THE RISKS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS
by: Wolfson, Richard, Ph.D.
Richard Wolfson, is the national director of the Consumer Right to Know Campaign, Canada, whose mandate is to demand mandatory labeling and long-term testing of all genetically engineered foods. He is the biotech writer for Alive magazine and the health advisor for the Natural Law Party.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED (GE) FOODS ON THE MARKET IN CANADA The main genetically engineered foods (or genetically modified organisms, GMOs) already on the market in Canada are: white potatoes (russet potatoes grown in P.E.I.), tomatoes (including cherry but not roma tomatoes), soy beans, corn and canola. Corn, canola and soy beans are used in many other products. This means that 80% of any packaged foods on the market (even health food brands), whether they are cereals, baby food and formula, salad dressing, chips, cookies, or bread, probably have either some canola oil, soy oil, soy flour, soy lecithin, soy protein, corn oil, corn starch, or corn syrup ingredients that are genetically engineered. Even products predominantly organic like organic soy milk often have genetically engineered canola oil or soy lecithin etc. Problems associated with GE foods are allergies and other toxic effects.
Genetic engineering is used to increase shelf life (to delay ripening in tomatoes), to alter oil composition (soy and canola), to make food pesticide resistant (corn, potatoes, squash), to allow increased pesticide use (soy, corn, canola, cotton), and to increase fertility in farm animals (canola).
OTHER GE PRODUCTS Milk from the U.S. is genetically engineered (may contain rBST), so be careful about buying American cheese. Yellow crookneck squash from the US, cotton and cotton oil, papayas, radiccio, rennet in cheese, and Nutrasweet used in soft drinks and other diet products are also GE. Animal products fed on GE grains may also pose a problem.
POTATOES Russet potatoes are genetically engineered, and they are sold across Canada. The seed catalogues say: "New Leaf potatoes, more environmentally friendly, the latest development, you don't have to spray with pesticides". What they are actually saying is that pesticide is genetically engineered into the potato, which means you are eating them. You can buy red potatoes or organic potatoes.
SOY PRODUCTS Tofu, soy milk, baby formulas, soy protein shakes, protein bars, veggie burgers, etc. contain GE soy unless the label says it is organic soy. Most infant formulas have been tested, and have been found to contain genetically engineered soy. If you don't want to feed genetically engineered soy to your children, buy Eden's organic soy milk which is not genetically engineered.
CANOLA If the label says vegetable oil, it probably has some canola oil in it. About 35% of canola oil in Canada is genetically engineered and it is all mixed together with the regular. Companies that market soy beans, corn and canola normally mix the genetically engineered product with the normal product. Canola oil is just not safe, and unless consumers stop buying it, it's not going to change. Switch to an oil which is not genetically engineered at present like olive oil.
CORN Whole foods like corn on the cob are probably not genetically engineered; however, genetically engineered corn is used as an ingredient for making corn oil, cornstarch and corn syrup.
GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS CURRENTLY BEING TESTED Currently more than 2,743 genetically engineered crops are being tested or awaiting approval by the US Department of Agriculture. That is an enormous number, so this is a major issue. Virtually every grain and every crop is being tested. This includes apples, barley, beets, cheese-making enzymes, chestnuts, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, pepper, papayas, raspberries, rice, squash, strawberries, sugarcane, sunflower, tobacco, walnuts, wheat, and watermelons. Genetically modified foods currently being tested in other countries include alfalfa, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, chicory, fish (salmon, prawns, abalone), flaxseed, grapes, kiwifruit, sweet potatoes, yeast. Unless we act to prevent it, these foods will soon be on our supermarket shelves. Like Europe, we could reject them outright or at the very least, insist that they be labeled.
ORGANIC FOODS Certified organic food is not genetically engineered. The U.N. Codex Committee on Food Labeling sets international guidelines on which foods are permitted to be labeled organic. Last year in the U.S. there was a move to permit genetically engineered seeds to be used in organic production, but because there was so much consumer outcry it wasn't allowed. Similarly, regulations are being debated about using genetically engineered seeds as animal feed.
MANDATORY LABELING IN OTHER COUNTRIES In England and Europe, genetically engineered foods have to be labeled. This gives people a choice, but industry is fighting this. They are afraid if they are labeled no one will buy their genetically engineered products. In North America, genetically engineered food isn’t as newsworthy as in Europe for some reason, and not many people seem to realize what a major issue it is. In Europe, already retailers and major food chains like Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Safeways and Carrefour are labeling genetically engineered foods. Multinational companies like Nestle's, Cadbury, Kelloggs, Heinz, Kraft, Campbells, Frito-Lay, General Mills, etc. provide genetically engineered free foods to European countries, and we must insist that they provide these to Canada as well.
WHAT IS GENETIC ENGINEERING? In genetic engineering, they take the gene from an animal, plant, bacteria, or virus, and implant that with a "gene gun" in a natural strand of soy DNA for example. It is like genetic surgery. For instance, the genetically engineered soybean that is on the market has a foreign gene from a bacterium, another foreign gene from a virus; and other foreign genes which are inserted. When they shoot a foreign gene into the DNA, they can’t predict where it is going to land. 1) The foreign gene may be implanted between two other genes and it doesn't interfere with the functioning of the gene. 2) When the foreign gene is implanted, it may break up a gene that is already present, and there is no way of predicting the side effects.
PATENTED FOODS NO LONGER BELONG TO US Genetically engineered foods are patented, and this is the real crime. We all believe that foods are the common heritage of us all. You can't tell me that you own the corn on the cob and every one who eats corn on the cob has to pay royalties to you, but that is what these companies are saying. If a company genetically engineers a potato like Monsanto's new insect resistant potato, that potato is owned by Monsanto. Every farmer who grows that potato has to pay royalties to Monsanto. Monsanto has a very checkered history with some of its other products. Dr. Hanson said Monsanto was at fault when it convinced the government 2,4,5-T (Agent Orange) was safe. Monsanto also developed and sold PCB's, a substance that went into electrical conductors for years until researchers showed serious environmental and health hazards despite U.S. government approval.
ALLERGIES CONNECTED WITH GE FOODS In England, there has been a 50% increase in allergies to soy beans since genetically engineered soy beans came on the market. Pioneer Hybrid, one of the largest seed companies in the world, created a genetically engineered soy bean a few years ago, and that soy bean was so allergic, it could have killed people who were allergic to Brazil nuts. It looked exactly like every other soybean, but biochemically it was different. Luckily, they discovered it and kept it off the market. But there is no legal requirement for the testing of these hundreds of new genetically engineered foods before they are put on the market. We do not know the long-term effects and we need long-term testing.
TOXICITY OF GE FOODS In 1989, a genetically engineered tryptophan food supplement killed 37 people and permanently disabled 1,500 others. Hundreds of scientific articles have been published in major medical journals about this occurrence, so it is not a secret, but industry tried to keep it secret. When we make a change in the DNA, and insert a foreign gene in one particular sequence, that gene could influence other genes, which in turn could influence other genes. People in the industry tell you that genetic engineering is very precise and very safe, but if you talk to the actual scientists, they will admit to you that there is no way to predict the long-term effects of genetic manipulation. The genetic code is so complex that it's beyond the understanding of man at this stage.
INSECTICIDES AND HERBICIDES IN GE FOODS Genetic engineers tell you that they are developing more nutritious foods, but 90% of all genetically engineered foods coming on the market now are either herbicide resistant, which means it allows them to use more of their chemicals to poison our environment, or they are insect resistant, like the potato. Every cell of these potatoes contain a toxin, an insecticide which is genetically engineered into these potatoes to kill bugs so that the bug that eats the potato will die. But it also kills useful insects. And what happens when we eat the potato? Nobody knows how these toxins will affect humans or affect allergies. It hasn't been tested. New research by the US Department of Agriculture across huge tracts of soy, corn and cotton in the US farming belt shows that biotech crops do not produce higher yields or result in reduced pesticide use. Farmers growing Roundup soybeans which can survive massive doses of herbicide used 2 to 5 times more herbicide per acre when compared to popular weed management systems with non-GE soybeans. A recent study in the Journal of the American Cancer Society (Mar.15.99) concludes that exposure to Roundup, the world's most widely used herbicide, increases the risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
MIXING ANIMAL AND VEGETABLE GENES Genetic engineering can combine the gene from any plant or animal and put it into any other. Although it is not actually marketed yet, there is a tomato that has been genetically engineered with fish genes. Anything is possible. Canola with a human gene is being grown in a Calgary lab by Dr. Maloney not for the purpose of food, but for producing pharmaceuticals. But if this canola gets out into the fields, which it is bound to do eventually, we will be eating canola that has human genes. They have rabbits and pigs now with human genes for medical transplant purposes. When those animal parts are transplanted into humans, everyone is very concerned that new diseases, new viruses will be carried from the animals over into the humans, just as mad cow disease has carried from cows over into humans. So we just don't know the long-term effects either on the environment, or on humans.
POLITICS OF GENETIC ENGINEERING We need more rigorous safety testing, meaning the foods should be tested before they are put on the market. At present, they are put on the market, and if they are later found to be unsafe, they can be taken off the market. In other words, they are being tested upon us. According to Dr. Marion Nestle, chairman of the Department of Food Science at New York University, this policy favours industry. Industry pays huge sums of money to the government to test their products and their government brings these foods out very quickly without adequate testing.
CROSS-POLLINATION Once a genetically engineered food gets out on the market and in the fields, it naturally cross-pollinates with other crops. So it just spreads and spreads. If we don't stop it now, everything is eventually going to get mixed up. If we wait too long we won't be able to stop it.
ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD These foods also create problems for the environment. They have made genetically engineered salmon in Vancouver that grow many times the size of normal fish. They are being kept in a holding tank, but what happens if these fish are released into the rivers? They are going to out-compete the wild species because they eat so much and cause ecological imbalance. The same thing occurs with the herbicide-resistant canola and soy. In theory, the herbicides will not hurt the soy or canola; they will just hurt the weeds, but soon we will have stronger weeds which are herbicide resistant, and at the same time increased dependence on these herbicides which are known to be carcinogenic or toxic. In the same way, potatoes which are insect resistant may cause 99% of the insects which eat those potatoes to die. The 1% which doesn’t die is stronger and we will have super insects which are resistant to pesticides.
FEEDING THE STARVING MASSES? One of the standard arguments the biotech industry makes is that genetically engineered foods are going to be used to feed the masses of starving people. Dr. Ann Clark, professor of crop science at Guelph, discussed this at the National Agriculture Environment Committee conference in Ottawa. If you actually look at where that food is going, about 80% of all the foods grown in developed countries stay within the developed countries, and 70% of the foods grown in developing countries are grown solely to be sold to the developed countries. The poor and starving people can't even afford these crops which are more expensive because of all their licensing requirements. Furthermore, new research by the US Department of Agriculture shows that biotech crops do not produce higher yields.
ANOTHER SCHEME LIKE DDT In 1950, DDT was hailed as the technology that will solve the world's hunger. In 1946, their ads informed you: "Exhaustive scientific research has shown that when properly used, DDT kills a host of destructive insect pests and is a benefactor of all humanity. It's good for food, it's good for animals, and it's good for the home. DDT is harmless to humans." We now know that is not true, but this is exactly what they are saying about genetically engineered crops.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO PROTECT OURSELVES
1. Contact your local health store and grocery store, and tell them that you don't want to see genetically engineered items on the shelves. That is the first thing to do.
2. Send letters to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health, your MP and the media, and tell them you want genetically engineered foods either labeled or banned altogether.. Everyone should be more politically motivated to write to the government. If the majority of people say, "We will not accept this", this is the pressure that is needed.
3. Sign and return the enclosed petitions to Richard Wolfson and Biotech Action Montreal and contribute to these advocacy groups with your expertise or a donation. The Natural Law Party has spearheaded this campaign around the world, and in Canada has already collected petitions with at least 30,000 signatures for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods.
4. Contact large Health Food manufacturers who use genetically engineered soy, canola and corn ingredients in their salad dressings and other products. Here's a start (randomly chosen):
- Barbara's (cereals & cookies), 3900 Cypress Dr., Petaluma, Ca 94954 (corn flour, canola oil, etc.)
- Canoline Foods Int'l, Pickering Postal Station, PO Box 16, Pickering, Ont L1V 2R2 (canola oil)
- Hain Consumer Affairs, 734 Franklin Ave., Ste. 444, Garden City, N.Y.; 1-800-434-HAIN (canola oil)
- Health Valley Co., 16100 Foothill Blvd., Irwindale, Ca. 91706, 1-800-423-4846 (corn, canola oil, soy)
- Lifestream Natural Foods, 7453 Progress Way, Delta, B.C. V4G 1E8, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Natur (Bioforce Canada Inc.), 4001 Blvd. Cote Vertu, Montreal; 514-335-9393
- Nutrimax Natural Foods, Pickering Postal Station Box 34, Pickering L1V 2R2 (canola oil)
- Spectrum, 133 Copeland St., Petaluma, Ca. 94952 (canola)
5. Send your friends, family and other influential people a copy of these two newsletters.
GENETIC ENGINEERING WEBSITES
Biotech Action Montreal http://bam.tao.ca
Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Foods www.netlink.de/gen
Community Actions Publications (good source of links) www.monitor.net/~cap/ge.html
Mothers for Natural Law www.safe-food.org/-consumer/foods.html
Natural Law Party (Richard Wolfson) www.natural-law.ca/genetic
Union of Concerned Scientists (list of ge foods) www.ucsusa.org/Gene/w98.market.html
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