Suddenly, and without much warning, biotech companies are rushing to get gene-altered products onto the shelves of local stores.
Review by Colin Graham, of
The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops, Jane Risseler and Margaret Mellon; The MIT Press, 1996, 128 pp.
Consumers can help puncture the inflated claims of giant agrochemical companies. The science of gene splicing has appeared rather suddenly as an arcane, sometimes hopeful, but more often threatening technology. Polls show that 80% of British Columbians would, if given the choice, avoid transgenic food.
Biotech companies, on the other hand, are racing to get gene-altered wares on store shelves in such quantity that, they hope, the public will soon have no choice. The few examples which have turned up so far, such as slow-ripening tomatoes, are merely the avant garde of an avalanche to come.
Risseler and Mellon, the two respected scientist authors of this book (sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists) believe that no transgenic food should reach the public until it has undergone certain specific tests.
Proponents of agricultural gene splicing claim that what they do is no different from what farmers have been doing for ages. That is not true. Traditional plant breeding has been a matter of blending closely related plants. An engineered plant, however, could have genes from totally different species. Potatoes have already been produced bearing genes from a chicken, a moth, and a virus.
The authors make it clear that while the possible impact of transgenics on human digestion and metabolism is beyond the scope of their enquiry, the real danger lies in the escape of altered genes into other plants. “What will it mean,” they ask, “to have a steady stream of microbial and animal genes enter the gene pool of plants in wild ecosystems … that soil insects, microorganisms, foraging and burrowing mammals, seed-eating birds, and other non-target organisms will be exposed for the first time to vaccines, drugs, detergent enzymes, and other chemicals expressed in engineered plants?”
All transgenics released into the market so far have been given preliminary field tests; but as the authors point out, tests on 10 acres or so are not the same as uncontrolled large commercial plantations. “Once transgenic crops are planted near sexually compatible wild/weedy relatives or other crops, transgenes will almost certainly flow via pollen to these other plants.”
That transgenics could become weeds and affect farmers everywhere is worrying enough, but what is worse is the possibility they could infect those essential diversified gene pools found in small pockets around the world, in such areas as Mexico, India, and the Nile. These pockets contain examples of grain rich in varieties developed over centuries, from which, in an emergency, fresh variants could be drawn.
Since Risseler and Mellon wrote their book, disturbing new data about the performance of transgenics have come to light.
Contrary to the simplistic picture of an assured science, gene techniques are fraught with uncertainty. In the latest issue of the English magazine The Ecologist, gene scientists Mae-Wan Ho, Hartmut Meyer and Joe Cummins reveal mounting problems that could threaten the entire industry. “The biotechnology bubble,” they believe, ” may be about to burst.”
Simplistic propaganda maintains that when you insert a foreign gene into an organism you get a specific, predictable result. The reality is different. In the words of the article’s authors, “The technology is hit or miss, as well as dangerous … Putting a new gene in an organism will create disturbances that will propagate out to the environment … No gene ever works in isolation, but rather in an extremely complicated genetic network … .Its function is dependent on all the other genes in the genome.”
As a result, experimenters have got blind salmon with monstrous heads, and a super pig that is blind, ulcerous and impotent. In 1997, the cotton balls fell off some of Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant crops when sprayed with Roundup. Many other failures do not appear to have been reported.
Gene-altered crops have failed to maintain their altered characteristics in subsequent generations. Thus transgenic herbicide-tolerant Canadian canola has failed to perform consistently. The transgenic sheep Tracy failed to produce a single female offspring that matched her performance.
The public in both North America and Europe have overwhelmingly voiced fears about genetically altered foods. The three scientists reporting in the Ecologist article believe that such foods involve “stressing the developmental and metabolic systems of organisms out of balance. There are bound to be unintended effects including toxins and allergens, which current risk assessments are designed to conceal rather than reveal.”
No Labels (Yet) For Altered Food
The Codex Labelling Committee has postponed until next year a decision on whether labels should be required for genetically altered foods.
After lobbying by industry and some governments, the Codex Food Labelling Committee decided at its meeting in Ottawa in May not to require labelling of genetically engineered food at present, and to postpone a final decision until its next meeting in 1999.
The Committee, part of the United Nations Codex Alimentarius Commission, has power to set food standards that can be enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO). This decision means that much of the genetically modified food on supermarket shelves will not have to be labelled as such.
Consumer organizations are increasingly concerned about the numbers of unlabelled genetically modified foods in the marketplace. Consumers International, a federation of 235 consumer organizations in 109 countries, joined numerous other non-govern-mental organizations to demand labelling of all genetically modified foods.
Codex did agree to propose labelling of genetically engineered foods that contain known allergens, but rejected any decision on mandatory labelling of all such foods. The topic will be up for discussion again next year. With each gene insertion there is the possibility a non-toxic element in food could become toxic.
Also in May, a coalition of scientists, religious leaders, health professionals, consumers and chefs filed suit against the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to obtain mandatory safety testing and labelling of all genetically engineered foods.
The suit alleges that current FDA policy, which permits such altered foods to be marketed without any testing and without labels, violates the agency’s statutory mandate to protect public health and provide American consumers with relevant information about the foods they eat. The suit also alleges that the policy is a violation of religious freedom.
Thirty-three different genetically engineered whole foods are currently sold without labelling or adequate safety testing. These include potatoes, tomatoes, soy, corn, squash and many other fruits and vegetables to which a variety of new genes from different species have been added.
These genetically engineered whole foods are also used as ingredients in processed foods, and have been reported to be present in mass-consumed food products.
A central issue in the case involves the consumer’s right to know about the new genetic material being engineered into food. Labelling and testing are also vital given the health risks that scientists have associated with gene-altered foods.
The most pressing health concern involves the impact of inserting novel genes into fruits, vegetables and other food products, according to the Alliance for Bio-Integrity.
With each gene insertion there is the possibility that a non-toxic element in the food could become toxic and create a human health hazard. Food allergies are another major health concern.
* Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) 116 New Montgomery, #810, San Francisco, CA 94105; ph: (415)541-9140; fax: (415)541-9253 www.panna.org/panna
Strange Genes Alter Ingredients
American and Canadian shoppers would be surprised to know that much of the food they buy has genetically engineered ingredients. But they cannot tell just how much, because the United States, unlike many other countries, does not require the labelling of gene-modified food.
On Jan. 1 the government gave the green light to genetically modified soybeans, cotton, corn, summer squash, potatoes, canola oil, radicchio, papayas and tomatoes. The amount of genetically modified soybeans, cotton and corn on the market is significant.
According to one study, the gene-altered corn crop in the United States this summer is estimated to be 32 percent of the total, for soybeans 38 percent and for canola oil from Canada, 58 percent. There is no estimate for cotton. There are no figures for the smaller crops like papaya and radicchio, and just because a crop has approval does not mean that it is being sold. Within a year or two such crops are quite likely to be available on supermarket shelves.
* The New York Times, July 1998
[From WS August/September 1998]