocery store will be there in two forms, the natural form and the genetically engineered form. But the problem is you won't be able to tell the difference because in the U.S. and Canada, laws do not require the producers to label these foods. Already there is a serious problem in processed foods. Since genetically engineered soy is widely used now in Canada and the U.S., and 60 to 70% of processed foods contain soy, this means 60 to 70% of processed packaged foods already contain some genetically engineered ingredients. A company in the States called Genetic I.V. tested particular products on the market like Frito's corn chips and different soya milks and found that virtually all of them had a component of genetically engineered product. The bovine growth hormone (rBGH) used to increase milk production in the U.S. is also a product of genetic engineering, but has not yet been approved for the Canadian market. Cows injected with rBGH have shorter life expectancies and increased incidence of disease.
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Dr. Fagan's book Genetic Engineering: The Hazards - Vedic Engineering: The Solutions is available.
For more information about genetically engineered foods, please consult:
The Consumer Right to Know Campaign, 500 Wilbrod St., Ottawa K1N6N2
Phone 613-565-8517; Fax 613-565-1596; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org