Biotechnology: Consumer Beware




This article originally appeared in Food & Water Journal, Spring 1996, and reprinted in Third World Resurgence (Penang, Malaysia), Number 79, March 1997.

The floodgates are opening this year for the widespread commercial sale of genetically engineered foods. After nearly a decade of research in laboratories and experimental farm plots across the country, U.S. government agencies have issued approvals for genetically engineered crops to be grown in large quantities and offered for sale. Last year, final consent was obtained for engineered varieties of corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, canola and cotton. Many of these crops were raised for seed during the 1995 growing season, and may be available in your local supermarket later this year.

Since 1990, nearly 3,000 varieties of genetically engineered plants, animals and bacteria have been developed and field tested in the U.S. Field tests have occurred in every state except Vermont, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Plants have been manipulated genetically to resist high doses of herbicides, manufacture insecticidal toxins, resist viruses, ripen more slowly or more uniformly, and display altered chemical compositions.

Chemical companies such as Monsanto, Ciba-Geigy, DuPont and Upjohn, along with many of the largest commercial seed companies, have invested heavily in biotechnologies such as genetic engineering in an effort to expand their control over the increasingly monopolized food industry. While some of these engineered crops will be marketed as specialty products, others may be mingled with the general food supply, making it difficult to distinguish them from non-engineered varieties. Only widespread consumer outrage can prevent these giant corporations from dramatically increasing their control over our food, and furthering the spread of this dangerous new technology.

Brave New World?

Genetically altered plants have many qualities that distinguish them from their naturally-growing relatives. Genes from other plants, bacteria, viruses and even animals are isolated from their original sources and spliced into the earliest, embryonic cells of the plant of choice.

However, despite the repeated claims of industry representatives, this is far from a fool-proof process. The resulting genetic patchwork, containing genes from a number of completely unrelated sources, will often behave in strange and unexpected ways, and can display unpredictable nutritional, behavioral and environmental properties. While research aimed at developing new genetically engineered crops has proceeded at lightning speed in recent years, research to improve our understanding of the possible consequences has crept along at a pace that would embarrass a snail.

Thus, the long range effects of these new crops remains largely unpredictable. Only the most extreme cases require any special scrutiny by the FDA and other agencies, and none of these products will have to be labeled. The ability to provoke an allergic reaction, for example, can be accidentally transferred from one plant to another in the course of transferring genes.

Most engineered crops are resistant to antibiotics, which are used as experimental markers to easily distinguish altered plant cells from their normal relatives. Antibiotic resistance can be passed on to bacteria in the soil or even to organisms residing in or on exposed people and animals. Levels of toxic substances ordinarily found at below-detectable levels in foods may be increased, and unique combinations of genetic traits might even have an effect on our ability to digest food properly.

Many engineered crops allow increased use of herbicides and pesticides in agriculture, and make it easier for food processing companies to impose higher standards of uniformity. Farmers producing crops under contract to food processors—an increasingly common practice—are often required to follow a strict schedule of chemical treatments, even if a particular pesticide treatment might be against the grower’s own better judgement.

Supermarket Invasion

Here are some of the items that may be coming to your supermarket this summer, thanks to the latest innovations in biotechnology:

• Tomatoes that look fresher, but aren’t: Since 1993, Food & Water has been reporting on the efforts of Calgene and other biotechnology companies to produce a tomato engineered to ripen more slowly for longer shelf life. Calgene’s inability to convince anyone to buy these tomatoes drove the company right to the edge of bankruptcy last summer. Just when the end appeared to be in sight, Monsanto jumped in, purchasing 49.9 percent of Calgene stock, and offering the company and its “Flavr-Savr” tomatoes a new lease on life. Monsanto has also purchased the vegetable growing and packing company Gargiulo L.P. and merged its operations with Calgene’s.

• Soybeans and cotton grown with toxic herbicides: Monsanto will be marketing soybeans containing petunia, bacteria, and virus genes that render it resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto markets worldwide under the trade name Roundup. The Pesticide Action Network reported last August that Monsanto is doubling its production capacity for Roundup, a general purpose herbicide which is highly toxic to most plants.

Meanwhile the French chemical company Rhone-Poulenc has obtained EPA approval for an engineered variety of cotton that is resistant to the herbicide bromoxynil. The approval was for a three year trial, in which Rhone-Poulenc is supposed to submit data on bromoxynil’s effects on human health. This highly toxic herbicide is known to cause developmental abnormalities in laboratory mammals and may cause birth defects and cancer in humans. There is little doubt that large increases in agricultural herbicide use would result from the wide-spread use of these engineered crops.

• Crops that make their own pesticide: Varieties of corn, potatoes and cotton have been approved that incorporate genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a variety of bacteria that is toxic to many varieties of crop-damaging caterpillars. But while the natural form of Bt’s toxin is only activated under special circumstances, making the short-lived bacteria safe for use by organic growers, the active toxin released by these engineered plants could impact populations of a wide variety of beneficial insects, butterflies and moths. The EPA has projected that widespread use of Bt-engineered crops would result in many of the target pests becoming resistant to Bt in three to five years. Organic growers would lose one of their safest and most flexible tools, and everyone else would either seek higher-potency chemical pesticides, or have to wait for the biotechnology industry to produce a yet more potent generation of pesticide-producing strains. The Swiss multinational Ciba-Geigy is both a leading pesticide manufacturer and holder of the patent for Bt toxin-producing corn.

• Canola that can replace tropical oils: Calgene, in collaboration with Procter & Gamble, has produced a strain of rapeseed, source of the ever-popular canola oil, that is high in lauric acid, a fatty constituent naturally found in coconut and palm kernel oil. While consumers have widely rejected foods containing tropical oils due to their high content of saturated fats like lauric acid, such fats are a key raw material in the manufacture of detergents, soaps and cosmetics. Procter & Gamble has contracted to buy a million pounds of the high-lauric oil. The rape plant is a close relative of the wild mustards that grow abundantly throughout much of the U.S., and these mustards could serve as carriers for unique combinations of genetic traits to be passed on in the wild. Researchers in Scotland recently reported that pollen from genetically engineered oilseed rape escaped and fertilized plants a mile and a half away. The so-called “high lauric” canola will also impact the economies of countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia that are highly dependent on coconut and palm oil exports.

Mad Scientists At Work

These various developments are only the latest in the long range, global effort by the biotechnology industry to supplant natural processes in agriculture, medicine, forestry, and nearly every other realm, with their own artificial, costly and ultimately short-term “solutions.” Scientists are isolating and manipulating hormones that control the growth and flowering of plants. They are engineering animals to produce drugs in their milk, and raising pigs containing human immune system proteins that may allow them to be used as sources of organs for transplants. There have been experiments involving animal viruses including rabies, as well as deadly rabbit virus that recently escaped from an experimental facility on Wardang Island, off the coast of Australia.

Natural processes, and even the genes of human beings are being patented by companies that see the entire world as nothing more than objects to be controlled and profited from. These developments are merely symptoms of an economic system, and an entire culture, that has fallen so far out of balance with the natural world that the survival of complex life on Earth is increasingly threatened by its excesses.

But none of these developments are as inevitable as industry representatives would have us believe. Just a decade ago, the experts were predicting the Bovine Growth Hormone, genetically engineered plants, anti-frost bacteria and many other products of biotechnology would be widely accepted by the early 1990s. This has not, for the most part, come to pass, and new developments in biotechnology are as uncertain and controversial as ever.

The emergence of militant farmers’ movements in India and across south Asia reflects an emerging worldwide awareness of the hazards of corporate agriculture, and is an important counterpart to our own activism here in the U.S. There is much reason for hope that organized citizens and an increasingly educated public will continue to hold back many of the worst consequences of this fundamentally life-denying technology.