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January 2000
Genetic Engineering: Why We Need A Global Moratorium

By Ronnie Cummins


The technology of genetic engineering (GE) is the practice of altering or disrupting the genetic blueprints of living organisms, patenting them, and then selling the resulting gene-foods, seeds, or other products for profit. Life science corporations, such as Monsanto and Novartis, say their new products will make agriculture sustainable, eliminate world hunger, cure disease, and vastly improve public health. In reality though, the gene engineers have made it clear they intend to use GE to monopolize the global market for seeds, foods, fiber, and health and medical products.

Gene Engineers Are Busy
Genetic engineering is a new technology that has the power to break down fundamental genetic barriers—not only between species but between humans, animals, and plants. By joining together the genes of non-related species and permanently altering their genetic codes, gene-altered organisms are created that pass these genetic changes on to their offspring. Gene engineers are now snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and programming genetic material. Animal genes and even human genes are inserted into the chromosomes of plants, fish, and animals, creating heretofore unimaginable transgenic life forms.

For the first time in history, transnational biotechnology corporations are becoming the architects and “owners” of life. With little or no regulatory restraint, labeling requirements, or scientific protocol, bio-engineers have begun creating hundreds of new GE “Frankenfoods” and crops, oblivious to human and environmental hazards or negative socioeconomic impacts on the world’s farmers and rural villagers. Despite an increasing number of scientists warning that current gene-splicing techniques are crude, unpredictable, and therefore inherently dangerous, pro-biotech governments and regulatory agencies, led by the U.S., maintain that GE foods and crops are “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods and require neither mandatory labeling nor pre-market safety-testing.

GE on the Shelf
There are currently more than four dozen GE foods and crops being grown or sold in the U.S. that are widely dispersed in the food chain and environment. Over 70 million acres of GE crops are presently under cultivation in the U.S., while up to 500,000 dairy cows are injected regularly with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Most supermarket processed food items now “test positive” for the presence of GE ingredients. In addition, several dozen more GE crops are in the final stages of development and will soon be released into the environment and sold in the marketplace. According to the biotech industry, almost all American food and fiber will be genetically engineered within five to 10 years. The “hidden menu” of these unlabeled genetically engineered foods and food ingredients in the U.S. now includes soybeans, soy oil, corn, potatoes, squash, canola oil, cottonseed oil, papaya, tomatoes, and dairy products.

Genetic engineering of food and fiber products is inherently unpredictable and dangerous. The hazards fall into three categories: human health, the environment, and society. A look at the already proven and likely hazards of GE products provides a good argument for why we need a global moratorium on all GE foods and crops.

Toxins and Poisons
Genetically engineered products clearly have the potential to be toxic. In 1989 a genetically engineered brand of L-tryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled or afflicted more than 5,000 others with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, before it was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The manufacturer, Showa Denko, Japan’s third largest chemical company, had for the first time used GE bacteria to produce the supplement. It is believed that the bacteria somehow became contaminated during the recombinant DNA process. Showa Denko paid over $2 billion in damages to the victims. More and more scientists around the world are warning that genetic manipulation can increase the levels of natural plant toxins in foods (or create entirely new toxins) in unexpected ways by switching on genes that produce poisons.

Increased Cancer Risks
In 1994, the FDA approved the sale of Monsanto’s controversial GE recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)—injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk. This occurred despite the fact that scientists warned that significantly higher levels of a potent chemical hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), in the milk and dairy products of injected cows could pose serious risks for human breast, prostate, and colon cancer. The U.S. General Accounting Office told the FDA not to approve rBGH, arguing that increased antibiotic residues in the milk of rBGH-injected cows (resulting from higher rates of udder infections requiring antibiotic treatment) posed an unacceptable risk to public health. Because of this and other tests, the government of Canada banned rBGH in early 1999 and the European Union (EU) has had a ban in place since 1994. Although rBGH continues to be injected into four to five percent of all U.S. dairy cows, no other industrialized country has legalized its use. Even a United Nations food standards body has refused to certify that rBGH is safe.

Food Allergies and Nutrition
In 1996 a major GE food disaster was narrowly averted when Nebraska researchers learned that a Brazil nut gene spliced into soybeans could induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to the nuts. As British scientist Mae-Wan Ho points out “There is no known way to predict the allergenic potential of GE foods. Allergic reactions typically occur only some time after the subject is sensitized by initial exposure to the allergen.” A 1999 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lower in GE soybeans than in traditional strains. These and other studies indicate that genetically engineering food will likely result in foods lower in quality and nutrition.

Antibiotic Resistance
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 ARM genes might unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the environment or guts of animals or people who eat GE food. This will contribute to the growing public health danger of infections that cannot be cured with traditional antibiotics, for example new strains of salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, and enterococci. EU authorities are currently considering a ban on all GE foods containing antibiotic resistant marker genes.

Increased Pesticide Residues
Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studies have found that U.S. farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxic pesticides and herbicides as conventional farmers, and in some cases more. Crops genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant account for 70 percent of all GE crops planted in 1998. The supposed “benefits” of these herbicide-resistant crops are that farmers can spray as much of a particular herbicide on their crops as they want—killing the weeds without damaging their crop. Scientists estimate that herbicide-resistant crops planted around the globe will triple the amount of toxic broad-spectrum herbicides used in agriculture. These herbicides are designed to literally kill everything green. The leaders in biotechnology are the same giant chemical companies—Monsanto, DuPont, AgrEvo, Novartis, and Rhone-Poulenc—that sell toxic pesticides. These companies are genetically engineering plants to be resistant to herbicides they manufacture so they can sell more herbicides to farmers who, in turn, can apply more poisonous herbicides to crops to kill weeds.

Genetic Pollution
Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators have begun carrying genetically altered pollen into adjoining fields, polluting the DNA of crops of organic and non-GE farmers. An organic farm in Texas has been contaminated with genetic drift from GE crops on a nearby farm and EU regulators are considering setting an “allowable limit” for genetic contamination of non-GE foods, because they don’t believe genetic pollution can be controlled. Once released, it is virtually impossible to recall GE organisms to the laboratory or the field. In early 1999, Cornell University researchers found that pollen from GE corn was poisonous to Monarch butterflies. The study adds to a growing body of evidence that GE crops are adversely affecting a number of beneficial insects, including ladybugs and lacewings, as well as beneficial soil microorganisms, bees, and possibly birds.

Creation of “Superweeds,” “Superpests,” and New Viruses
Genetically engineered crops that are herbicide-resistant or produce their own pesticide present dangerous problems. Pests and weeds will inevitably emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant, which means that in turn, stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to kill the pests who have developed immunity to pesticides. We are already seeing the emergence of the first “superweeds” as GE herbicide-resistant crops such as rapeseed (canola) spread their herbicide-resistance traits to related weeds such as wild mustard plants. Lab and field tests also indicate that common plant pests such as cotton bollworms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, are evolving into “superpests” that are immune to sprays and other environmentally sustainable biopesticides. This presents a serious danger for organic and sustainable farmers whose biological pest management practices will be unable to cope with increasing numbers of superpests and superweeds.

Gene-splicing will inevitably result in unanticipated outcomes and dangerous surprises that damage plants and the environment. Researchers conducting experiments at Michigan State University several years ago found that genetically altering plants to resist viruses can cause the viruses to mutate into new, more virulent forms. Scientists in Oregon found that a GE soil microorganism, Klebsiella planticola, completely killed essential soil nutrients. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whistleblowers issued similar warnings in 1997 protesting government approval of a GE soil bacterium called Rhizobium melitoli. Likewise, by virtue of their “superior” genes, some GE plants and animals will inevitably run amok, overpowering wild species in the same way introduced exotic species have.

Socioeconomic Hazards
The patenting of GE foods and biotech food production threatens to eliminate farming as it has been practiced for 12,000 years. GE patents such as the Terminator Technology, recently withdrawn from production by Monsanto, may render seeds infertile and force hundreds of millions of farmers who now save and share their seeds to purchase evermore expensive GE seeds and chemical inputs from a handful of global biotech/seed monopolies. If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenic plants and food-producing animals will soon lead to universal “bioserfdom,” in which farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomerates and pay royalties on seeds and offspring. Family and indigenous farmers will be driven off the land and consumers’ food choices will be dictated by a cartel of transnational corporations.

Ethical Hazards
The patenting of genetically altered animals reduces living beings to the status of manufactured products. In January 1994, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that scientists had completed genetic “road maps” for cattle and pigs, a precursor to increasing experimentation on live animals. In addition to the cruelty inherent in such experimentation (the “mistakes” are born with painful deformities, crippled, blind, and so on), these “manufactured” creatures have no greater value to their “creators” than mechanical inventions. Animals genetically engineered for use in laboratories, such as the infamous “Harvard mouse” (or “onco-mouse”), which contains a human cancer-causing gene that will be passed down to all succeeding generations, were created to suffer. Currently, hundreds of GE animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government.

Global Moratorium
It is time for a moratorium on all GE foods and crops unless comprehensive pre-market safety testing is done to ensure that the environment and human health will be protected. All GE crops and foods already on the market must be labeled and safety-tested.

But we need more. We need to stop factory farming and phase out industrial agriculture. Industrial factory farms will have applied over a billion pounds of pesticides in 1999. These chemicals end up in our groundwater, rivers, and estuaries—not to mention our food. Many of these chemicals wind up in human body fat and in women’s breast milk, and are associated with increased risk of a variety of cancers, developmental abnormalities, and neurobiohavioral problems. Many American fruits and vegetables carry pesticide residues that exceed limits the EPA considers safe for children. An estimated 300,000 farm workers are poisoned annually by exposure to pesticides. Factory farms and feedlots routinely utilize growth hormones and antibiotics, promote “animal cannibalism” by feeding animals so-called rendered animal protein, and intensively confine animals. Factory-style hog, beef, and poultry feedlots are polluting waterways and destroying rural communities. These pose a direct threat to family farmers, putting them out of business and forever changing the rural landscape of the country.

U.S. regulatory agencies must address the growing number of environmental, human health, and economic impacts associated with industrial agriculture. They must ban and phase out the most dangerous farm chemicals and feed additives. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) must become the norm on non-organic farms—with reduced use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers in favor of natural composting, crop rotation, cover crops, and utilization of beneficial insects.

The organic food industry is the fastest growing sector of retail food sales, growing by 25 percent annually. In 1998, U.S. consumers spent an estimated $5 billion on organic foods. While organic currently represents close to two percent of the U.S. food market, food industry insiders project it will grow to five percent by 2001. The huge growth in organic food has occurred without help from the USDA, which has spent billions of taxpayer dollars promoting industrial agriculture, particularly genetic engineering. Of 30,000 research projects supported by the USDA in 1995 and 1996, only 34 focused on organic production. A significant shift in USDA resources toward organic food production would help organic farmers increase yields, open markets, and protect the environment. Our taxpayer money at the USDA should better reflect what consumers want and set a goal of 30 percent organic by 2010.

Ronnie Cummins is Director of Campaign for Food Safety/Organic Consumers Association. For information call 218-726-1443 or visit: The above material has been made into a petition, and will be presented to elected officials, year 2000 Congressional candidates, and regulatory officials.



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