Bioengineered Foods
Putting Consumer Health and Safety Last

Just when you thought you had mastered the intricacies of healthy eating, which foods to avoid for allergies or contaminants, and why organically grown produce is better, the food industry has spun us all a new, deeply dismaying twist.

They're called genetically engineered organisms (GEOs): 36 common vegetables, dairy products, and many hundreds of processed foods now contain genes from viruses, bacteria, insects, flowers, even animals, and they're now available, unmarked and unlabeled, on supermarket shelves across the country with the virtual blessing of the FDA and USDA.

We now have soybeans crossbred with petunias, tomatoes interlaced with virus genes, and corn, potatoes, and cotton enhanced with pesticide resistant genetic material. Industry estimates tell us that perhaps 60% of packaged foods, especially those containing soy or corn, contain GEOs.

The danger is that if you're at all food sensitive, you may find your next serving of corn, soybeans, potatoes, or tomatoes may be a kind of Trojan horse, bringing all manner of unsuspected allergens and toxins (from the strange, unnatural gene combinations employed) into your body. It's even more alarming to know that there has been almost no safety testing, no record keeping, and, since the altered substances are not listed on food labels, no way of recalling them if they prove harmful.

The result is that, as a consumer, you are not only exposed to new, unstudied risks from common foods, but you are now deprived of your right to make an informed choice when you select foods because you have no way of knowing which foods are genetically altered and to what extent. As things stand today, GEOs are all but unavoidable.

Your knowledge or consent or health never figured in the picture, and still don't. According to a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists of field tested food crops, 93% of genetic changes are performed to make food production and processing easier and maximally profitable, and only 7% are done to improve nutrition or taste.

"Roundup" Ready Tofu, One of the chief players in this on going adulteration of our food supply is the same archpolluter that brought the world Agent Orange, PCBs, and bovine growth hormone (rBGH): Monsanto, a multibillion dollar agribusiness corporation.

"Roundup", a corn and soybean pesticide Monsanto developed in 1973, is now its major money maker, accounting for 50°/0 of its sales. In recent years, Monsanto found a way to bioengineer a new soybean with a built in resistance to the hannful effects of this pesticide.

Why? So farmers could use even more of this pesticide without harming their crops. The logic is straightforward if surreal: to design plants to adapt to chemical poisons. In fact, it's estimated that 5w/o of biotechnology research is focused on creating plants that can tolerate larger amounts of pesticides. This could double or even triple the amount of residual pesticides found in the food supply and public water.

The new soybean, called Roundup Ready, is now under cultivation (accounting for 10% of the U.S. soybean crop in 1997) and in the U.S. food supply including, potentially, (once) natural foods such as tofu and soymilk. Just to make sure you can never separate the natural from the rounded up, Monsanto plans to mix its Roundup Ready soybeans unlabeled with other soybean varieties in bulk lots.

Since 1995, the amount of farm acreage devoted to genetically altered crops has soared. Today, it accounts for 12% of corn acreage, 30% of soybeans, and 40% of cotton. Monsanto has at least 75 field trials of new GEOs underway at 400 sites. Farm acreage devoted to GEOs was expected to double to some 60 million acres in 1998.

The Flavr Savr tomato, introduced in 1994 by Calgene of Davis, California, after spending $95 million in research, was the first genetically altered food to enter the U.S. food supply. Fried Gene Tomatoes, quipped Time in a report about the trend of producing better foods through genetic engmeermg.

Monsanto's New Leaf potato is now on the market, it debuted in a Seattle (Washington) Safeway under the NatureMark label, featuring an implanted gene to ward offinsects. In 1997, nine million acres of corn, cotton, and potatoes were planted from seed carrying a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (the Bt gene), a synthetic version of a natural insecticide. In keeping with the skewed reality of GEOs, in 1995, the U.S. Environmental P'rotection Agency classified corn and potatoes with GEOs inserted to produce insect killing toxins as pesticides, rather than vegetables.

Mixing and matching pieces of genetic information (genes) from one kind of organism to another has occupied food scientists for years. Some call the results "frankenfoods," after the laboratory manipulated l9th century monster, Frankenstein. Technically, the procedure is called horizontal gene transfer, taking a gene from one organism (firefly) and forcing it into another organism (tobacco). The term "hoDntal" refers to the fact that these genes would never, naturally, end up in these new orgamsms unless mechanically manipulated, as it were, sideways, across species, by humans.

But horizontal gene transfer runs counter to nature because it circumvents natural crossbreeding barriers and forces unrelated genes together into a single living organism now endowed with traits nature never intended. This procedure is radically different from traditional plant breeding, which works within species, not across species boundaries.

Some of the resulting transgenic species combinations are bizarre: trout genes in catfish, chicken genes in potatoes, human genes in a pig embryo. Foreign genes are also found in yellow crookneck squash (including two plant viruses), canola (rapeseed pressed for vegetable oil), cherry tomatoes, papaya, and mini peppers.

Jeremy Rifkin, writing in E: The Environmental Magazine, elaborates on the strangeness: "Scientists have inserted 'antiEreeze' protein genes from flounder into the genetic code oftomatoes to protect the fniit from frost damage. Chicken genes have been inserted into potatoes to increase disease resistance. Chinese hamster genes have been inserted into the genome oftobacco plants to increase sterol production. "

What else is in the transgenic pipeline? According to Natural Foods Merchandiser, 3,000 varieties of plants and animals now contain genes from other species. New Zealand fish farmers are raising Atlantic salmon with a growth hormone gene from another fish species.

As of 1996, field testing was under way for more than 40 different transgenic crops, including grains, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. In the biotechnology laboratories, a human gene has been inserted into salmon, trout, and rice; a mouse gene has been added to tobacco; and cucumbers and tomatoes have received genes from bacteria and viruses. According to Greenpeace, which is highly active in the campaign against GEOs, "tests for safety are terrifying lax" and once the new GEO crops are grown commercially, "the genetic industry will be testing them on us. "

Who Cares If The Public Doesn't Want It? Numerous public opinion polls in North America and Europe demonstrate strong opposition to genetically engineered foods.

A USDA study (1993) showed that 85% of U.S. customers want GEOs labeled; a 1997 study sponsored by Novartis (another agribusiness behemoth) found that 93% want labeling while 54% support organic farming over pesticide use or genetically engineered crops. In Canada, a poll by the Toronto Star (1998) reported that 98% want foods containing GEOs to be labeled.

A 1996 Gallup poll in Denmark found that 95% want foods containing GEOs to be clearly labeled while 68% would like to see them banned and 74% said they would choose traditional tomatoes over the GEOs, regardless of taste and freshness.

A multinational survey (1997) reported that the majority of Europeans are opposed to GEOs: Swedes, 78%; French, 77%; Italians and Dutch, 65%; Danes, 63%; British, 53%. An earlier study of Germans found that 78% were opposed to GEOs. Some 22% (1.2 million adults) of Austrians have signed a petition to ban GEOs and citizens in Norway have similarly taken consolidated action. In late 1997, one million Japanese signed a petition protesting GEOs in foods and demanded product labeling; 91% desired safety information. A June 1998 poll ofthe British found that 75% now feel GEO based crops should be banned until further safety research is conducted.

Some ofthe European governments actually heeded the opinions oftheir citizens. As of 1996, Denmark required labeling of all food items containing genetically engineered soybeans. In 1997, France passed national labeling legislation, mandating the labeling of all GEOs. That same year, Italy banned the growing of all GEO corn. Switzerland now requires all soybean GEOs to be labeled.

Other nations are currently considering restrictive legislation, but not the U.S. Here it's free sailing for Monsanto, Novartis, and the rest, courtesy of those brain dead, taxpayer funded organizations, the FDA and USDA. There failure as "watchdog" agencies is why, in 1998, massive public outcry, was necessary to defeat (narrowly) new USDA definitions of organic that would have allowed GEOs to make the list, along with irradiated foods and those grown with reprocessed human sewer sludge.

The FDA says GEOs are "safe," but they depend on the agribusiness companies themselves to perform premarket safety testing. FDA approval is required only if the proposed GEO contains a known tonn, new substances, known food allergens (from a group of ten), or nutrients that differ from the original food.

Companies are not required to publish the results of their safety tests. But these tests are all short term: Monsanto's feeding tests for Roundup Ready soybeans, involving rats, cows, chicken, and fish, only lasted for ten weeks. It's impossible to forecast or evan guess the long term effects, whether it's ten years or two gensations, from using their GEOs.

Not only are agrochemical companies like Novartis and Monsanto keeping the public in the dark, they are quietly buying up the food industry to keep the public in their pocket. Monsanto, for one, has become a major playa in the global food supply system, selling seeds, patented GEOs, and pesticides, and key food items: potatoes, tomatoes, cotton, soybeans, canola, corn, and others. It's an empire that affects billions of dollars of foods. The trend seems obvious: the biotechnology industry is rapidly gaining control of our food supply, from seed to food.

Undetected Allergens on the Loose. The fact is while we do not know the long term ramifications, we do have solid evidence already of the short term hazards of GEOs, based on two publicized incidences.

The first happened in 1989. A genetically altered form of the naturally occurring amino acid L tryptophan, produced in Japan, caused 27 deaths and 1,511 nonfatal cases of a disease called eosinophilia myalgia syndrome. Scientists later determined that the tryptophan had been contaminated with toxic "novel amino acid" not normally found in the amino acid.

The shocking aspect of this case was that routine food testing could not have detected any tonns or allergens in the tlyptophan. There is no test capable of determining the impact of this bizarre genetic combination on humans other than actual human studies. In a nasty sense, humans were used, involuntarily, as test subjects in this case. The FDA conveniently used this accident, not to restrict further GEOs, but to ban natural tryptophan as a dietary supplement for nearly ten years.

The second incident was reported in 1996, this time involving soybeans modified with genes from Brazil nuts. The altered soybean (developed by Pioneer Hi Bred) provoked serious allergic attacks in eight individuals sensitive to Brazil nuts but not soybeans.

In other words, the allergen from Brazil nuts was transferred to the soybean and produced an allergic response comparable to what it would have if encountered in the Brazil nut alone, according to a report in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Obviously, nobody eats a soybean expecting to be ambushed by allergenic proteins from Brazil nuts, yet this is precisely what happened. "This study highlights gaps in our current knowledge of food allergies," commented Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., in a NEJM editorial. "The next case could be less ideal, and the public less fortunate."

"But it gets worse. Most biotechnology firms use microorganisms rather than food plants as the gene donors," says Dr. Nestle, Neven though the allergenic potential of these newly introduced microbial proteins is uncertain, unpredictable, and untestable."

The problem offood allergies in North America is already accelerating as more proteins (the source of allergens) are continually added to processed foods, and yet more allergens introduced through GEOs will only exacerbate this. People with less common food allergies (not on the FDAOs meager list) will be vulnerable to GEOs as will people with known food allergies who don't know they're eating allergenic foods. Further, as genetically engineered plants are specifically designed to produce larger amounts of proteins, the likelihood of allergic reactions is all that much greater.

There is yet another twist to the allergenic factor. According to Joe Cummins, Ph.D., a retired genetics professor at the University of Western Ontario, it's called the "anti idiotope allergen" and it represents a new level of allergenicity.

When the body produces an antibody (defense protein involved in the allergic response) against an allergen, another antibody is produced against the body's antibody; this is an anti idiotope antibody. Most GEO crops have genes enabling them to resist antibiotics; these genes produce enzymes that are similar to an allergenic antibiotic. "The enzymes will produce antibodies that are allergens," says Dr. Cummins. "Thus most genetically engineered crops are likely to be allergenic to people sensitive to antibiotics. "

Even so, food allergies are not the only risk associated with GEOs. For one, GEOs can increase the incidence of drug resistant bacteria, a phenomenon which has already rendered a number of once invincible antibiotics virtually useless.

One ofthe most common marker genes used as links in the horizontal gene transfer procedure confers resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin. According to Mae Wan Ho, Ph.D., writing in The Ecologist, "Geneticists have now linked the emergence of pathogenic bacteria and of antibiotic resistance to horizontal gene transfer the transfer of genes to unrelated species"

Further, Dr. Ho explains that the presence of antibiotics "typically increases the frequency of horizontal gene transfer 100 fold or more," thereby setting up a kind of feedback loop (when combined with agricultural use of antibiotics and GEOs) with ever escalating unpredictable results. Genes do not get transferred only among bacteria, as most scientists believe, or want the public to believe, says Dr. Ho.

"Gene transfer is now known to involve practically all species of animal, plant, and fungus," Dr. Ho notes. Antibiotic resistance marker genes already have shown up in soil fungi and bacteria. Genes inserted into rapeseed (canola oil source) to increase their resistance to herbicides have already naturally transferred to weed relatives, creating the possibility of superweeds that do not respond to any pesticides.

GEOs represent new organisms with unpredictable metabolic processes, capable of passing alien genes to future generations or related wild species, reports Greenpeace. Third, plants containing GEOs rendering them tolerant to pesticides (such as Roundup Ready soybeans), will probably lead to a giant increase in the level of toxins (including carcinogens) in the food supply.

Fourth, Gerrnan researchers developed preliminary data indicating Roundup Ready soybeans have elevated levels of phytoestrogens (the hormone estrogen in minute amounts in plant materials). Heightened dietary levels of estrogens have been linked with numerous women's health problems, including breast cancer.

Demanding Responsibility to Public Health, Consumers, who are aware of the travesty under way in the nation's food supply and awareness is a potent political weapon, are demanding that governmental agencies refocus on public health. Sometimes suing is an effective way to get a bureaucrat's attention.

On May 27, 1998, the Alliance for Bio Integrity (ABI), based in Iowa City, Iowa, filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Washqton, D.C., alleging that current FDA policy, which allows GEOs to be marketed without testing or labels, "violates the agency's statutory mandate to protect public health and provide consumers with relevant information about the foods they eat. "

According to Andrew Kimbrell, executive &ector ofthe International Center for Technology Assessment, which is collaborating with ABI in the suit, "The FDA has placed the interest of a handful of biotechnology companies ahead of their responsibility to protect public health. It has made consumers unknowing guinea pigs for potentially harmful, unregulated food substances."

Among other consumer political initiatives, Mothers for Natural Law, based in Fairfield, Iowa, is collecting one million signatures for a petition to the government, demanding labeling of foods with GEOs. Some are calling the advent of GEOs a threat comparable to, or even worse than, nuclear radiation.

For those who want to know now whether they're eating foods with GEOs, Genetic IDa of Fairfield, Iowa, offers a genetic analysis of crops and foods based on a DNA scan to identify modified gene sequences. The test (about $365 for one item) was developed by John B. Fagan, Ph.D., a molecular biologist who is also an outspoken critic of GEOs. The test specializes in identifying foreign genes in soybean and corn derivatives including tofu and soymilk.

"With soyfoods, such as tofu, soymilk, and infant formula, if it is not made from organically raised soybeans, almost always it is contaminated with genetically engineered soy," comments Dr. FagalL "We have tested the top five brands of baby formula containing soy and found that four had measurable levels of GEOs, and three had very high levels" The brands with GEOs included Carnation, Alsoy, Similac Neocare, Isomil, and Enfamil Prosobee; Eden Soy soymilk was free of GEOs.

According to Dr. Fagan, at least 40 foods bearing GEOs are now under development, awaiting approval, or already in the market, including abalone, alfalfa, asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots~ catfish, grapes, lettuce, prawns, raspberries, rice, sunflowers, walnuts, and watermelons in other words, most of the fresh food items one is likely to fill a shopping cart with.

Perhaps Greenpeace's call to action summarizes the problem most cogently: "Greenpeace believes the spread of genetically engineered crops with their potential for mutation, multiplication, and other unknown ecosystem effects are one ofthe largest aqwin~s with nature,. our food supply, and our health that humankind has ever embarked upon."


  • Mary Scott, "Genetically Altered Foods: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions," Natural Foods Merchandiser, November 1997.
  • Jeremy Rifkin, "The Biotech Century," E: The Environmental Magazine, May/June 1998.
  • Julie A. Nordlee, et al., "Identification of a Brazil nut Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans," The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 11 (March 14, 1996), 688 92.
  • Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., "Allergies to Transgenic Foods: Questions of Policy," The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 11 (March 14, 1996).
  • Mae Wan Ho, "The Unholy Alliance," The Ecologist 27:4 (July/August 1997).
  • Bill Lambrecht, "Monsanto Launches Field Trials to Jazz up Genes in Potatoes," St. Louis Post Dispatch (Febnsy 15, 1998).
  • Philip Elmer Dewitt, "Technology: Fried Gene Tomatoes," Time (May 30, 1998).
  • Marian Burros, "Biotechnology's Bounty," The New York Times (May 21, 1997).

For more information about consumer action initiatives against GEOs:

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