GM Food for Thought


Unless you've gone exclusively organic, the odds are you've eaten potatoes that are registered pesticides. Monsanto's New Leaf Superior potato is engineered to produce the insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt kills the Colorado potato beetle but it is also in every one of the New Leaf Superior's cells. Thus, it is legally registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a pesticide, not a food...and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot regulate the New Leaf Superior potato because the FDA does not have the authority to regulate pesticides.

This would be an interesting and important issue even if it began and ended with the New Leaf Superior but the concerns swirling around genetically modified (GM) food run far deeper than a baked bug killer. Among the countless GM projects in use or in development, we have trees engineered never to flower, potatoes mixed with jellyfish genes that glow in the dark when they need watering, and so-called "edible vaccines."

Is any of this safe? Is it even understood?

Corporate proponents and their flacks would like us to believe so, and they often go to great lengths to discredit critics. For example, the most recent GM defense paints agro-giants as saviors: altruistic entities trying to feed the world. As part of his bullying effort to force GM food on the EU, George W. Bush declared, "European governments should join, not hinder, the great cause of ending hunger in Africa."

But hunger isn't a result of insufficient's more about the inequitable distribution of abundant resources. In a recent study of food production and hunger, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded, "Globally, there is enough land, soil and water, and enough potential for future growth in yields, to make the necessary production feasible."

Hunger is a political problem that GM food will not and cannot solve. Roughly 150 million acres of farmland around the world are planted with GM crops; primarily soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. These four big moneymakers do little if anything to nourish hungry people in developing countries.

"The field is dominated by five very large multinational corporations," says Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "For these corporations, there is no profit to investing in expensive research on new products that can only be purchased by subsistence African farmers with little money. So quite logically, these companies are not focused on improving the basic crops of the developing world such as millet, sorghum, cowpeas, yams or cassava."

What these companies are focused on is ignoring public sentiment and rigorous science. Early in 2001, the Royal Society of Canada -- the nation's foremost scientific body -- said there was insufficient research into the potential allergic effects and toxicity of genetically engineered foods. GM foods could cause "serious risks to human health," the society said. "Genetic engineering of food has far outrun the science that must be its first governing discipline," adds Ralph Nader. "Many unknowns attend the insertion of genes across species, from ecological risks to food allergies. These unknowns beg for investigation."

Long-term (and unbiased) research is needed to make anything approaching an accurate assessment. While such investigation does not appear forthcoming at this juncture, there is enough already known about GM food to put its safety in doubt:

  • Scientists have discovered that the aforementioned Bt may produce allergies in people. A July 1999 study of Ohio crop pickers and handlers shows that Bt "can provoke immunological changes indicative of a developing allergy. With long-term exposure, affected individuals may develop asthma or other serious allergic reactions."

  • Genetic engineers use antibiotic "markers" in almost every GM organism to indicate that the organism has been successfully engineered. These markers may play a role in the diminishing efficacy of antibiotics against diseases.

  • Scientists warn that once the GM organisms and their altered genes are released into nature, they may spread widely. Poisons, mutagens, and carcinogens might be created in harmful concentrations.

  • English Nature, Britain's chief conservation agency, believes GM farming will lead to a new generation of herbicide-resistant crops, which could devastate the countryside. Dr. Brian Johnson, a co-author of the English Nature report, said: "If you hit them with most of the conventional herbicides they just smile at you. They certainly don't die."

  • GM soy-based infant formula has raised levels of estrogen, and today more than 1 percent of 3-year-old U.S. girls have pubic hair. Any links?

  • Scientists believe GM crops may be deadly to wildlife (i.e. the Monarch butterfly) and may result in increased pesticide pollution and soil damage, genetic contamination of the environment, and risks to biodiversity.

  • Tobacco plants were genetically engineered to produce the Gamma-linoleic acid. Instead the plant unexpectedly mainly produced the toxic octadecatetraenic acid. This substance does not exist in the natural tobacco plant. (Reddy SA, Thomas TL. Nature Biotechnology, vol 14, sid 639-642, May 1996).

  • When a yeast was manipulated for increased fermentation there was an unexpected production of a metabolite (methyl-glyoxal) in toxic and mutagenic concentrations. (Inose, T. Murata, K. Int. J. Food Science Tech. 30: 141-146, 1995).

  • When a gene from the Brazil nut was inserted into a soy bean it appeared that it unexpectedly caused strong allergic reactions in people allergic to nuts who never had any problems formerly in eating soy products.(Nordlee, J.A. et al. The New England Journal of Medicine 14: 688-728; 1996).

GM advocates point to studies and statements from scientific bodies as support for their safety claims. However, technology like GM food is typically based upon research that is funded by corporations. In their book, "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future," authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber discuss the vast amount of time that "a modern researcher spends writing grant proposals; coddling department heads; corporate donors, and government bureaucrats; or engaging in any of the other activities that are necessary to obtain research funding."

The influence of this money on research can result in the suppression of certain studies while corporations commission writers to pen favorable articles in peer-reviewed journals. In 1999, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Drummond Rennie, complained that the "influence of private funding on medical research has created 'a race to the ethical bottom.'"

Government agencies have also become bottom dwellers. "Pharmaceutical companies are big campaign finance contributors having given $44 million over the last ten years," explains Dr. Ray Greek, president of Americans For Medical Advancement. "Food and Drug Administration scientists who approve drugs or decide upon regulations are also current, past or future employees of the drug industry. They are inextricably tied to the industry that they are supposed to be policing. What this means is that the FDA is effectively financed and staffed by the pharmaceutical industry. The agency 'works for' the industry, not for consumers, because consumers are not making campaign contributions; nor are they arbiters of job security."

In such an environment, it comes as no surprise to hear Philip J. Regal, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, equate the current lack of regulation with "playing Russian roulette with public health." Regal adds: "We've had years and years of scientific discussion about this, and the conclusion is very clear. If it continues along this path, some of these foods are eventually going to hurt somebody."

"Recombinant DNA technology is an inherently risky method for producing new foods," warns Dr. Richard Lacey, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Leeds. "Its risks are in large part due to the complexity and interdependency of the parts of a living system, including its DNA. Wedging foreign genetic material in an essentially random manner into an organism's genome necessarily causes some degree of disruption, and the disruption could be multifaceted. It is impossible to predict what specific problems could result in the case of any particular genetically engineered organism."

As with any new technology, the onus is on the proponents to prove safety...not the critics to prove danger. If there is doubt, the technology should not be utilized (see: DDT and Agent Orange). If corporations want glow-in-the-dark potatoes, let's do away with the subterfuge and shine some light on the process. Our scientific/medical paradigm is overloaded with "institutions" like vaccinations, animal experimentation, nuclear power, and pharmaceuticals that were developed in the dark and force-fed to the public. Those who question these theologies are met with mockery and personal attacks...and often find themselves relegated to the fringe. Will the same happen to anyone challenging GM food?

More than 450 scientists recently signed a statement calling for a complete moratorium on the release of GM crops. "It is time to re-establish priorities," Nader concludes. "Protection of human health and the environment must take precedence over corporate efforts to rush the latest product to market and please investors. The commodification of life must be stopped. Sci-fi-like proclamations about 'improving' the human species through germline modification must not be permitted to translate into public policy."

No one can say with certainty that GM foods are safe or unsafe. Isn't that reason enough to mandate more research...under public scrutiny?

Mickey Z. is the author of "The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet" ( and an editor at Wide Angle ( He can be reached at:

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