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#638 - Against The Grain -- Part 2, 17-Feb-1999

The corporations that are introducing genetically modified crops into
the global ecosystem want you to think of genetic engineering as a well-
understood science similar to laparascopic surgery. Indeed, the
phrase "genetic engineering" gives the impression that moving genes
from one organism to another is as straightforward as designing a
rocket or a TV set. This is not the case.

Basically, a plant's genome (all of its genes, taken together) is a
black box. Genetic engineering takes a gene from one black box and
forces it into a second black box (the recipient plant), hoping that
the new gene will "take." Most of the time, the experiment fails.[1]
Once in a few thousand tries, the foreign gene embeds itself in the
recipient plant's genome and the newly-modified plant gains the desired
trait. But that is all the technicians know. They have no idea where in
the receiving plant's genome the new gene has found a home. This
fundamental ignorance, combined with the speed and scale at which
modified organisms are being released into the global ecosystem, raises
a host of questions of safety for the future of agriculture, for the
environment, and for human health.

** To begin with, genes don't necessarily control a single trait. A
gene may control several different traits in a plant. Without careful
study, plants with undesirable characteristics may be released into the
global ecosystem. And biotechnology is not like a chemical spill that
can be mopped up -- once you release a new gene sequence into nature,
your grandchildren are going to be living with it because there's no
taking it back.

** How a gene affects a plant depends upon the environment. The same
gene can have different effects, depending on the environment in which
the new plant is growing.[2] What appears predictable and safe after a
few years of observation of a small test plot may turn out to have
quite different consequences when introduced into millions of acres of
croplands in the U.S. and elsewhere, where conditions vary widely.

** Does the new gene destabilize the entire plant genome in some
unforeseen way, leading one day to problems in that crop? Only time
will tell.

** Genes can travel to nearby, related plants on their own. This is
called gene flow. In 1996 gene flow was discovered to be much more
common that previously thought.[3]

According to SCIENCE magazine, many ecologists say it is only a matter
of time before an engineered gene makes the leap to a weedy species,
this creating a new weed or invigorating an old one. "It will probably
happen in far less than 1% of the products," warns ecological
geneticist Norm Ellstrand of the University of California at
Riverside, "but within 10 years we will have a moderate-to-large scale
ecological or economic catastrophe, because there will be so many
[genetically modified] products being released,"[3] Ellstrand predicts.
It is worth noting that U.S. farmers already spend $4.3 billion
purchasing 628 million pounds of herbicides (active ingredients only)
to control weeds.[4,pg.32]

The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) recommended
that all genetically modified plants should be considered non-
indigenous exotic species, with the power to disrupt ecosystems.
[4,pg.29] Non-indigenous, introduced species have provided great
benefits to humanity (most of U.S. agriculture relies on introduced
species), but we also should learn from kudzu, purple loosestrife, the
gypsy moth, the fire ant, and the boll weevil that exotic species can
be extremely disruptive and very expensive to control (if indeed they
can be controlled at all).

** A public health disaster was narrowly averted in 1996 when a group
of researchers tried to improve soybeans by giving them a gene from the
Brazil nut.[5] The goal was to improve the nutritional value of
soybeans by forcing them to produce more methionine, an essential amino
acid. The gene from the Brazil nut was successfully transferred to
soybeans. After this had been accomplished, but before the soybeans
were sold commercially, independent researchers tested the soybeans to
see if it would cause allergic reactions in people. Many people are
allergic to nuts, particularly Brazil nuts. In some people, allergic
reaction to Brazil nuts is swift and fatal.

A series of laboratory tests on humans confirmed that the genetically
modified soybeans did provoke Brazil-nut allergy in humans. They could
not feed the genetically modified soybeans to people for fear of
killing them, but through scratch tests on skin, they confirmed
unequivocally that people allergic to Brazil nuts were allergic to the
modified soybeans. In discussing their findings in the NEW ENGLAND
JOURNAL OF MEDICINE, the researchers pointed out that tests on
laboratory animals will not necessarily discover allergic reactions to
genetically modified organisms. Only tests on humans will suffice.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires testing for
allergic reactions if a gene is being taken from a source that is
already known to cause allergic reactions in humans. Many genes are
being taken now from bacteria and other life-forms whose allergenicity
is entirely unknown, so federal regulations require no allergy testing
in these cases. This reduces regulatory costs for the corporations, but
leaves the public unprotected.

** Crops are being genetically modified chiefly as a way to sell more
pesticides. [See REHW #637.] In some cases, the modified crops change
the pesticides themselves, giving them new toxicity. The herbicide
bromoxynil falls into this category.[1,pg.41] Bromoxynil is already
recognized by U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] as a possible
carcinogen and as a teratogen (i.e., it causes birth defects). Calgene
(now owned by Monsanto) developed a strain of cotton plants (called BXN
Cotton) that can withstand direct spraying with bromoxynil.
Unfortunately, the bromoxynil-resistant gene in cotton modifies the
bromoxynil, turning it into a chemical byproduct called DBHA, which is
at least as toxic as bromoxynil itself.

Although humans do not eat cotton, traditional silage for cattle
contains up to 50% cotton slash, gin mill leavings, and cotton debris.
Both bromoxynil and DBHA are fat-soluble, so they can accumulate in the
fat of animals. Therefore, it is likely that DBHA will make its way
into the human food chain through meat. Furthermore, cotton seed oil is
widely used as a direct human food and as a cooking additive. In
licensing bromoxynil for use on Monsanto's genetically modified BXN
Cotton, EPA conducted a risk assessment that assumed bromoxynil and
DBHA had no way to enter the human food chain. Lastly, cotton dust --
the cause of brown lung disease -- will now carry the added hazard of
bromoxynil and DBHA, another danger that EPA has disregarded. Thus
genetic engineering -- which is being promoted as a technology that
will reduce the perils of pesticides -- will in some instances increase
them.

In rats and in rabbits, bromoxynil causes serious birth defects,
including changes in the bones of the spine and skull, and hydrocephaly
("water on the brain"). These birth defects appear in offspring at
doses of bromoxynil that are not toxic to the mother. Despite these
findings, and despite a law (the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996)
that explicity gives EPA the power to reduce exposure standards to
protect infants, EPA in 1997 declined to require a special safety
factor to protect children from bromoxynil.

Lastly, when EPA added up the cancer-causing potential of bromoxynil,
they found it to be 2.7 per million, and they promptly declared this to
be "well within" the one-in-a-million regulatory limit.[1,pg.46] Is 2.7
less than one?

By all appearances, EPA is more interested in protecting Monsanto's
investment in this new technology than in protecting public health.

** Because genetically-engineered soybeans will be doused with
increased quantities of herbicides, such as Roundup (glyphosate),
soybeans and soy products will carry increased chemical residues.
Infants who must be reared on soy milk, because they cannot tolerate
lactose in regular milk, will be at special hazard.

** Crops that are genetically modified to resist herbicides detoxify
the herbicides by producing proteins, which will be incorporated into
our food with unknown results.[1,pg.143]

** When crops are genetically modified to incorporate the naturally-
occurring Bt toxin into their cells (see REHW #636), those Bt toxins
will be incorporated into foods made from those crops. What will be the
effect of these toxins and gene products on the bacteria and other
organisms (the so-called microflora) that live in the human digestive
tract? Time will tell.

** The "life sciences" companies have big plans for turning
agricultural crops into "factories" for producing pharmaceuticals and
specialty chemicals in open fields. They plan to manufacture vaccines,
drugs, detergents, enzymes and other chemicals by putting the right
genes into the right plants.

The net effect of all this will be to expose soil insects and
microorganisms, foraging and burrowing animals, seed-eating birds, and
a myriad of other non-target organisms to these chemicals and to the
gene products that make them. The Union of Concerned Scientists
says, "Herbivores will consume the chemicals as they feed on plants.
Soil microbes, insects, and worms will be exposed as they degrade plant
debris. Aquatic organisms will confront the drugs and chemicals washed
into streams, lakes, and rivers from fields."[4,pg.6]

** Most fundamentally, genetically-engineered crops substitute human
wisdom for the wisdom of nature. As genetically-engineered crops are
planted on tens of millions of acres, the diversity of our agricultural
systems is being further diminished. Do we know enough to select
the "right" combination of genes to assure the stable, long-term yield
of our agricultural systems? Our recent experiences with PCBs, CFCs,
DDT, Agent Orange, and global warming should give us pause. Genetic
engineering is by far the most powerful technology humans have ever
discovered, and it is being deployed by the same corporations that,
historically, have produced one large-scale calamity after another. Is
there any good reason to think things will be different this time?

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

=====

[1] Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, AGAINST THE GRAIN; BIOTECHNOLOGY AND
THE CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF YOUR FOOD [ISBN 1567511503] (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press, 1998). Available from Common Courage Press, P.O.
Box 207, Monroe, ME 04951. Tel. (207) 525-0900 or (800) 497-3207.

[2] Craig Holdrege, GENETICS AND THE MANIPULATION OF LIFE: THE
FORGOTTEN FACTOR OF CONTEXT (Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press, 1996).
ISBN 0-940262-77-0. Available from Lindisfarne Press, RR4 Box 94 A-1,
Hudson, NY 12534.

[3] James Kling, "Could Transgenic Supercrops One Day Breed
Superweeds?" SCIENCE Vol. 274 (October 11, 1996), pgs. 180-181.

[4] Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon, THE ECOLOGICAL RISKS OF
ENGINEERED CROPS (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1996).

[5] Julie A. Nordlee and others, "Identification of a Brazil-nut
Allergen in Transgenic Soybeans," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol.
334, No. 11 (March 14, 1996), pgs. 688-692.

Descriptor terms: agriculture; biotechnology; genetic engineering;
regulation; epa; food safety; food security; pesticides; bt;
glyphosate; roundup; monsanto; bromoxynil; dbha; herbicides; allergens;
bxn cotton; soybeans;