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Why do you think they are injecting things into the fruits and veggies?

Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?
(Released April 2000)
by Deborah B. Whitman

Genetically-modified foods (GM foods) have made a big splash in the news
lately. European environmental organizations and public interest groups have
been actively protesting against GM foods for months, and recent controversial
studies about the effects of genetically-modified corn pollen on monarch
butterfly caterpillars 1, 2 have brought the issue of genetic engineering to
the forefront of the public consciousness in the U.S. In response to the
upswelling of public concern, the U.S. cooking.net">food and Drug Administration (FDA) held
three open meetings in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, California to
solicit public opinions and begin the process of establishing a new regulatory
procedure for government approval of GM foods 3. I attended the FDA meeting
held in November 1999 in Washington, D.C., and here I will attempt to summarize
the issues involved and explain the U.S. government's present role in
regulating GM food.

What are genetically-modified foods?

The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly
used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the
latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the
laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides
or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has
traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding
methods can be very time consuming and are often not very accurate. Genetic
engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait
very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, plant geneticists can
isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a
different plant. The new genetically-modified plant will gain drought tolerance
as well. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes
from non-plant organisms also can be used. The best known example of this is
the use of B.t. genes in corn and other crops. B.t., or Bacillus thuringiensis,
is a naturally occurring bacterium that produces crystal proteins that are
lethal to insect larvae. B.t. crystal protein genes have been transferred into
corn, enabling the corn to produce its own pesticides against insects such as
the European corn borer. For two informative overviews of some of the
techniques involved in creating GM foods, visit Biotech Basics (sponsored by
Monsanto) http://www.***.com/
Plant Biotechnology from the National Center for Biotechnology Education

What are some of the advantages of GM foods?

The world population has topped 6 billion people and is predicted to double in
the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate cooking.net">food supply for this booming population
is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet
this need in a number of ways:

Pest resistance Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in
devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries.
Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do
not wish to eat cooking.net">food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential
health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of
pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the
environment. Growing GM foods such as B.t. corn can help eliminate the
application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to
market 4, 5.

Herbicide tolerance For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by
physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of
different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and
expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the
crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be
resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental
damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has
created a strain of soybeans genetically modified to be not affected by their
herbicide product Roundup ? 6. A farmer grows these soybeans which then only
require one application of weed-killer instead of multiple applications,
reducing production cost and limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off

Disease resistance There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant
diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with
genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases 8, 9.

Cold tolerance Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze
gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and
potato. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold
temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings 10. (Note: I have
not been able to find any journal articles or patents that involve fish
antifreeze proteins in strawberries, although I have seen such reports in
newspapers. I can only conclude that nothing on this application has yet been
published or patented.)

Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance As the world population grows and more
land is utilized for housing instead of cooking.net">food production, farmers will need to
grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating
plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil
and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places
11, 12.

Nutrition Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished
peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet.
However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to
prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain
additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated.
For example, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in third
world countries. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of "golden" rice containing
an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A) 13. Since this rice was
funded by the Rockefeller Foundation 14, a non-profit organization, the
Institute hopes to offer the golden rice seed free to any third world country
that requests it. Plans were underway to develop a golden rice that also has
increased iron content. However, the grant that funded the creation of these
two rice strains was not renewed, perhaps because of the vigorous anti-GM cooking.net">food
protesting in Europe, and so this nutritionally-enhanced rice may not come to
market at all 15.

Pharmaceuticals Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and
sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third
world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes
and potatoes 16, 17. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and
administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

Phytoremediation Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Soil and groundwater
pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as
poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution
from contaminated soil 18.
How prevalent are GM crops? What plants are involved?

According to the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),
there are over 40 plant varieties that have completed all of the federal
requirements for commercialization
( http://www.***.com/ %7Elrd/biocon.html). Some examples of these plants
include tomatoes and cantalopes that have modified ripening characteristics,
soybeans and sugarbeets that are resistant to herbicides, and corn and cotton
plants with increased resistance to insect pests. Not all these products are
available in supermarkets yet; however, the prevalence of GM foods in U.S.
grocery stores is more widespread than is commonly thought. While there are
very, very few genetically-modified whole fruits and vegetables available on
produce stands, highly processed foods, such as vegetable oils or breakfast
cereals, most likely contain some tiny percentage of genetically-modified
ingredients because the raw ingredients have been pooled into one processing
stream from many different sources. Also, the ubiquity of soybean derivatives
as cooking.net">food additives in the modern American diet virtually ensures that all U.S.
consumers have been exposed to GM cooking.net">food products.

The U.S. statistics that follow are derived from data presented on the USDA web
site at http://www.***.com/
are derived from a brief published by the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) at
Organization at http://www.***.com/

The U.S. produces most of the world's genetically-engineered crops. In 1998,
74% of all GM crops were grown by U.S. farmers. In comparison, Argentina,
Canada and Australia produced only 15%, 10% and 1%, respectively. Soybeans and
corn are the top two most widely grown crops (82% of all GM crops harvested in
1998), with cotton,{*filter*}seed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind. 71% of
these GM crops were modified for herbicide tolerance, and 28% were modified for
insect pest resistance. Globally, acreage of GM crops has increased 25-fold in
just 4 years, from approximately 4.3 million acres in 1996 to 100 million acres
in 1999. Approximately 81 million acres were devoted to GM crops in the U.S.
and Canada alone.

In the U.S. approximately 57% of all soybeans cultivated in 1999 were
genetically-modified, up from 42% in 1998 and only 7% in 1996. B.t. corn and
B.t. cotton also experienced similar but less dramatic increases. B.t. corn
production increased to 30% of all corn grown in 1999, from 26% in 1998, and
1.5% in 1996. B.t. cotton was 27% of the total crop in 1999, up from 23% in
1998, and 19% in 1996. As anticipated, pesticide and herbicide use on these GM
varieties was slashed (see table at
http://www.***.com/ ) and, for the most
part, yields were increased
( http://www.***.com/ ).

What are some of the criticisms against GM foods?

Environmental activists, religious organizations, public interest groups,
professional associations and other scientists and government officials have
all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing
profit without concern for potential hazards, and the government for failing to
exercise adequate regulatory oversight. It seems that everyone has a strong
opinion about GM foods. Even the Vatican 19 and the Prince of Wales 20 have
expressed their opinions. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three
categories: environmental hazards, human health risks, and economic concerns.

Environmental hazards

Unintended harm to other organisms Last year a laboratory study was published
in Nature 21 showing that pollen from B.t. corn caused high mortality rates in
monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants,
not corn, but the fear is that if pollen from B.t. corn is blown by the wind
onto milkweed plants in neighboring fields, the caterpillars could eat the
pollen and perish. Although the Nature study was not conducted under natural
field conditions, the results seemed to support this viewpoint. Unfortunately,
B.t. toxins kill many species of insect larvae indiscriminately; it is not
possible to design a B.t. toxin that would only kill crop-damaging pests and
remain harmless to all other insects. This study is being reexamined by the
USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other non-government
research groups, and preliminary data from new studies suggests that the
original study may have been flawed 22, 23. This topic is the subject of
acrimonious debate, and both sides of the argument are defending their data
vigorously. Currently, there is no agreement about the results of these
studies, and the potential risk of harm to non-target organisms will need to be
evaluated further.

Reduced effectiveness of pesticides Just as some populations of mosquitoes
developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned
that insects will become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been
genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.

Gene transfer to non-target species Another concern is that crop plants
engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the
transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These
"superweeds" would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Other introduced genes
may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to GM crops. The
possibility of interbreeding is shown by the defense of farmers against
lawsuits filed by Monsanto. The company has filed patent infringement lawsuits
against farmers who may have harvested GM crops. Monsanto claims that the
farmers obtained Monsanto-licensed GM seeds from an unknown source and did not
pay royalties to Monsanto. The farmers claim that their unmodified crops were
cross-pollinated from someone else's GM crops planted a field or two away. More
investigation is needed to resolve this issue.
There are several possible solutions to the three problems mentioned above.
Genes are exchanged between plants via pollen. Two ways to ensure that
non-target species will not receive introduced genes from GM plants are to
create GM plants that are male sterile (do not produce pollen) or to modify the
GM plant so that the pollen does not contain the introduced gene 24, 25, 26.
Cross-pollination would not occur, and if harmless insects such as monarch
caterpillars were to eat pollen from GM plants, the caterpillars would survive.

Another possible solution is to create buffer zones around fields of GM crops
27, 28, 29. For example, non-GM corn would be planted to surround a field of
B.t. GM corn, and the non-GM corn would not be harvested. Beneficial or
harmless insects would have a refuge in the non-GM corn, and insect pests could
be allowed to destroy the non-GM corn and would not develop resistance to B.t.
pesticides. Gene transfer to weeds and other crops would not occur because the
wind-blown pollen would not travel beyond the buffer zone. Estimates of the
necessary width of buffer zones range from 6 meters to 30 meters or more 30.
This planting method may not be feasible if too much acreage is required for
the buffer zones.

Human health risks

Allergenicity Many children in the US and Europe have developed
life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility
that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an
allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. A proposal to incorporate a gene
from Brazil nuts into soybeans was abandoned because of the fear of causing
unexpected allergic reactions 31. Extensive testing of GM foods may be required
to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with cooking.net">food allergies. Labeling of
GM foods and cooking.net">food products will acquire new importance, which I shall discuss

Unknown effects on human health There is a growing concern that introducing
foreign genes into cooking.net">food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on
human health. A recent article published in Lancet examined the effects of GM
potatoes on the digestive tract in rats 32, 33. This study claimed that there
were appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed GM potatoes and rats
fed unmodified potatoes. Yet critics say that this paper, like the monarch
butterfly data, is flawed and does not hold up to scientific scrutiny 34.
Moreover, the gene introduced into the potatoes was a snowdrop flower lectin, a
substance known to be toxic to mammals. The scientists who created this variety
of potato chose to use the lectin gene simply to test the methodology, and
these potatoes were never intended for human or animal consumption.
On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe
that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.

Economic concerns

Bringing a GM cooking.net">food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course
agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment.
Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been
patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet
consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will
raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries
will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between
the wealthy and the poor. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more
companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation
and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations.

Patent enforcement may also be difficult, as the contention of the farmers that
they involuntarily grew Monsanto-engineered strains when their crops were
cross-pollinated shows. One way to combat possible patent infringement is to
introduce a "suicide gene" into GM plants. These plants would be viable for
only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate.
Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this
would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot
afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their
harvest to plant in the next growing season. In an open letter to the public,
Monsanto has pledged to abandon all research using this suicide gene technology

How are GM foods regulated and what is the government's role in this process?

Governments around the world are hard at work to establish a regulatory process
to monitor the effects of and approve new varieties of GM plants. Yet depending
on the political, social and economic climate within a region or country,
different governments are responding in different ways.

In Japan, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has announced that health testing
of GM foods will be mandatory as of April 2001 36, 37. Currently, testing of GM
foods is voluntary. Japanese supermarkets are offering both GM foods and
unmodified foods, and customers are beginning to show a strong preference for
unmodified fruits and vegetables.

India's government has not yet announced a policy on GM foods because no GM
crops are grown in India and no products are commercially available in
supermarkets yet 38. India is, however, very supportive of transgenic plant
research. It is highly likely that India will decide that the benefits of GM
foods outweigh the risks because Indian agriculture will need to adopt drastic
new measures to counteract the country's endemic poverty and feed its exploding

Some states in Brazil have banned GM crops entirely, and the Brazilian
Institute for the Defense of Consumers, in collaboration with Greenpeace, has
filed suit to prevent the importation of GM crops 39,. Brazilian farmers,
however, have resorted to smuggling GM soybean seeds into the country because
they fear economic harm if they are unable to compete in the global marketplace
with other grain-exporting countries.

In Europe, anti-GM cooking.net">food protestors have been especially active. In the last few
years Europe has experienced two major foods scares: bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in Great Britain and dioxin-tainted foods
originating from Belgium. These cooking.net">food scares have undermined consumer confidence
about the European cooking.net">food supply, and citizens are disinclined to trust
government information about GM foods. In response to the public outcry, Europe
now requires mandatory cooking.net">food labeling of GM foods in stores, and the European
Commission (EC) has established a 1% threshold for contamination of unmodified
foods with GM cooking.net">food products 40.

In the United States, the regulatory process is confused because there are
three different government agencies that have jurisdiction over GM foods. To
put it very simply, the EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the
USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether
the plant is safe to eat. The EPA is responsible for regulating substances such
as pesticides or toxins that may cause harm to the environment. GM crops such
as B.t. pesticide-laced corn or herbicide-tolerant crops but not foods modified
for their nutritional value fall under the purview of the EPA. The USDA is
responsible for GM crops that do not fall under the umbrella of the EPA such as
drought-tolerant or disease-tolerant crops, crops grown for animal feeds, or
whole fruits, vegetables and grains for human consumption. The FDA historically
has been concerned with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and cooking.net">food products and
additives, not whole foods. Under current guidelines, a genetically-modified
ear of corn sold at a produce stand is not regulated by the FDA because it is a
whole food, but a box of cornflakes is regulated because it is a cooking.net">food product.
The FDA's stance is that GM foods are substantially equivalent to unmodified,
"natural" foods, and therefore not subject to FDA regulation.

The EPA conducts risk assessment studies on pesticides that could potentially
cause harm to human health and the environment, and establishes tolerance and
residue levels for pesticides. There are strict limits on the amount of
pesticides that may be applied to crops during growth and production, as well
as the amount that remains in the cooking.net">food after processing. Growers using
pesticides must have a license for each pesticide and must follow the
directions on the label to accord with the EPA's safety standards. Government
inspectors may periodically visit farms and conduct investigations to ensure
compliance. Violation of government regulations may result in steep fines, loss
of license and even jail sentences.

As an example the EPA regulatory approach, consider B.t. corn. The EPA has not
established limits on residue levels in B.t corn because the B.t. in the corn
is not sprayed as a chemical pesticide but is a gene that is integrated into
the genetic material of the corn itself. Growers must have a license from the
EPA for B.t corn, and the EPA has issued a letter for the 2000 growing season
requiring farmers to plant 20% unmodified corn, and up to 50% unmodified corn
in regions where cotton is also cultivated 41. This planting strategy may help
prevent insects from developing resistance to the B.t. pesticides as well as
provide a refuge for non-target insects such as Monarch butterflies.

The USDA has many internal divisions that share responsibility for assessing GM
foods. Among these divisions are APHIS, the Animal Health and Plant Inspection
Service, which conducts field tests and issues permits to grow GM crops, the
Agricultural Research Service which performs in-house GM cooking.net">food research, and the
Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service which oversees the
USDA risk assessment program. The USDA is concerned with potential hazards of
the plant itself. Does it harbor insect pests? Is it a noxious weed? Will it
cause harm to indigenous species if it escapes from farmer's fields? The USDA
has the power to impose quarantines on problem regions to prevent movement of
suspected plants, restrict import or export of suspected plants, and can even
destroy plants cultivated in violation of USDA regulations. Many GM plants do
not require USDA permits from APHIS. A GM plant does not require a permit if it
meets these 6 criteria: 1) the plant is not a noxious weed; 2) the genetic
material introduced into the GM plant is stably integrated into the plant's own
genome; 3) the function of the introduced gene is known and does not cause
plant disease; 4) the GM plant is not toxic to non-target organisms; 5) the
introduced gene will not cause the creation of new plant viruses; and 6) the GM
plant cannot contain genetic material from animal or human pathogens (see
http://www.***.com/ :80/bbep/bp/7cfr340.html ).

The current FDA policy was developed in 1992 (Federal Register Docket No.
92N-0139) and states that agri-biotech companies may voluntarily ask the FDA
for a consultation. Companies working to create new GM foods are not required
to consult the FDA, nor are they required to follow the FDA's recommendations
after the consultation. Consumer interest groups wish this process to be
mandatory, so that all GM cooking.net">food products, whole foods or otherwise, must be
approved by the FDA before being released for commercialization. The FDA
counters that the agency currently does not have the time, money, or resources
to carry out exhaustive health and safety studies of every proposed GM cooking.net">food
product. Moreover, the FDA policy as it exists today does not allow for this
type of intervention.

How are GM foods labeled?

Labeling of GM foods and cooking.net">food products is also a contentious issue. On the
whole, agribusiness industries believe that labeling should be voluntary and
influenced by the demands of the free market. If consumers show preference for
labeled foods over non-labeled foods, then industry will have the incentive to
regulate itself or risk alienating the customer. Consumer interest groups, on
the other hand, are demanding mandatory labeling. People have the right to know
what they are eating, argue the interest groups, and historically industry has
proven itself to be unreliable at self-compliance with existing safety
regulations. The FDA's current position on cooking.net">food labeling is governed by the
Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with cooking.net">food additives, not
whole foods or cooking.net">food products that are considered "GRAS" - generally recognized
as safe. The FDA contends that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM
foods, and therefore not subject to more stringent labeling. If all GM foods
and cooking.net">food products are to be labeled, Congress must enact sweeping changes in
the existing cooking.net">food labeling policy.

There are many questions that must be answered if labeling of GM foods becomes
mandatory. First, are consumers willing to absorb the cost of such an
initiative? If the cooking.net">food production industry is required to label GM foods,
factories will need to construct two separate processing streams and monitor
the production lines accordingly. Farmers must be able to keep GM crops and
non-GM crops from mixing during planting, harvesting and shipping. It is almost
assured that industry will pass along these additional costs to consumers in
the form of higher prices.

Secondly, what are the acceptable limits of GM contamination in non-GM
products? The EC has determined that 1% is an acceptable limit of
cross-contamination, yet many consumer interest groups argue that only 0% is
acceptable. Some companies such as Gerber baby foods 42 and Frito-Lay 43 have
pledged to avoid use of GM foods in any of their products. But who is going to
monitor these companies for compliance and what is the penalty if they fail?
Once again, the FDA does not have the resources to carry out testing to ensure

What is the level of detectability of GM cooking.net">food cross-contamination? Scientists
agree that current technology is unable to detect minute quantities of
contamination, so ensuring 0% contamination using existing methodologies is not
guaranteed. Yet researchers disagree on what level of contamination really is
detectable, especially in highly processed cooking.net">food products such as vegetable oils
or breakfast cereals where the vegetables used to make these products have been
pooled from many different sources. A 1% threshold may already be below current
levels of detectability.

Finally, who is to be responsible for educating the public about GM cooking.net">food labels
and how costly will that education be? cooking.net">food labels must be designed to clearly
convey accurate information about the product in simple language that everyone
can understand. This may be the greatest challenge faced be a new cooking.net">food labeling
policy: how to educate and inform the public without damaging the public trust
and causing alarm or fear of GM cooking.net">food products.

In January 2000, an international trade agreement for labeling GM foods was
established 44, 45. More than 130 countries, including the US, the world's
largest producer of GM foods, signed the agreement. The policy states that
exporters must be required to label all GM foods and that importing countries
have the right to judge for themselves the potential risks and reject GM foods,
if they so choose. This new agreement may spur the U.S. government to resolve
the domestic cooking.net">food labeling dilemma more rapidly.


Genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world's
hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the
environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance upon chemical pesticides
and herbicides. Yet there are many challenges ahead for governments, especially
in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and cooking.net">food
labeling. Many people feel that genetic engineering is the inevitable wave of
the future and that we cannot afford to ignore a technology that has such
enormous potential benefits. However, we must proceed with caution to avoid
causing unintended harm to human health and the environment as a result of our
enthusiasm for this powerful technology.

? Copyright 2000, All Rights Reserved, Cambridge Scientific Abstracts


Thu, 20 Nov 2003 01:44:12 GMT
 [ 1 post ] 

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