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Green Left: GM Food A `Biological Time Bomb'

Genetically modified food: Bush promotes a `biological time bomb'


By Eva Cheng
Green Left Weekly.

On August 7, the United States government formally demanded that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) set up a dispute settlement panel in order to legally challenge the European Union's five-year de facto ban on the new approval of genetically modified foods. In doing so, US President George Bush's administration is not only pressuring the EU to accept more GM food imports, it is also seeking to force down the throat of the world's people a food supply that is of highly dubious safety and has potentially devastating environmental consequences.

Washington is the key force behind the big push for the spread of GM crops. Flimsy scientific research had been conducted to justify this extension, while extensive evidence of the possible grave dangers of GM crops has been ignored.

In the early 1990s, the Council on Competitiveness — headed by then US vice-president Dan Quayle — decided that the promotion of GM crop exports could help reverse the USA's declining export competitiveness.

From 1.7 million hectares in 1996, when GM crops were first planted on a commercial scale, the global area under GM crop cultivation rocketed to 58.7 million hectares last year. Four countries account for 99% of GM cultivation: the US (66.4%), Argentina (23%), Canada (6%) and China (3.6%).

However, consumer resistance in Europe and other parts of the world is limiting US exports of GM food. For example, the value of US soybean exports — a prime GM crop — to the EU halved from US$2.1 billion in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 2000. The EU is the USA's third-largest market for agricultural products.

Many countries which rely on the EU market for their farm exports refuse to cultivate GM crops. They refuse to risk GM contamination of conventional crops because of the EU's strict refusal to accept the suspect crops. Such contamination is virtually impossible to reverse. Famine-ravaged Zambia's refusal last year to accept US food aid because it was genetically modified was partly driven by that concern.

Announcing Washington's August 7 decision, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick alleged that the EU's GM ban harmed “farmers and consumers around the world by denying them of the benefits of productive, nutritious and environmentally friendly biotech products”. This claim is miles from the truth.

Scientists' and doctors' objections

In 1999, more than 650 scientists from 74 countries issued a public statement, entitled “Open letter from world scientists to all governments”, which expressed their grave concern at the hazards of GM food and other GM organisms (GMO). GMOs are a threat to biodiversity, food safety, and the health of humans and animals, they stated.

The scientists demanded: an immediate suspension of all environmental releases of GM crops and products, both commercially and in open-field trials, for at least five years; that all patents on living processes, organisms, seeds, cell lines and genes — a core activity of the “GM industry” — be revoked and banned; and a comprehensive public inquiry into the future of agriculture and food security for all.

As the scientists' statement made clear: “GM crops offer no benefits to farmers and consumers. Instead, many problems have been identified, including yield drag, increased herbicide use, erratic performances and poor economic returns to farmers. GM crops also intensify corporate monopoly on food.”

According to the scientists, the British government has admitted that the transfer of pollen from GM crops is “unavoidable” and “this has already resulted in herbicide-tolerant weeds”.

Seventy-five percent of GM crops are genetically manipulated to be herbicide tolerant (but usually only to brands produced by the same multinational corporations) and to be cultivated with heavy doses of the designated herbicide so that “everything else” is killed but the GM crop. The scientists note that the “broad-spectrum” (sweepingly lethal) herbicides applied to kill weeds in herbicide-resistant GM-crop fields “decimate wild plant species indiscriminately, [and] they are also toxic to animals”.

A quarter of all GM crops are genetically engineered to produce insecticidal proteins derived from the genes of a bacterium called Bt. But “in response to the continuous presence of the toxins in GM plants ... Bt-resistant insect pests have evolved”, said the statement. To address the problem, the US Environmental Protection Agency, is “recommending farmers plant up to 40% non-GM crops to create refugia for non-resistant insect pests”.

The scientists continued: “Products resulting from [GMOs] can also be hazardous. For example, a batch of tryptophan produced by GM microorganisms was associated with at least 37 deaths and 1500 serious illnesses”.

The letter spelled out in significant detail more horrifying potential consequences of GMOs and associated “naked DNA” and “antibiotic resistance marker genes” (all an integral part of genetic engineering), and how few safeguards have been taken.

Updated versions of the scientists' open letter were presented to the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle in 1999, and in 2000 to the UN Biosafety Protocol Meeting, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and US Congress.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has also expressed similar concerns. Following a 1999 public call for an “indefinite moratorium” on releases of GMOs, the BMA pressed its case in November 2002 in a submission to the Scottish parliament.

Countering Washington's repeated assertion that GM food is safe, the BMA stressed in its submission: “There has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health... Although the risk is not yet known, any increase in the number of resistant micro-organisms through the transfer of markers from GM foods would potentially have very serious adverse effects on human health.”

Toeing the US line, the Irish government claimed in an official report in March 2001 that GM food is safe for human consumption. The Irish Doctors' Environmental Association immediately rejected the claim. IDEA co-chair Dr Elizabeth Cullen pointed out that there had been a recent increase of allergies to soya among Irish children.

In May, many of the scientists who had signed the 1999 open letter formed the Independent Science Panel on GM (ISP) at a London conference and forcefully argued the case against GMOs a month later in a 120-page report,“The Case for a GM-free Sustainable World”.

Biological ‘time bombs'

The report detailed the many “biological time bombs” in the GM process. Genetic engineering involves the artificial recombination of DNA from different sources and inserting it into the genomes of organisms. The report explained that the insertion is conducted by invasive methods “that result in random integration into the genome, giving rise to unpredictable, random effects, including gross abnormalities in both animals and plants, unexpected toxins and allergens in food crops”.

Such a process involves “horizontal gene transfer”, which can open the way for unintended genetic recombinations, including the creation of super-viruses. For example, according to the January 2001 New Scientist, researchers in Australia “accidentally” created a deadly mouse virus while manipulating a harmless virus. The magazine commented: “The genie is out, biotech has just sprung a nasty surprise. Next time, it could be catastrophic.”

Commenting on that Australian “accident”, the ISP report stated: “That, and the current SARS epidemic, remind us that horizontal gene transfer and recombination create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and if genetic engineering does anything, it is to greatly enhance the scope and tendency for horizontal gene transfer and recombination.”

The ISP report warned that a further danger comes from the horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA into soil bacteria and fungi, and from there, to much wider fields: “DNA not only persists in the external environment, both in the soil and in water, it is not broken down sufficiently quickly in the digestive system to prevent transgenic DNA transferring to micro-organisms resident in the gut of animals.”

“Newer techniques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneticists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons”, the report warns.

Making such “accidents” more likely to happen is the shockingly flimsy control over how the “naked/free nucleic acids”, a transgenic waste, are disposed of. Such waste is not produced by genetic engineering alone, but the industrial production of GMOs hugely increases its volume. This waste typically contains a heterogeneous collection of genes from pathogenic bacteria, viruses and other genetic parasites.

A recent report of the British-based Institute of Science in Society warns that the naked/free nucleic acids created by genetic engineering “are potentially the most dangerous xenobiotics to pollute our environment. Unlike chemical pollutants which dilute out and degrade over time, nucleic acids can be taken up by all cells to multiply, mutate and recombine indefinitely.”

Systematic deception

An even more worrying development is the systemic concealment of the dangers of genetic engineering. The ISP report reveals that “there has been a history of misrepresentation and suppression of scientific evidence, especially on horizontal gene transfer. Key experiments failed to be performed, or were performed badly and then misrepresented.”

The US-based Alliance for Bio-Integrity has launched a lawsuit against the US Food and Drug Administration in order to expose such deceptive activities. The FDA has been forced to divulge more than 44,000 pages of internal files on GM food so far. A July 9 statement by the alliance said the released records reveal that the agency's own scientists “overwhelmingly concluded that genetic engineering has unique potential to produce unintended and essentially unpredictable new toxins and other harmful substances. They cautioned that a GM food could not be considered safe unless it had undergone rigorous toxicological tests using the whole food.”

Even Wall Street seems to be giving a hand, though inadvertently. An April report by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors stated: “Money flowing from Alliance genetic-engineering companies to politicians, as well as the frequency with which GE company employees take jobs with US regulatory agencies (and vice versa) creates large bias potential and reduces the ability of investors to rely on safety claims made by the US Government. It also helps to clarify why the US Government has not taken a precautionary approach to GE and continues to suppress GE labeling in the face of overwhelming public support for it.”

To address the wide-ranging dangers of genetic engineering, 130 national governments agreed in January 2000 on a Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which allows member countries to bar imports of GM seeds, microbes, crops and animals that are deemed to be a threat to their environments. It also requires cross-border shipment of GM crops be labelled. The protocol will come into effect on September 11. Washington hasn't ratified the protocol.

From Green Left Weekly, September 3, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

ENDS

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