HAZARDS OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED
CROPS AND FOODS
David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology and Chemistry
University of Cincinnati Clermont College
Batavia, Ohio 45103
posted 30 September 1999

This page has been accessed  Counter times since 29 March 2002.
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[Here are two links to good collection of references on genetically modified foods: one put together by Ron Epstein at UCSF and a German site from the year 2000.   Note that this paper was written in 1999.  There will be MANY more pertinent sources by this point, 2012.]
Also, Greenpeace has put together a list of foods which are categorized according to whether they are free of GM foods, or contain them.  That link is at their searchable data base for foods free of genetically modified ingredients.]

Multinational bio-tech corporations are using the awesome tools of modern molecular genetics to produce life forms unique in the history of life on earth. Genes from different species, different orders, even different taxonomic kingdoms are being injected into our food crops to produce genetically modified (GM) plants which are transgenic (organisms having genes from different species). The goal of this genetic manipulation is to turn staple crops into species which may be poisonous to insects, resistant to plant killing chemicals, resistant to fungus, have altered chemical composition, etc.

At first blush, these goals appear laudable, in the same way that the introduction of non-native plants might have seemed like a good idea: kudzu promised farmers in the south increased forage and erosion control; dandelions were introduced for the value of their greens, starlings, and English sparrows were somehow thought to be attractive. These examples of introduced species are now pests in our environment, an outcome entirely unforeseen when they were introduced, even though they had evolved on Earth for millions of years. Transgenic plants are even more unpredictable and demand great caution in their uses. However, bio-tech corporations are rushing them into agricultural production hoping for huge profits, insisting that there are no risks associated with their wide-spread use.

For man to believe that he can predict the impact of all of these newly created life forms is folly. The ancient Greeks called this arrogance hubris. First potential risks associated with their release into the environment and their use in our foods should be thoroughly investigated. Two major questions of concern arise immediately: how safe are they to consume, and what will the impact be of their release into the environment?

70 million US acres are planted with these "creations, " and the majority of the American food supply now contains transgenic products.

Already, 20% of US cotton, and 10% of our corn acreage are planted with GM seed.  [These numbers may be low.  The NYTimes reports that 44% of our croplands were planted in GM crops in 1998.] GM soybeans are widely planted, and the use of GM potatoes and GM oil seed rape are rapidly increasing. It is astonishing and disturbing that these major changes have taken place with the American public almost completely ignorant about their prevalence and the dangers they may pose. It has been estimated that 60% of the foods on American supermarket shelves contain some GM material.

Genetically engineered "Frankenfoods" have not been proven safe to eat.

In addition to the foreign proteins which result, cellular processes can be altered due to chromosomal effects at the point of injection leading to unforeseen changes in composition. Tests on these brand new GM crops have of necessity been short-term and limited, but have already shown that rats fed GM potatoes gain weight slowly and display altered digestive tracts. Even negative studies only show that the risk of a given effect is small. Claims of safety based on these limited tests is like saying that water which tests free of bacteria is safe to drink even though is may be laced with lead.

Our natural diet has undergone evolutionary "testing" over hundreds of thousands of years during which time a mutual adaptation of humans and food crops has taken place. Even still, a food safe for most of us, such as peanuts, can kill sensitive individuals. Some individuals in a large heterogeneous population of consumers may, because of their unique metabolism be injured by GE foods. Already, genes from brazil nuts carried in a non-nut food have triggered allergic reactions in unsuspecting sensitive individuals. These reactions may be difficult to predict or trace. The problem is compounded because the bio-tech corporations have successfully lobbied against the labeling of GE food, making it nearly impossible to link health effects to their consumption.

Genetically engineered plants may be the kudzu of tomorrow.

Risks of releasing these plants into the environment are also difficult to judge. A variety of means of injecting foreign genes into plants has been developed, including the use of virus vectors. These vectors may potentially act to carry these genes out of the crop and "jump" into the native population. Two current factors favor this phenomenon: large populations and strong selective pressure. Even now, millions of acres of GM plants are cultivated which are then sprayed with a broad spectrum herbicide. Even if one weed out of a million picks up the resistance gene, it will be the only weed left standing, and will pass the jumped gene on through its seeds. The creation of such "superweeds" has already been demonstrated, including a study in which GM herbicide-resistance genes jumped from transgenic sorghum to Johnson grass (already a serious pest to farmers). GM genes can also travel in pollen over great distances and cross pollinate natural populations. Once these genies are out of the bottle, there will be no putting them back.

Unforeseen deleterious effects will be common as these new life forms are released into the environment. Already GM corn, engineered to contain an insecticide, kills monarch butterfly caterpillars exposed to it pollen, and GM potatoes, engineered to produce toxins against aphids, have caused impaired reproduction in ladybugs who fed on the toxic aphids.
 

Monoculture threatens natural diversity, the prerequisite for evolution.
 

The current agricultural trend is to plant endless acres with a single genetic strain of crop. This makes our food supply susceptible to major crop failure due to new pests or diseases. Maintaining genetic diversity in our food crops is critical if they are to adjust to a changing environment. Such adjustments become ever more important as we cause monumental environmental changes such as global warming, ozone depletion, global deforestation, etc. The use of GM crops will accelerates this trend, reducing our Earth's genetic diversity at a time when we should be protecting it.

The survival of the family farm will be further imperiled.

Reliance on genetically engineered seed removes critical decisions in the cycle of farming and food production from the family farmer and places them in agribusiness boardrooms. The cultivation of GM crops favors huge factory farms, further accelerating the demise of individual family farms.

In an ironic twist, government research into sterility engineering, which incorporates suicide genes into GM plants to retard the dispersal of foreign genes, has been eagerly embraced by agribusiness because it prevents the age-old practice of saving seed from the previous crop to be sewn for next year's crop. This deepens the dependence of the family farmer on these corporations.

Government is protecting the profits of bio-tech giants, not the public interest.

Hasty use of genetically engineered crops is only the most recent example of technology running amuck. We assumed that science and technology had "perfect" understanding and control of new technologies such as nuclear power, thalidomide, X-ray diagnosis of pregnancy, CFC refrigerants, etc. In each of these cases, if appropriate caution had been used instead of rushing to put our newest technologies into wide-spread use, many tragedies could have been avoided. It is not yet too late to use caution in the use of GM plants.

However, the US government has shirked its regulatory role and is a complicit partner in promoting GM crops. For instance, Monsanto, the major corporation in the GM industry, was allowed to participate in the writing of self-promoting laws which would directly deregulate the corporation's operations. The government has been an active apologist for the industry, promoting the planting of millions of acres of transgenic crops, and favoring the unlabeled addition of transgenic foods to the American diet. In return, compliant politicians have reaped huge contributions from these corporations.

People need to trust their food, and have right to know what they are eating.

The increasing popularity of organic foods reflects consumers' distrust of corporate chemical food production. If, in spite of the hazards to the environment and our health, our government permits these GM foods to be placed on our supermarket shelves, then truth in labeling requires at the very least that they be clearly labeled so that individuals may make their own choices about the nature of the foods they consume. It is imperative that Congress require the full disclosure of foods which contain GM components so that the right to know and make informed choices is preserved.