SUPERBUGS: Of the 50 or so genetically engineered plants currently cleared by the government for use, most fall into two basic categories: plants engineered to include their own pesticide, a toxin produced by the BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) bacterium, and plants engineered to survive weed killers, including the so-called Roundup Ready Soybeans and cotton.
BT is a natural and highly effective pesticide that has long been used by organic growers to control caterpillars and other pests. What organic farmers and gardeners use sparingly, biotechnology has introduced into each cell of every genetically engineered plant, from the roots to the pollen to the chaff plowed after harvest. Because of BT’s ubiquitous presence in millions of acres of crops, even the industry’s own scientists concede that it is just a matter of time — as little as 3 to 5 years — before BT resistant insect strains evolve. Directives that farmers interplant these BT carrying crops with non-modified varieties are expected to merely delay the inevitable. When the inevitable happens, organic growers will lose a powerful pest control, and conventional growers will return to chemical pesticides — unless, of course, biotechnology can come up with yet a new generation of pest-immune crops.
SUPERWEEDS: Scientists also warn that some herbicide-tolerant crops are cross-pollinating with wild cousins and could create herbicide-resistant weeds. Another threat, according to Dr. Rissler, is that some genetically engineered crops themselves, bred to resist insects and other natural controls, could become invasive, spreading beyond their fields and choking out natural habitats.
POLLEN DRIFT: Organic farmers could lose their certification and face huge financial losses if their fields are contaminated by wind-borne pollen from neighboring genetically modified crops. Even non-organic farmers are at risk for problems. In Canada, Monsanto accused canola grower Percy Schmeiser of patent infringement after the company found genetically engineered Roundup Ready canola plants in Schmeiser’s fields. Schmeiser claims he never planted any Monsanto seeds. After mediation efforts failed last summer, he filed a $10 million lawsuit against Monsanto, claiming libel, trespassing and contamination of his fields.
HARM TO WILDLIFE: Cornell University researchers made headlines when they announced laboratory research showing that monarch butterfly larvae died after eating milkweed dusted with genetically engineered corn pollen containing the BT pesticide. Milkweed, the monarch’s primary source of food, commonly grows alongside corn. Researchers in Europe have made similar discoveries involving ladybugs and green lacewings, both beneficial insects. Yet another study, reported in 1997 in the British publication, New Scientist, indicates that honeybees may be harmed by feeding on proteins found in genetically engineered canola flowers.
HARM TO SOIL: Microbiologists at New York University have found that the BT toxin in residues of genetically altered corn and rice crops persists in soils for up to eight months and depresses microbial activity. In another study, scientists in Oregon tested an experimental genetically engineered soil microbe in the laboratory and found it killed wheat plants when added to the soil in which they were grown.
HUMAN HEATH: Even as the biotech industry and government regulators have assured us that there is no reason to worry, a growing body of evidence indicated that genetic engineering can cause unintended changes to our food, making it less nutritious or even harmful. For example, a study in a 1998-99 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food indicates that compared with non-modified soy varieties, genetically altered, herbicide-tolerant varieties may contain lower levels of potentially beneficial plant estrogens. Another study, reported in a 1996 article in the International Journal of Health Services, warns that milk produced from cows injected with Monsanto’s controversial genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH) contains higher levels of a growth factor that may be linked to increased risk of both breast and gastrointestinal cancers in humans. Americans have been drinking unlabeled BGH produce milk for years, but it has always been banned in Canada and Europe.
HIDDEN ALLERGENS: The foundation of genetic engineering is DNA, which directs the production of proteins. Proteins are also common sources of human allergens. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, can it turn a non-allergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some people? Yes, reported research in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1996. The case involved an attempt by the Iowa based biotech seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred International to change the protein content of soybeans by adding a gene from a Brazil nut. When researchers tested the modified soybean on people with sensitivity to Brazil nuts (but no sensitivity to soybeans), they found it triggered an allergic reaction. Based on those findings, the company shelved development of the soybean. The author of an editorial in the same issue wrote that the next case could be less ideal, and the public less fortunate.
RELIGIOUS AND MORAL CONSIDERATIONS: People who choose not to eat animals for religious, health or moral reasons face an almost impossible task with many genetically engineered foods. When cold-hardiness genes from flounders are spliced into tomatoes or genes from chickens are added to potatoes for increased disease resistance, are those vegetables still, purely speaking, vegetables? Without mandatory labeling, how can people who object to eating any trace of meat know what they are getting?
ANTIBIOTIC RESISANCE: Genetic engineers use antibiotic marker genes to help them transfer genetic coding from one life form to another. Some scientists worry that this process could compound the already serious problem of antibiotic resistance in humans. Government scientists in Britain warn that the antibiotic resistance introduced into humans from genetically modified foods could render established medical treatments for such infections as meningitis and gonorrhea ineffective.
INDENTURED FARMERS: Because genetic engineering research is so expensive, for-profit corporations whose primary goal is return on investment, not public good, largely control it. These corporations are rapidly buying up seed companies and gaining control of entire food production systems and educational research facilities. Farmers who use this patented technology are prohibited from the time-honored tradition of saving seed to use the following season. They are forced into a costly cycle of corporate dependency.
The results of fifty years of chemical-based “high-tech” agriculture have made it clear that we must rethink the way we grow food. The answer lies in a return to sustainable, organic growing practices. Our children and grandchildren have just one future. Are we willing to risk it?
Vol 19 Issue 4 page 1