Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops:
Why We Need A Global Moratorium

by: Ronnie Cummins,
Campaign for Food Safety/Organic Consumers Association

The technology of genetic engineering (GE), wielded by transnational "life
science" corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis, is the practice of
altering or disrupting the genetic blueprints of living organisms--plants,
animals, humans, microorganisms--patenting them, and then selling the
resulting gene-foods, seeds, or other products for profit. Life science
corporations proclaim, with great fanfare, that their new products will
make agriculture sustainable, eliminate world hunger, cure disease, and
vastly improve public health. In reality, through their business practices
and political lobbying, the gene engineers have made it clear that they
intend to use GE to dominate and monopolize the global market for seeds,
foods, fiber, and medical products.

GE is a revolutionary new technology still in its early experimental stages
of development. This technology has the power to break down fundamental
genetic barriers--not only between species--but between humans, animals,
and plants. By randomly inserting together the genes of non-related
species--utilizing viruses, antibiotic-resistant genes, and bacteria as
vectors, markers, and promoters--and permanently altering their genetic
codes, gene-altered organisms are created that pass these genetic changes
onto their offspring through heredity. Gene engineers all over the world
are now snipping, inserting, recombining, rearranging, editing, and
programming genetic material. Animal genes and even human genes are
randomly 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 restraints, 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 several billion farmers and
rural villagers. Despite an increasing number of scientists warning that
current gene-splicing techniques are crude, inexact, and unpredictable--and
therefore inherently dangerous--pro-biotech governments and regulatory
agencies, led by the US, maintain that GE foods and crops are
"substantially equivalent" to conventional foods, and therefore require
neither mandatory labeling nor pre-market safety-testing. This Brave New
World of Frankenfoods is frightening.

There are currently more than four dozen genetically engineered foods and
crops being grown or sold in the US. These foods and crops are widely
dispersed into the food chain and the environment. Over 70 million acres of
GE crops are presently under cultivation in the US, while up to 500,000
dairy cows are being injected regularly with Monsanto's 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
biotechnology industry almost 100% of US food and fiber will be genetically
engineered within 5-10 years. The "hidden menu" of these unlabeled
genetically engineered foods and food ingredients in the US now includes
soybeans, soy oil, corn, potatoes, squash, canola oil, cotton seed oil,
papaya, tomatoes, and dairy products.

Genetic engineering of food and fiber products is inherently unpredictable
and dangerous--for humans, for animals, the environment, and for the future
of sustainable and organic agriculture. As Dr. Michael Antoniou, a British
molecular scientist points out, gene-splicing has already resulted in the
"unexpected production of toxic substances... in genetically engineered
bacteria, yeast, plants, and animals with the problem remaining undetected
until a major health hazard has arisen." The hazards of GE foods and crops
fall basically into three categories: human health hazards, environmental
hazards, and socioeconomic hazards. A brief look at the already-proven and
likely hazards of GE products provides a convincing argument for why we
need a global moratorium on all GE foods and crops.

Toxins & Poisons

Genetically engineered products clearly have the potential to be toxic and
a threat to human health. 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, eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS),
before it was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration. The
manufacturer, Showa Denko, Japan's third largest chemical company, had for
the first time in 1988-89 used GE bacteria to produce the over-the-counter
supplement. It is believed that the bacteria somehow became contaminated
during the recombinant DNA process. Showa Denko has already paid out over
$2 billion in damages to EMS victims.

In 1999, front-page headline stories in the British press revealed Rowett
Institute scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai's explosive research findings that GE
potatoes, spliced with DNA from the snowdrop plant and a commonly used
viral promoter, the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMv),  are poisonous to
mammals. GE-snowdrop potatoes, found to be  significantly different in
chemical composition from regular potatoes, damaged the vital organs and
immune systems of lab rats fed the GE potatoes. Most alarming of all,
damage to the rats' stomach linings--apparently a severe viral
infection--most likely was caused by the CaMv viral promoter, a promoter
spliced into nearly all GE foods and crops.

Dr. Pusztai's pathbreaking research work unfortunately remains incomplete
(government funding was cut off and he was fired after he spoke to the
media). But 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. And since regulatory agencies do not currently
require the kind of thorough chemical and feeding tests that Dr. Pusztai
was conducting, consumers have now become involuntary guinea pigs in a vast
genetic experiment. As Dr. Pusztai warns, "Think of William Tell shooting
an arrow at a target. Now put a blindfold on the man doing the shooting and
that's the reality of the genetic engineer doing a gene insertion."

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-- even though scientists warned that
significantly higher levels (400-500% or more) of a potent chemical
hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), in the milk and dairy products
of injected cows, could pose serious hazards for human breast, prostate,
and colon cancer. A number of studies have shown that humans with elevated
levels of IGF-1 in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer. In
addition the US Congressional watchdog agency, the GAO, 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 for public
health. In 1998, heretofore undisclosed Monsanto/FDA documents were
released by government scientists in Canada, showing damage to laboratory
rats fed dosages of rBGH. Significant infiltration of rBGH into the
prostate of the rats as well as thyroid cysts indicated potential cancer
hazards from the drug. Subsequently the government of Canada banned rBGH in
early 1999. The European Union has had a ban in place since 1994. Although
rBGH continues to be injected into 4-5% of all US dairy cows, no other
industrialized country has legalized its use. Even the GATT Codex
Alimentarius, a United Nations food standards body, has refused to certify
that rBGH is safe.

Food Allergies

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 Brazil nuts.
Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans had turned up negative.
People with food allergies (which currently afflicts 8% of all American
children), whose symptoms can range from mild unpleasantness to sudden
death, may likely be harmed by exposure to foreign proteins spliced into
common food products. Since humans have never before eaten most of the
foreign proteins now being gene-spliced into foods, stringent pre-market
safety-testing (including long-term animal feeding and volunteer human
feeding studies) is necessary in order to prevent a future public health
disaster. Mandatory labeling is also necessary so that those suffering from
food allergies can avoid hazardous GE foods and so that public health
officials can trace allergens back to their source when GE-induced food
allergies break out.

Unfortunately the FDA and other global regulatory agencies do not routinely
require pre-market animal and human studies to ascertain whether new
allergens or toxins, or increased levels of human allergens or toxins we
already know about, are present in genetically engineered foods. As British
scientist Dr. 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

Damage to Food Quality & Nutrition

A 1999 study by Dr. Marc Lappe 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 genetically modified
soybeans than in traditional strains. These and other studies, including
Dr. Pusztai's, indicate that genetically engineering food will likely
result in foods lower in quality and nutrition. For example the milk from
cows injected with rBGH contains higher levels of pus, bacteria, and fat.

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 these ARM genes might
unexpectedly recombine with disease-causing bacteria or microbes in the
environment or in the guts of animals or people who eat GE food,
contributing to the growing public health danger of antibiotic
resistance--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 in the Soil and on Crops

Contrary to biotech industry propaganda, recent studies have found that US
farmers growing GE crops are using just as many toxic pesticides and
herbicides as conventional farmers, and in some cases are using more. Crops
genetically engineered to be herbicide-resistant account for 70% of all GE
crops planted in 1998. The so-called "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 broad-spectrum 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 that 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

"Genetic pollution" and collateral damage from GE field crops already have
begun to wreak environmental havoc. 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 gentic contamination of non-GE foods, because they
don't believe genetic pollution can be controlled. Because they are alive,
gene-altered crops are inherently more unpredictable than chemical
pollutants--they can reproduce, migrate, and mutate. Once released, it is
virtually impossible to recall genetically engineered organisms back to the
laboratory or the field.

Damage to Beneficial Insects and Soil Fertility

Earlier this year, Cornell University researchers made a startling
discovery. They found that pollen from genetically engineered Bt 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 GE "Superweeds" and "Superpests"

Genetically engineering crops to be herbicide-resistant or to produce their
own pesticide presents dangerous problems. Pests and weeds will inevitably
emerge that are pesticide or herbicide-resistant, which means that
stronger, more toxic chemicals will be needed to get rid of the pests. 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
boll worms, living under constant pressure from GE crops, will soon evolve
into "superpests" completely immune to Bt sprays and other environmentally
sustainable biopesticides. This will present 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.

Creation of New Viruses and Bacteria

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
genetically engineered soil microorganism, Klebsiella planticola,
completely killed essential soil nutrients. Environmental Protection Agency
whistle blowers issued similar warnings in 1997 protesting government
approval of a GE soil bacteria called Rhizobium melitoli.

Genetic "Bio-Invasion"

By virtue of their "superior" genes, some genetically engineered plants and
animals will inevitably run amok, overpowering wild species in the same way
that introduced exotic species, such as kudzu vine and Dutch elm disease,
which have created problems in North America. What will happen to wild fish
and marine species, for example, when scientists release into the
environment carp, salmon, and trout that are twice as large, and eat twice
as much food, as their wild counterparts?

Socioeconomic Hazards

The patenting of genetically engineered foods and widespread biotech food
production threatens to eliminate farming as it has been practiced for
12,000 years. GE patents such as the Terminator Technology will 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 such as Monsanto 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. Rural communities will be
devastated.Hundreds of millions of farmers and agricultural workers
worldwide will lose their livelihoods.

Ethical Hazards

The genetic engineering and patenting of animals reduces living beings to
the status of manufactured products and will result in much suffering. In
January 1994, the USDA announced that scientists had completed genetic
"road maps" for cattle and pigs, a precursor to evermore 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" which contains a
human cancer-causing gene that will be passed down to all succeeding
generations, were created to suffer. A purely reductionist science,
biotechnology reduces all life to bits of information (genetic code) that
can be arranged and rearranged at whim. Stripped of their integrity and
sacred qualities, animals who are merely objects to their "inventors" will
be treated as such. Currently, hundreds of genetically engineered "freak"
animals are awaiting patent approval from the federal government. One can
only wonder, after the wholesale gene-altering and patenting of animals,
will GE "designer babies" be next?