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Genetically Engineered Food:
A Cause For Great Concern

- Video Documentaries
- List of GM foods

An issue that has entered the mainstream media in a lot of countries (except western) is Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM) of food. A lot of food that we eat today contains genetically modified ingredients and usually without our knowledge.

Supporters of this technology maintain that it ensures and sustains food security around the world as the population increases.

As time goes on, the science behind genetic engineering is no doubt improving. Biotechnology could be the wave of the future and genetically modified foods could really provide alternatives to help increase food production. However, there is a growing wave of concern from citizens, farmers and scientists who question the way the research is currently being handled by a few large, profit-hungry corporations. That is, as well as scientific debates on the merits of genetically engineered food, there are equally, if not more important, debates on the socioeconomic ramifications of the way such science is marketed and used. Critics believe:

The problem of food shortages is a political and economic problem.
Food shortages and hunger are -- and will be -- experienced by the poorer nations.

GE Food is an expensive technology that the farmers of the developing nations would not be able to afford easily.

Patenting laws go against the poor around the world and allow biotech companies to benefit from patenting indigenous knowledge often without consent.

This is a very young and untested technology and may not be the answer just yet.

Crop uniformity, which the biotech firms are promoting, will reduce genetic diversity making them more vulnerable to disease and pests. This furthers the need for pesticides (often created by the same companies creating and promoting genetically engineered crops).
Hence this leads to questions of the motives of corporations and countries who are using the plight of the developing world as a marketing strategy to gain acceptance of GE food as well as dependency upon it via intellectual property rights. That they are against any labeling or other precautionary steps and measures that states may wish to take is of paramount concern.

The way in which we reach the answer to the question, "are GE foods safe?" is where a lot of the problem lies. A quick acceptance of GE foods without proper testing etc. could show corporate profitability to be very influential, while a thorough debate and sufficient public participation would ensure that real social and environmental concerns are in fact adhered to. And this pattern would probably indicate to us how other major issues in the future ought to be dealt with.

A number of studies over the past decade have revealed that genetically engineered foods can pose serious risks to humans, domesticated animals, wildlife and the environment. Human health effects can include higher risks of toxicity, allergenicity, antibiotic resistance, immune-suppression and cancer. As for environmental impacts, the use of genetic engineering in agriculture could lead to uncontrolled biological pollution, threatening numerous microbial, plant and animal species with extinction, and the potential contamination of non-genetically engineered life forms with novel and possibly hazardous genetic material.

The Following Are Some of the Facts:

  • Unnatural gene transfers from one species to another are dangerous. Biotechnology companies erroneously claim that their manipulations are similar to natural genetic changes or traditional breeding techniques. However, the cross-species transfers being made, such as between fish and tomatoes, or between other unrelated species, would not happen in nature and may create new toxins, diseases, and weaknesses. In this risky experiment, the general public is the guinea-pig.
  • Biotechnology companies also claim their methods are precise and sophisticated.
    In fact, the process of inserting genes is quite random and can damage normal genes. Genetic research shows that many weaknesses in plants, animals, and humans have their origin in tiny imperfections in the genetic code. Therefore, the random damage resulting from gene insertion will inevitably result in side-effects and accidents. Scientists have assessed these risks to be substantial. (Refs: Palmiter, R.D. et al (1986) ANNUAL REVIEW OF GENETICS 20: 465; Inose, T. et al (1995) INT. JOUR. FOOD SCIENCE TECH. 30:141.)
  • Unpredictable health damaging effects.
    When genetic engineers insert a new gene into any organism there are "position effects" which can lead to unpredictable changes in the pattern of gene expression and genetic function. The protein product of the inserted gene may carry out unexpected reactions and produce potentially toxic products. There is also serious concern about the dangers of using genetically engineered viruses as delivery vehicles (vectors) in the generation of transgenic plants and animals. This could destabilise the genome, and also possibly create new viruses, and thus dangerous new diseases. (Refs: Green, A.E. et al (1994) SCIENCE 263:1423; Osbourn, J.K. et al (1990) VIROLOGY 179:921.)
  • Genetically engineered products carry more risks than traditional foods.
    The process of genetic engineering can thus introduce dangerous new allergens and toxins into foods that were previously naturally safe. Already, one genetically engineered soybean was found to cause serious allergic reactions, and bacteria genetically engineered to produce large amounts of the food supplement, tryptophan, have produced toxic contaminants that killed 37 people and permanently disabled 1,500 more. (Refs: Nordlee, J.A. et al (1996) THE NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE 688; Mayeno, A.N. et al (1994) TIBTECH 12:364.)
  • Increased pollution of food and water supply.
    More than 50% of the crops developed by biotechnology companies have been engineered to be resistant to herbicides. Use of herbicide-resistant crops will lead to a threefold increase in the use of herbicides, resulting in even greater pollution of our food and water with toxic agrochemicals. (Ref: Goldberg, R.J. (1994) WEED TECHNOLOGY 6:647.)
  • Health-damaging effects caused by genetic engineering will continue forever.
    Unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, genetic pollution is self-perpetuating. It can never be reversed or cleaned up; genetic mistakes will be passed on to all future generations of a species.
  • Inadequate government regulation.
    Biotech companies claim that government regulatory bodies will protect consumers. However DDT, Thalidomide, L-tryptophan, etc. were approved by U.S. regulators with tragic results. Recently it was found that 80% of supermarket milk contained traces of either medicines, illegal antibiotics used on farms, or hormones, including genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rbGH). The facts show that regulators are not protecting the public adequately. (Ref: Epstein, S.S. (1996) INT. JOUR. HEALTH SERVICES, 26:173.)
  • Ethical concerns.
    Transferring animal genes into plants raises important ethical issues for vegetarians and religious groups. It may also involve animal experiments which are unacceptable to many people.
  • Gene transfer across species and competition from new species damaging the environment.
    When new genetic information is introduced into plants, bacteria, insects or other animals, it can easily be passed into related organisms, through processes such as cross pollination. This process has already created "super weeds". Existing species can also be displaced from the ecosystem with disastrous effects, as happened with genetically modified Klebsiella soil bacteria. (Ref: Holms, M.T. and Ingam, E.R. (1994) Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (Supplement), 75:97)
  • Crops are now being engineered to produce their own pesticides.
    This will promote the more rapid appearance of resistant insects and lead to excessive destruction of useful insects and soil organisms, thus seriously perturbing the ecosystem. In addition, the pesticide produced by the plant may be harmful to the health of consumers. (Refs: Union of Concerned Scientists (1994) GENE EXCHANGE, 5:68; Mikkelsen, T.R. et al (1996) Nature 380:31; Skogsmyr, I. (1994) THEORETICAL AND APPLIED GENETICS 88:770; Hama, H. et al (1992) APPLIED ENTYMOLOGY AND ZOOLOGY 27:355.)

Global Threat To Humanity's Food Supply
Giant transnational companies are carrying out a dangerous global experiment by attempting to introduce large numbers of genetically engineered foods widely into our food supply. Because genetic manipulations can generate unanticipated harmful side-effects, and because genetically engineered foods are not tested sufficiently to eliminate those that are dangerous, this experiment, not only jeopardizes the health of individuals, but could also lead to national or even global food shortages and large-scale health threats.
There is no logical scientific justification for exposing society to this risk, nor is it necessary to take this risk for the purpose of feeding humanity. It is only of benefit to the biotech industry, which will obtain short term commercial gains at the expense of the health and safety of the whole population. Tampering with the genetic code of food is reckless and poses a serious threat to life. It could easily upset the delicate balance between our physiology and the foods that we eat. There is already ample scientific justification for an immediate ban on genetically modified foods in order to safeguard our health.

What Leading Scientists and Public Figures Have To Say:

'We simply do not have enough reliable scientific evidence on their safety to be able to make a valid decision as to whether there are potential health effects or not.''

Charles Saunders, chairman of the British Medical Association's public health committee

"The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naive. I don't think we fully understand the dimensions of what we're getting into."

Professor Philip James (author of the "James" report on the structure and functions of the proposed UK Food Standards Agency to oversee national food safety standards), Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, on genetically engineered food.

Rowett Research Institute
'Science' magazine - Dec 2000 - GM risk-benefit analysis has not been done

"There is... a need to develop more effective and appropriate screening methods to alert companies and government agencies to the unexpected consequences of the often random insertion of genetic traits into plants."

From Professor Philip James' evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, March 1999.

GM warning over dangerous chemicals entering food chain
USDA has not done GMO risk assessments

"If one is going to introduce a particular protein genetically one can look at the structure of the protein and ask if we know that this type of structure causes allergies. But if you say the structure may be slightly modified in this particular plant, how on earth are we going to assess whether that is going to induce in a very small subsection of the population an unknown allergenic response? I am not sure how we are going to cope with that yet."

From Professor Philip James' evidence to the House of Lords European Communities Committee, January 1999

Soya allergy rates skyrocket -- Monsanto's
Roundup-Ready Soy Blamed

Fox BST suit

"The experts [at the Royal Society of Canada] say this approach [of'substantial equivalence'] is fatally flawed for genetically modified, or GM, crops and exposes Canadians to several potential healthrisks, including toxicity and allergic reactions."

Toronto Star, 5 Feb 2000, on Royal Society of Canada report on Biotechnology

Toronto star on Royal Society of Canada Report

Download full CRS report
Canadian 'U-turn' Exposes Poor GM Safety Testing in US - Aug 2000

"Biotechnology relies to a large extent on our ability to introduce foreign genes into cells. A major problem with present day technology is the non-predictability of the integration of such transgenes. DNA introduced into plant cells mostly integrates at random, i.e. at non-predetermined positions of the genome. The biological process ultimately responsible for random integration is known as illegitimate recombination. DNA integrated at random frequently contains multiple copies and often copies are scrambled. Multiple copies also often induce gene silencing and hence instability in the expression of the introduced genes. In addition, the DNA integrates at loci of unknown stability and capacity for expression and randomly integrated copies may induce unpredictable and undesirable mutations in the host genome.....Although our understanding of the general biology of recombination in plants is constantly improving, we still lack the knowledge for precision engineering of plants' genes."

Study on behalf of the European Commission on GM food safety from Université Blaise Pascal Aubière (FR), Max-Planck-Institut für Züchtungsforschung Köln (DE), University of Ghent (BE)

European Commission lacks confidence in own GM safety tests - More Details

".....there is no precise harmonisation of methodologies to assure the safety of transgenic food products, it being difficult to use traditional animal feeding studies for toxicological assessments. This clearly raises biosafety issues for the use of GM products in food. In vivo and in vitro validated nutritional-toxicological testing procedures are urgently required. .....if the testing procedure investigated in this project does not allow assessment of the toxicity of the gene products introduced into the food product via the GM plants, the whole strategy for the safety assessment of novel foods from GM plants will need to be revised".

Study on behalf of the European Commission on GM food safety from Institute of Food Safety and Toxicology
Søborg, Denmark (DK)

European Commission lacks confidence in own GM safety tests - More Details

"One of the key issues in the risk assessment of GM crop plants is whether unexpected hazardous metabolic perturbations (so-called unintended effects) may have taken place in the organism due to genetic modification, that could affect its food or nutritional status. It is recognised that no adequate and effective animal models to identify and trace the sources of potential unintended effects are currently available. The objective of this project is to develop new methodologies that are of sufficient sensitivity and specificity to assess risks from this possible food-borne hazard. Implicit in this objective is the need to develop new knowledge which will serve as a basis to understand the implications of the genetic modification process on metabolic pathways in plants.  ........The project is highly pertinent to EU legislation on Novel Foods and GM food crops in particular. It is especially relevant to underpin Community policies. The new methodology will also be of use for the agro-food industry as it contributes to a more informed awareness of the 'real risks' related to GM foods by providing an objective scientific data package directed towards a holistic view of the genetic modification process."  

Study on behalf of the European Commission on GM food safety from State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products (RIKILT) Wageningen, Netherlands

European Commission lacks confidence in own GM safety tests - More Details

"We all wish there was a test where you plug in a protein and out pops a 'yes' or 'no' answer."

Sue MacIntosh, a protein chemist with biotechnology company AgrEvo, on the difficulties of carrying out allergy testing on GM foods.

Scientists call for tougher GM tests
FDA scientists question soy safety - but where is GM testing?

"Well, I agree with you in the sense that when you use these methods you don't know what part of the chromosome that the new gene is being introduced into and that is, you know, what I would say is a drawback to the technology."

Professor Bevan Mosely, former head of the Institute of Food Research, Reading, and a current member of the United Kingdom's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) responsible for reviewing the safety of genetically modified foods, in a response to the question - "So how can we know that something isn't really going to go horrendously wrong?" - put to him by Charles Colett of Radio Wey Valley, Hampshire, United Kingdom, February 1998.

UK soya allergies increase dramatically - GM soya is suspect - March 99

"Potentially disastrous effects may come from undetected harmful substances in Genetically Modified Foods."

Dr Andrew Chesson, vice chairman of European Commission scientific committee on animal nutrition and formerly an ardent advocate of food biotechnology (A year earlier Dr Chesson chaired the audit committee which ruled there was no evidence to support Dr Pusztai's claims on the toxicity of GM potatoes).

Horizontal GM crop gene transfer to bacteria in guts of bees
GM cover ups - Pusztai interview in 'The Hindu'

"I personally think that the chance of creating some novel food problems with the GM product is there.  I think it is unlikely but I wouldn't put my hand on my heart and swear it was not so."

Sir Robert May, President of the Royal Society (and Chief Scientific Officer to the UK Government 1995-2000)

"These findings demonstrate the fragmentary nature of current knowledge of genome structure and function and regulation of gene expression in general, and the limited understanding of several physiological, ecological, agronomical and toxicological aspects relevant to present-day and planned genetic modifications of crops"

Plant Research International (No. 12) 70 pp, 2000

"I don't think any of us would disagree that, if an alternative exists to a GE solution, it's to be preferred"

Mr Hodson QC acting on behalf of the Life Sciences Network  at the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification 8th  Feb 2001, p3480 or proceedings - line 2

"The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks."

Dr. Linda Kahl US Food and Drug Agency compliance officer - internal memorandum

Full memorandum - click here

"A genetically engineered plant may contain an identical profile of expected plant toxicant levels (ie expected toxicants) as is normally found in a closely related, natural plant. However, gentically modified plants could also contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants. The presence of high levels of toxicants in the bioengineered plant food could occur by two or more mechanisms.........

The unexpected toxicants could be closely related chemicals produced by common metabolic pathways in the same plant genus/species; however, unexpected toxicants could also be uniquely different chemicals that are usually expressed in unrelated plants....

The task of assessing the presence or the abscence of expected and unexpected toxicants in plants and the control plant could be very difficult, because thousands of plant biochemicals have been shown to have toxic effects on animals and microorganisms."

Dr. Edwin J. Mathews Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service US - memorandum to the FDA Toxicology Section of the Biotechnology Working Group

Full memorandum - click here

"At this time it is unlikely that molecular and compositional analysis can reasonably detect or predict all possible changes in toxicant levels or the development of new toxic metabolites as a result of gentic modifications introduced by the methods of biotechnology."

Dr. Samuel I. Shibko Director of Division of Toxicological Review and Evaluation, Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service US - memorandum to Dr. James Maryansksi, FDA Biotechnology Coordinator

Full memorandum - click here

"There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering which is just glanced over in this document.....

Unexpected Effects - This is the industry's pet idea, namely that there are no unintended effects that will raise the FDA's level of concern. But time and time again, there is no data to backup their contention, while the scientific literature does contain many examples of naturally occurring pleitropic [multi-response] effects. When the introduction of gene's into [a] plant's genome randomly occurs, as in the case of the current technology (but not traditional breeding) it seems that many pleiotropic [multi-response] effects will occur. Many of these effects might not be seen by the breeder because of the more or less similar growing conditions in the limited trials that are performed...

.......introduced proteins (enzymes) that while acting on one specific, intended substrate to produce a desired effect, will also affect other cellular molecules, either as substrates, or by swamping the plant's regulatory/metabolic system and depriving the plant of resources needed for other things. It is not prudent to rely on plant breeders always finding these types of changes (especially when they are under pressure to get a product out)."

Dr. Louis Priybl of the US Food and Drug Administation Microbiology Group - internal memorandum on FDA GM food safety testing policy document

Full memorandum - click here

"In addition to the human food safety and environmental concerns outlined in the appendices to the Notice, CVM believes that animal feeds derived from genetically modified plants present unique animal and food safety concerens .....

Residues of plant constituents or toxicants in meat and milk products may pose human food safety problems. For example, increased levels of glucosinolates or erusic acid in rapeseed may produce a residue problem in edible products."

Dr. Gerald B. Guest, Director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), to Dr. James Maryanski, FDA Biotechnology Coordinator. Subject: "Regulation of Transgenic Plants—FDA Draft Federal Register Notice on Food Biotechnology."

Full memorandum - click here

"The scientific case put forward for this GM maize is not adequate. If the GM maize was approved for commercial growing in the UK then people would be justified in turning their back on consuming milk derived from it. As a scientist I wouldn't drink milk from cows fed GM maize with the present state of knowledge."

Professor Bob Orskov, director of the International Feed Resource Unit in Aberdeen, Scotland at UK MAFF hearings in London, October 2000, concerning proposals to allow Aventis's GM forage maize, Chardon LL onto the National Seed List.

Transgenic Animal Feed Could Affect Dairy Products

"As hon. Members have said, some of the new [genetically engineered] wonder drugs have been accepted, and I think rightly so.  There is some comfort in the regulatory process for medicine which, I admit, is not in place for food and agriculture."

Jeff Rooker, Minister of State for Food Safety, House of Commons, July 30 1998

Six Gene Therapy Deaths Kept From NIH
GE insulin class action suit

"Why don't we require a pharmaceutical type analysis of the safety of these foods with proper trials?"

Jack Cunningham, UK cabinet minister with overall responsibility for biotechnology, raising a variety of issues in relation to GM crops and food in a leaked internal memo to one of his civil servants, February 1999

Ministers 'ignoring public' on GM food

"Almost everything we grow, everything we eat is the root result of human intervention, human breeding and so on. But this is unnatural in a different sort of way from the kinds of breeding programs that have characterized humanity for ten thousand years....

So the question which people have, I believe, not only a right but a duty to ask, is how wisely will we use these unprecedented new powers? What are the risks associated with doing something this new and this profound at the very wellsprings of life? How are they going to be managed? How will we have credible oversight? How will we have credible and effective monitoring of the introduction of this technology? Certainly, humanity's record for using technology wisely, sensitive to its potential effects on society, on people, on environment is, at best, mixed and hardly encouraging....

We have not yet identified, yet alone cloned, the gene for wisdom, and some skepticism about our ability to manage powerful new technologies is appropriate.... "

Robert Shapiro,Chief Executive of Monsanto - speech on genetic engineering presented at State of the World Forum, Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, CA , October 27, 1998.

Monsanto and the regulators - Ecologist magazine

- Video Documentaries
- List of GM foods

'From the provocative Gorilla News Network (GNN), "Contaminated" presents a brief overview of how the world's food supply is slowly being transformed by a radically improvised agricultural paradigm.

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods
This is a lecture presented by Jeffrey Smith (author of Genetic Roulette), in which he summarizes the health risks of genetically engineered foods. Entertaining and very informative.

(Part 1)

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods (Part 2)

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods (Part 3)

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods (Part 4)

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods
(Part 5)

The Health Dangers of Genetically Modified Foods
(Part 6)



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