Heather Von Stackelberg, BSc
It is very easy to get caught up in the heady joy of something new and exciting, without considering the consequences
It is very easy to get caught up in the heady joy of something new and exciting, without considering the consequences. This is exactly what is happening with genetic engineering.
Genetics is a young science. It was only 30 years ago that Watson and Crick first discovered the components of DNA and showed that it was DNA that determined our physical structure. Now, there can be genetically engineered (GE) organisms in almost every kind of food we eat, from non-organic tofu and tomatoes to french fries and corn chips. We have no idea how it affects either the environment or us.
The technology itself is not a bad thing; in fact, it has a great deal of potential. A good example is the bacteria with the human insulin gene in it, which is being farmed for insulin for use by diabetics. Without this bacteria, the only alternatives for insulin dependent diabetics is cow or pig insulin, which causes far more side effects than does the bacteria-produced human insulin.
What is cause for concern is that, with current technology, introducing a gene into a cell is an imprecise science. The gene is inserted completely randomly; it can disrupt or change any number of cell processes, sometimes causing unexpected toxins to be produced. The sheer number of toxins that can possibly be formed cannot be predicted or detected. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) microbiologists and toxicblogists have warned that "genetically-modified plants could contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants." Some of them could be unexpected chemicals for which there might not be good testing techniques, so vigorous field and clinical trials are needed besides the routine lab tests.
The US deputy secretary of commerce has declared "Not a rash, not a sneeze, not a cough, not a watery eye has been developed from this [GE], and that's because we have been extremely careful in our process of approving them."
This statement is highly questionable, especially since the US tryptophan affair in 1989. Tryptophan is an amino acid found naturally in such foods as soy, uncooked brown rice, cottage cheese, fish, peanuts, lentils and pumpkin and sesame seeds. It is very effective as a sleep aid and companies began to produce large quantities synthetically in labs. It was quite popular and used without any reported negative effects (better than over-the-counter sleep aids) until a shipment from Japan killed 37 Americans and permanently disabled 1,500 others.
What is believed to have happened was that the particular batch had been produced by a bacteria which had been genetically engineered to produce high levels of tryptophan. A side effect of the process with which the bacteria had been engineered resulted in a deadly toxin being produced that went into the product with the tryptophan. The relevant evidence in the lab that had produced the bacteria was destroyed before it could be examined. This means that scientific proof cannot be given for this theory. However, the only difference between the harmless tryptophan used for many years and the tryptophan that killed 37 people, was that the lethal product was produced by an engineered bacterium and the harmless product was not.
The FDA is a staunch supporter of GE foods, despite numerous internal memos from many of its scientists warning of the hazards. The stance of the FDA is of concern for Canadians. Health Canada has been remarkably silent on the issue and is generally willing to quietly follow the lead of its American counterparts.
Currently, genetically-engineered crops go right from the lab to the open market with minimal, if any, testing. The "Flavr Savr" tomato by Calgene was the first GE organism the FDA reviewed. It was approved despite the objections of the director of the FDA's Office of Special Research Skills that the data had fallen short of a demonstration of safety. Now, FDA officials claim that the Flavr Savr passed muster so well that rigorous testing on other bio-engineered foods need not be repeated.
This lack of testing puts us and our environment at risk. Monsanto is currently marketing a corn with a bacterial insecticide spliced into it. This toxin is harmless to humans, but it is produced in every single cell of the corn plant, including the pollen. The corn pollen is falling on milkweed, the prime food source for monarch butterflies. (Milkweed often grows near corn fields.) We know that the pollen is killing butterflies, but we don't know what is happening to other beneficial insects and we don't know about the soil life around the corn's roots. There have been no studies to show us what other effects this insecticide might have and we have no way to predict it.
Farmers may like the fact that Mon-santo's corn doesn't require applied pesticide, but they may be getting more than they bargained for with herbicide-resistant canola. There is evidence now of gene stacking in canola; that is, canola with the genes for resisting three distinct herbicides made by three different companies, all gotten from cross-pollination. Volunteer canola is already a problem for farmers as a weed. There is also some evidence that herbicide-resistant canola is passing its resistance genes on to its kissing cousin wild mustard. This is another problem weed now its on its way to becoming a superweed.
Some scientists are now so concerned with the safety of GE products that nine eminent biologists in the US, along with the Alliance for Bio-Integrity (a non-profit group which was formed to educate and gain a more rational policy towards GE foods), have filed a lawsuit against the FDA to mandate safety testing and labeling of all genetically-engineered foods.
In Canada, you can write to your MP and to the Senate committee on Agriculture and Forestry. (See page 64 of the April issue for addresses or call 800-267-7362 for Senator's addresses and 800-463-6868 for MPs). Tell them you are concerned about the safety standards for GE foods and that you would like to know what you are eating.
Before you bite into that GE tomato, perhaps you would like to know that the cafeterias of Monsanto, one of the largest companies producing agricultural chemicals and genetically modified crops, use exclusively organic produce (organic standards require the use of non-modified crops), by request. If foods treated by their own genetic engineering are not good enough for Monsanto's staff, why should we be forced to eat them out of ignorance?
Not you, not the government, not the scientists or the farmers know exactly what you are eating when you have that genetically engineered tofu or corn chip. If we continue to sow ignorance, we could reap a bitter harvest like the lethal tryptophan.