Biotech Behaving Badly

Genetically modified foods harm our world and our health.

By Sheri Lisker

January 2006

Imagine you are a 15-year-old working on a science fair project that you realize has serious implications for what could be the future direction of food production. You have taken two sets of seeds, left one set alone and chemically treated the others. You look at the green healthy plants your untreated seeds produced. Then you look at the thick, deformed, treated plants and think, “I would not want to eat this.” You ponder: If this is what I can do in my bedroom, imagine what scientists can do in real labs. Little do you know that within your own lifetime scientists will be doing this kind of experiment with your food and very few people will be aware of it, even while many of them may have consumed it.

No, this is not the plot of a science fiction movie; in fact, it’s actually the subject of a documentary. This is what happened to Deborah Koons Garcia, widow of The Grateful Dead icon Jerry Garcia, when she won first prize in the Cincinnati Engineering Society Science Fair for a project that spurred a lifelong interest in food and inspired her to make a film on genetically modified (GM) food entitled, aptly enough, The Future of Food.

“I consider myself a pretty educated consumer regarding food,” says Garcia, a longtime vegetarian, “and I was shocked when I realized that GM foods had been rushed to the market and even I hadn’t been aware of it.”

Genetically engineered foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), plants and animals whose genetic makeup has been altered so that they have traits they wouldn’t naturally have. Genes are transferred from one organism that shows a supposedly desirable trait, like pest resistance, into the genetic code of another organism. However, things like bacteria and viruses can also be transferred. This process of alteration is sometimes referred to as mutagenesis. And it is now being used in conventional farming.

Charles Margulis of The Center for Food Safety cites a study by The New England Journal of Medicine that says allergens can also be transferred during the process, and while some allergic reactions are mild, others can be life-threatening. Michael Hansen, senior scientist of The Consumers Union, says other problems could include altered levels of toxins and antibiotic resistance: “The process is not precise. They can’t control where genes are inserted.” Therefore undesirable, unintended traits may surface.

The US requires no labeling of genetically engineered food, unlike Europe and Japan. The four main GMO crops are corn, soybeans, canola and cotton, which are found in many processed foods in the form of corn syrup, canola and cottonseed oil. So we can be eating this food without even knowing it. Since there is no labeling, there is no liability, no accountability.

In the Beginning

Human beings farmed for over 10,000 years without using GMOs. The first GMO was created in 1973 and the first product, Flavr-Savr tomatoes, appeared in 1993. Flavr-Savr was pulled from the market less than three years later due to production problems. Consumer groups expressed concerns and in fact, according to Jeffrey Smith, author of The Seeds of Deception, even lab rats had to be forced to eat the tomatoes and they developed stomach lesions. In fact, Smith says, seven rats out of 40 died and had to be replaced.

Besides potential health issues, there are measurable environmental problems. “When GMOs were first introduced in 1996, they were promoted as a way to increase farmer profit, decrease pesticide use and increase convenience,” explains Bill Wenzel, national director of the Farmer to Farmer Campaign to Investigate Genetic Engineering, a coalition of 34 farm groups. “It turns out this was more PR than reality.” Wenzel says that in the past, farmers often had to make many “passes” at their fields with pesticides to control both weeds and pests so at first, GMOs looked like they made environmental sense. “The basic premise was that you would only need one application and that’s all. It looked like a win/win situation. That, however, was not the case. In fact, over the years the amount of pesticide use has increased significantly.”

Eighty percent of GE crops were bred to be pesticide resistant; in some cases, the crops were actually bred to be pesticides themselves. You could spray everything around them and the crops wouldn’t die. However, this created herbicide-resistant “super weeds” which had to be sprayed more often and with even more toxic chemicals.

On top of this, since the US, Canada, China and Argentina are the only countries that approve GMOs, we can’t export them everywhere. Both European and Japanese markets have turned them away by the bushel. According to both Margulis and Hansen, some African nations have even refused GMOs in the form of food aid. As Margulis says, “Even people who are hungry don’t want to be used as guinea pigs.”

So if they are untested, potentially harmful to humans and to the environment and not even economically viable for most farmers, then why do it? The answer is in the large agro business lobbies. “Conventional agro business has received $20 to $25 billion a year for the past 10 years to grow crops like corn and soybeans,” says Margulis. “Meanwhile in the Department of Agriculture research budget, less than 1% goes for organic farming.”

Large chemical companies would like GM seeds to replace conventional seeds. Garcia’s film shows how Monsanto is suing a Canadian farmer for patent infringement over the existence of seeds that he didn’t even plant, thanks to field contamination. GM seeds can be transferred to a non-GM farm by the wind or birds, and the natural farmer is held responsible and could lose his organic status. Large corporations also discourage the time-honored practice of seed saving, gathering seeds to replant.

Although there aren’t many GM crops now, that could change. There is GM papaya in Hawaii and other foods are being investigated: wheat, rice, even fish. What’s heartening is that some farmers are resisting. In North Dakota, for example, farmers have lobbied against GE wheat.

Sidestepping GMOs

So what can consumers do? The first step is to buy organic and buy local. Doreen Stabinsky, a genetic engineer for Greenpeace, points out that this cuts down on fuel used for shipping food across the map, which is better for the environment. You can also support community-based sustainable agriculture and contact the Food Security Coalition for information on bringing healthy non-GMO food to schools and hospitals in your area (www.foodsecurity.org).

Lobby for labeling. Hansen points to FDA studies that show that 80% to 95% of people polled want GMO food labeled. Educate yourself by reading labels; look for the ones labeled non-GMO or non-GE. And finally, eat more unprocessed foods, such as fruits and vegetables. So far, most of these foods are free of GMOs—and we know they’re good for us.

Big food corporations like Kraft and Nestle do not have GMOs in the food they export to Europe because the countries will not accept them. So why should our food be any different? “There are no benefits from the first round, except maybe to large industrial farmers and the companies who sell herbicides,” says Stabinsky. “Large industrial agriculture is not the way we should be headed.”
Remember when you were younger and your mother told you not to play with your food? Maybe it’s time we told the big chemical companies to stop playing with ours.

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