by Dr Ron Epstein
San Francisco State University
July 9, 1996
Genes are the fundamental chemical codes that determine the physical nature of all living things, from the tiniest single-celled organism to human beings. Genes make up the DNA, the cell-level master plan which determines how the organism is going to develop in all ways that are not environmentally influenced.
Genetic engineering is sometimes also called bioengineering or biotechnology (biotech for short). The living products of it are sometimes referred to as 'transgenic'. Genetic engineering refers to the artificial modification of the genetic code in cells: by doing so the fundamental physical nature of the organism is changed, sometimes in ways that would never occur in nature. Some of the effects are known, but most are not. The effects of genetic engineering we often know are short term, specific and physical. The effects we usually do not know are long term, general, and also mental.
Genetic engineering of food plants often involves the insertion of insect, fish, animal and human genes into plants, including fruits and vegetables. Many companies have received permission for inserting the genes of fish and insects into fruits and vegetables. In most cases the stated reasons are either the enhancement of herbicide resistance, the reduction of susceptibility to cold or frost damage, or increased rates of growth or production. Human genes have been inserted in certain plants to enhance their capability of absorbing pollution from mining sites. Human growth genes have also been introduced into other species to enhance growth rates.
Differences between Genetic Engineering and Breeding
In the breeding of animals and plants, the natural processes of gene selection and mutation that occur in nature are manipulated to develop new species that have specific use for humans. In selecting those species they interfere with the natural selection process that would otherwise occur, but they do not use unnatural processes. For example the well-known breeding work of Luther Burbank led to the introduction of a whole range of tasty new fruits. Those who are doing bioengineering often claim that they are just speeding up the processes of natural selection and making more efficient the age-old practices of breeding. In some cases this may very well be true, but in most instances the kinds of gene changes that are made are those that would never occur in nature. For example, as mentioned above, genetic engineering techniques are being used to insert animal and human genes in plants.
Dangers of Genetic Engineering
Most press reports of genetic engineering stress its incredible potential for good, mostly in terms of "conquering" disease. If we look at what is actually happening, the biotechnology companies that do the bulk of the research are primarily concerned with profit, not with helping humankind.
Unfortunately governmental regulators have paid very little attention to possible risks. Regulations to ensure the safety of genetically engineered organisms and that they will not mix with natural ones in the environment are being continually relaxed. Sooner or later mixing will occur, yet regulators have paid little attention to the dangers.
When released into the environment, genetically engineered organisms can become pests, displacing existing plants and animals. They can disrupt the functioning of ecosystems, reduce biological diversity, alter the composition of species, and even threaten the extinction of various species and change climactic patterns. In addition genetic engineering can aid in the creation of new pathogens against which the biosphere cannot develop natural defense systems. One of several ways that this can occur is by the creation of new viruses that incorporate genetic engineering material from genetically engineered plants or animals.
The major problem with genetic engineering is the scale of potential for damage. When you tamper with the genes, you are irreversibly tampering with the natural patterns of our world at the most basic and most dangerous level.
New Genetically Engineered Foods
The Pure Foods Campaign has provided the following information on food plants, slightly edited.
Genetically engineered foods pose known risks to human health. Some have been engineered to have higher levels of toxins to make them insect-resistant. This purposeful increase in toxins reverses several thousands years of selective breeding to decrease toxicity. In addition, when plants are genetically engineered to resist predators, the plant defense systems often involve the synthesis of natural carcinogens (Science, 16 June 1989, p. 1233).
The following new genetic engineering foods and agricultural products are scheduled to hit the market soon -- untested and unlabeled.
Two genetically engineered tomatoes, produced by Monsanto, and DNA Plant Technology, have been engineered to delay ripening to make for easier shipping. A third tomato, by Zeneca Plant Sciences, has been bioengineered to produce more pectin and less water to aid in food processing. Commercialization of the tomatoes is dangerous because they contain antibiotic-resistant marker genes which some researchers say may remain in the human gut and enable dangerous organisms to develop antibiotic immunity.
Environmental risks include the potential for engineered genes to move into wild relatives, creating new viral strains, and enhancing the weediness of tomatoes. DNA Plant Technology's tomato, called "Endless Summer", is already on the market, as is Calgene's "Flavr Savr" tomato which was approved by the FDA in May 1994.
A yellow crookneck squash bioengineered to resist two plant viruses by Asgrow Seed Co. (a subsidiary of Upjohn Co.), could seriously damage the ecosystem, scientists say. Viruses spliced into the squash DNA could easily recombine with pre-existing viruses in the environment to produce new and possibly virulent strains. The squash, called "Freedom II", has been approved for commercialization this year.
Monsanto's new genetically engineered soybean has been modified so that it can survive heavy doses of Monsanto's poisonous weed-killing herbicide, Roundup (glyphosate). Agribusiness already dumps more than 500 million pounds of herbicides on U.S. farmland each year, with Roundup leading the toxic parade. Herbicides contaminate ground water and the food chain, contributing to the cancer epidemic which now strikes one in three citizens. A study released in August 1995 found that levels of herbicides in drinking water exceed federal safety levels in 29 cities and towns tested in the Corn Belt. Other risks include the potential for engineered genes to move into wild relatives or weeds. The soybeans, called "Roundup Ready", have been approved for commercialization this year.
Hoechst/AgrEvo has developed a corn plant called "Liberty Link", that resists the herbicide glufosinate. Approval for commercialization is pending.
Potatoes, cotton and corn bioengineered by Monsanto, and corn developed by Ciba-Geigy Corp. and Mycogen Plant Sciences, all secrete a poison that kills insects. Scientists transferred genetic material from the bacillus thuringiensis bacterium (B.t.), which naturally produces an insecticide, into these plants. B.t., a relatively safe biological pest control, is often used by organic growers who spray the bacteria, when needed, on plant leaves. The danger is that widespread use of B.T. will encourage the development of insects that can resist it. Thus, the one organic pesticide that organic growers can use will be rendered ineffective, threatening the entire organic food industry. Monsanto's potato, called "New Leaf", has been cleared for commercialization this year. Approvals for the others are imminent.
Calgene's new transgenic canola (rapeseed) plant, spliced with genetic material from the California bay plant, can produce lauric acid, a substance used by industry to produce soaps, chocolate and other foods. Its commercialization should be opposed because the plant will wreck the Third World-based coconut and palm kernel oil industry which currently exports hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of lauric oils to the U.S. each year. The product, called "Laurical", has been approved for commercialization this year.
EPA approval is pending on a bacterium, rhizobium meliloti, genetically engineered by Research Seeds, Inc., to enhance nitrogen fixation, and thus improve yields, in alfalfa plants. The natural form of the bacteria lives in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants like alfalfa where it converts (or "fixes") atmospheric nitrogen into a useable form. The release of this organism or any transgenic microbes into the environment should be opposed. Microbes are so tiny and impossible to contain that any negative effect they have on the environment could be catastrophic and irreversible.
Hundreds of other transgenic crops and agricultural products are now being field-tested or are pending approvals for commercialization.
MEAT, FISH AND DAIRY PRODUCTS
Several major universities in the country have successfully transplanted human and other genes into pigs, fish and abalone. Although the work has not been perfected to the point that genetically engineered meat and fish will appear in butcher shops this year, they are definitely on the way. Most of the work in this area has been concerned with producing animals or fish that grow faster and bigger. There is already widespread concern among sport fisherman about these new genetically engineered fish wiping out wild species.
Genetically engineered growth hormone (rBGH) is already in widespread use in the dairy industry. It, however, causes health problems in cows that necessitate wider use of antibiotics and medicines which are found in the milk. Ingestion of milk and other dairy products from rBGH cows then decreases the effectiveness of antibiotics for combating disease in humans. There are also claims that the use of rBGH often requires special nutritional supplements, which has led some farmers to use those produced from slaughtered animals. Improper sterilization of such supplements may have been a contributing factor to the spread of the so-called Mad Cow Disease in England.
Recent scientific research has also demonstrated the occurrence of severe allergic reactions to foods to which the eater is not allergic but which include genes genetically engineered into the food from other foods or substances to which the eater is allergic.
Health risks to humans from genetically engineered meat, fish and dairy products remain inadequately studied.
Problems Caused by Lack of Labeling
The problems caused by lack of labeling of genetic engineering foods fall into three categories: health hazards, religious concerns, and ethical concerns.
Proven health hazards from genetically engineered foods already mentioned include the production of carcinogens, a rise in level of toxins, resistance to antibiotics, and allergic reactions. A wide range of other concerns have also been voiced by scientists, with further research pending. Finally, there simply are no long term studies on the effect of genetically engineered foods on humans. Without labeling consumers have no way of avoiding the genetic engineering foods in question if they so choose.
There is a wide range of religious problems with genetically engineered foods. Religious vegetarians, such as Seventh Day Adventists and Buddhists, want to be able to identify and avoid fruits and vegetables with insect, animal or humans genes in them. Jews who keep kosher food laws want to be able to make sure that genetically engineered foods do not violate their restrictions. A broad spectrum of religious leaders in this country and throughout the world have serious doctrinal objections to the kind of tampering with the basic patterns of life that occur in most genetic engineering research. Without labeling these people have no way of avoiding the genetically engineered foods in question.
Many people who are not formally religious also have serious ethical objections to much of the genetic engineering research and development that is currently going on and wish to avoid genetically engineered foods for that reason. Without labeling they have no way of avoiding them.
Labeling Should Be A Right of Citizens in a Free Society
Since hundreds of billions of dollars a year is at stake in the biotech industry, the industry has embarked on a massive lobbying and PR campaign, which includes strategies to immediately attempt to discredit any opposition to their products, however reasonable. Because of their enormous political clout, they have thus far been able to pressure the FDA so that no labeling of genetic engineering products is currently required under federal law. Given the current political climate, despite valid scientific, ethical, and religious concerns, it is unlikely that federal labeling regulations will be introduced in the near future.
Lack of labeling of genetically engineered foods shows a blatant disregard for the rights of citizens in a free society. The overwhelming number of people naturally want to know what is in the food they are buying. Labeling for all kinds of ingredients is already required. In many cases the need for labeling of certain kinds of ingredients is not as urgent as for labeling of genetically engineered foods. Free choice in the food we buy is dependent on information on the content of the food. You cannot identify genetically engineered food just by looking at it. Without labeling citizens are denied what should be their fundamental right. Labeling genetically engineered foods in no way restricts the rights of those people who do decide to purchase and consume them.